Sports

Manny Dread

Harrison Mooney

Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox, unkempt and screwy as all hell, went up against the always clean-cut New York Yankees and bested them in a hair-versus-square contretemps.

On 31 July, the National League's Los Angeles Dodgers acquired 12-time all-star outfielder Manny Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox in a three-way trade. The transaction, completed just before baseball's annual trading deadline, brought the end of an era in Boston, during which Ramirez led the Red Sox to two World Series titles after an 86-year drought. As a member of the Red Sox, Ramirez has been invited to the All-Star game every year, and was recognized by many baseball pundits as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- right-handed hitters of all time. He has the most career grand slams of any active player and is near the top in every other major statistical hitting category. He is a guaranteed hall-of-fame player. So why would Boston ever trade a player like this? Because of the way he wears his hair. I'm sorry, what?

Okay, that wasn’t entirely it. The truth is that Manny ran himself out of town by demanding trades and rescinding those demands, taking himself out of the lineup with phantom injuries just before the first pitch, failing to hustle in the outfield and on the base path, and generally goofing around during games that fans and owners take very seriously. (He once ducked into the green monster to take a call on his cell phone during the game.)

Now, Manny’s a different sort, and bizarre behavior has always been one of his trademarks. When the Red Sox are winning, he’s exactly the sort of player whom a team can rally around. In 2004, he was a galvanizing locker-room presence. The Red Sox soaked up his strangeness, building an identity around his and others' unconventional attitudes. Boston fans lovingly called their ballclub “the Idiots”, a name coined by Boston teammates.

Ramirez and the Red Sox, unkempt and screwy as all hell, went up against the always clean-cut New York Yankees and bested them in a hair-versus-square contretemps. The Red Sox went up against the odds and the Curse of the Bambino as devil-may-care outcasts -- Manny’s wild hair a symbol of this identity -- and they won, primarily, it seemed, because they were too insouciant to be denied.

The Red Sox have been trying to clean up their act ever since, and Manny Ramirez made it difficult. His hair, unchanged (or maybe even wilder) since then, is one of the last relic of the Idiots. (Johny Damon, a fellow long-haired Idiot, cleaned up his act after being traded to the Yankees.) His blitheness -- often called “Manny being Manny” -- has long been a problem, and his hair has always been the symbol of that problem. Ramirez’s growing his hair down past his shoulders appears, to many emblematic of his petulance and disrespect for the game.

Manny’s hair is inextricably tied to his willingness to show respect for baseball’s brass. Thus, it was the first issue that came up when Manny landed in L.A. From Associated Press:

[Dodgers manager Joe] Torre asked Ramirez how important his hair was to him and was told he'd do whatever the manager wanted. Torre said he asked Ramirez to "clean it up a little bit and make it manageable."

"I've got to cut it. I'm going to be looking like a baby," Ramirez said with a smile. "I don't want them to treat me different than the other guys. If they want me to cut it, I'll cut it. It will grow back."

Torre asked the same of reliever Joe Beimel in spring training.

Manny’s dreadlocks are an affront to many in a game whose organizations -- the Yankees, most notably -- have historically required players to keep their hair in short and even military-style cuts. Randy Johnson, long defined by his mullet, lost it for the two seasons he spent in New York. Other Yankees of yore put up a fight. Seventeen years ago, Don Mattingly was removed from the lineup for refusing to cut his hair. When Thurman Munson once grew a beard in defiance of the policy in the 1970s, Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner criticized team manager Billy Martin for losing control of the players. And for years, the Cincinnati Reds had an even stricter facial hair and hair length policy.

Though goatees and sideburns abound today, Major League Baseball remains a predominantly clean-cut league, with repercussions for those who try to individualize. Haircuts have often been the first line of offense in an organization's attempts to keep their players under thumb. Ramirez’s problems were not on the top of his head, but for many, it was the dread that broke the camel’s back. Why so serious?

Many explain the baseball community's uptight stance as a matter of workplace standards. Nowadays, sports are a business, and these are highly-paid employees. You wouldn't go to the office with long, shaggy hair, now would you? It follows, then, that neither should Manny Ramirez. As Joe B. at Yahoo! Answers explains, "It is a team tradition that the players look clean cut," he says, "Like they all did in the early days of baseball." Perhaps. Mind you, if it's about upholding the traditions of the early days of baseball, perhaps re-segregation is also a good idea?

Don't laugh just yet. Consider that facial hair was commonplace in baseball in the late 19th century, but seems to have been removed from the Major Leagues right at the turn of the century -- the same time that blacks were also removed. Though the baseball color line, a “gentleman’s agreement” that excluded blacks and Latin Americans from organized baseball originated in 1868, it was not fully implemented until the end of the 1898 season, when the minor leagues were segregated. Suspiciously, facial hair and Negroes both exited the game right about 1900. According to baseball historian Maxwell Kates:

In James Bready's "The Home Team," a history of baseball in Baltimore, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson were both depicted sporting moustaches as members of the Orioles in the 1890's. By the time they were managers in the early twentieth century, players with facial hair became a rarity in baseball.

The last moustached player in the major leagues for decades appears to have been Wally Schlang, in 1914. The Negro National League was formed six years later. According to Society for American Baseball Research member Bill Deane, there were no official regulations which prohibited players from growing facial hair. Rather, baseball was, simply, “a conservative game in conservative times.” Indeed.

Thus baseball’s tendency to manipulate the hair issue as a means of establishing otherness -- the sort of people who don't belong -- began at the turn of the 20th century, when this so-called conservative game sought to strengthen the division between their “gentleman’s” league and the ungentlemanly, uncouth, and uneducated play of the removed blacks. A leaguewide practice of neat hairstyles and well-groomed faces were meant to ensure people understood the high standards held by the men of white baseball. No policy was ever put into place, but the color line itself was unspoken. Likewise, the hairline was silently understood.

Ramirez's case isn't the first time race, grooming, and athletics have combined to make for a national issue. Just a few years ago, many disparaged NBA commissioner David Stern's dress code as a means of neutralizing imposing black attire that investors and upright ticket-buyers found distasteful. David Stern would never admit his dress code is about making his sport nonthreatening to whites, but it certainly appears that way.

It also seems that baseball took a similar path; personal appearance had far less to do with general propriety, and everything to do with differentiating from and neutralizing another culture (high culture whites, base Negroes). And so, in 1948, Satchel Paige, who wore a moustache in the Negro Leagues, shaved it off just before playing his first game with the Cleveland Indians. Welcome to the Bigs, Satchel. Now lose the pushbroom -- this ain't Chattanooga.

The truth about hair in baseball is that it has been a means of differentiating class from classless, and for over half a century, that meant whites from blacks. Now, these grooming policies are baseless and the tradition Manny Ramirez thumbs his nose at by growing his hair long and wild—is about racism, pure and simple. Whether or not Ramirez is aware of it, he serves as a repudiation of the legacy of racism that would once have kept him outside the game. And though he has chosen to take a few inches off his dreads, Manny's still being Manny. May he remain that way for years to come.
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