In 2018, the Oakland A’s introduced a Kelly green alternate jersey that is an unmistakable throwback to their look from the Swingin’ A’s days of the early 1970s.
Last week, A’s first baseman Matt Olson introduced a hairy upper lip that is similarly reminiscent.
Taking a page from the team that inspired the Hairs vs. the Squares moniker against the Reds in the 1972 World Series, Olson sought a way to bust out of an early-season slump. Sometimes totems can be just the thing.
“I didn’t do it to look good,” Olson said Thursday in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “You know what they say, it’s never too early to hit the panic button.”
Olson had started the season 5-for-36, but after debuting his lip sweater on Wednesday homered twice, and then again on Thursday. After the latter, his teammates held index fingers horizontally atop their lips as he rounded the bases. “I think it has to [stay] now,” Olson said of his ’stache. “Not even by choice.”
Back in 1972, of course, the lip hair came courtesy of owner Charlie Finley’s offer to pay $300 to every player who grew out his own mustache in advance of the team photo on June 18. I wrote about it in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:
Baseball was a clean-cut sport in the early 1970s, and had been for the better part of a century. While ballplayers were known to grow mustaches over the winter months, they’d invariably shave them prior to the season, frequently as a rite of spring training. In 1972, however, Reggie Jackson did no such thing. When his lip hair remained in place through the duration of the Arizona exhibition schedule, his teammates took notice.
Whisker prohibition hadn’t always been enforced. Abner Doubleday himself wore a mustache in the 1830s. A photographic portrait of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, depicts eight of nine members sporting facial hair. But ballplayers of the early 1900s were seen as ruffians, low-ranking members of society whose reputations hindered the marketing of the sport; clean-shaved faces were part of reversing that image. In 1914, A’s catcher Wally Schang became the last major league regular to wear a mustache. Until Reggie.
“Reggie was being his basic hot dog self, wanting to do whatever he wanted to do, and no one was going to tell Reggie what to do,” said Rollie Fingers, who, along with most of his teammates, was appalled by Jackson’s new look. Understanding their inability to sway the superstar, Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker took a different tack, theorizing that growing their own mustaches would draw a blanket rebuke from Finley, who would in turn command every player, including Jackson, to shave.
The Owner learned about it on the team plane. There was Jackson, mustache in place, and the quartet of pitchers, similarly adorned. Instead of getting angry, however, Finley was thunderstruck. Always on the make for unique promotional opportunities, he let it be known: any player or staff member who grew a mustache by June 18, the date of the team photo, would receive a $300 bonus. He decreed it Mustache Day, with mustachioed fans admitted to the game free of charge. Most players jumped right on board. “For $300,” said Ken Holtzman, “I would grow hair on my feet.” Only three players—Sal Bando, Mike Hegan, and Larry Brown—remained reticent and clean-faced. During an ensuing conversation with the Owner, Bando soon found out exactly where he stood on the subject. “Mr. Bando,” Finley said to him, “I would like you to grow your mustache. We want to do it as a team, and we all are the same.” With that, the holdout players acceded. (Finley himself did not grow one, of course. He never for a moment viewed himself as being on the same level as his players.)
By June 18, not only was Finley’s own squad fully ’stached, but six members of the visiting Cleveland Indians grew out mustaches of their own, despite threats of fines from manager Ken Aspromonte if they didn’t shave after the series finale. Finley presented gold mustache spoons, with attached covers for eating soup, to players, staff, and the participating members of the Indians. At the Coliseum, 7,607 men got in free with the promotion. Plate umpire Marty Springstead took one look at third-base coach Irv Noren before the game and said, “Jesus, Irv, when are you going to shave that off?” Noren didn’t hesitate. “As soon as the goddamn check clears,” he said.
Current A’s third baseman Matt Chapman has been known to grow his own slump-buster mustache from time to time, though manager Bob Melvin took care to distinguish it from his teammate’s. “Olson’s got a little more growth going on than Chapman,” he said. “I think Chapman, it would take him a couple of years to get a mustache that actually looks like a mustache.”
Meanwhile, Olson is styling and raking in equal measures. Who knows—maybe he’ll start another trend.