This story originally appeared in the Sept. 30, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated
This fall, to its legion of leaf peepers, New England has added an army of beard feelers, men and women eager to lay hands on the radiant fall foliage of a Red Sox player's whiskers. "It's like a pregnant woman's belly," says pitcher Ryan Dempster of his and the sundry other beards that surround him in the Sox' clubhouse. "Everyone wants to touch it."
As the Red Sox ran away with the American League East title in September, their beards began to exert a great gravitational pull around Boston, powers that grew by the day. "Literally," says backup catcher David Ross, 36, whose beard is one-third salt, one-third pepper, one-third awesome.
"I don't like it," says Dempster, his trembling right hand reaching toward Ross's beard. "I love it."
Like their fellow Bostonians, the Sox cannot keep their own hands off each other's beards. First baseman Mike Napoli's is alive and thrumming, buzzing like a beard of bees. Ross told Napoli a few weeks ago, "The next time you hit a home run, I'm gonna yank on that thing so hard, you're gonna cry."
And so he did, and now every time a Red Sox player homers, his beard gets tugged on like the tasseled bellpull used to summon a butler in old movies. When second baseman Dustin Pedroia cleared the Green Monster against the Orioles on Sept. 17, he returned to the dugout to walk a congratulatory gantlet of whisker-jerking that is even worse than it sounds. As Pedroia reminded a reporter after the game, following a face-blasting shower, "It's a bunch of guys with pine tar all over their hands."
A year after losing 93 games, their worst season since 1965, the Red Sox are cruising into the playoffs, and fans are wearing false beards to Fenway Park. Outside the Copley T station, across from the Boston Marathon finish line, a young woman with a magnificent flaxen beard hooked to her ears hands out posters that taxonomize the various beardstyles of the Old Towne Team, including "The Sick Flow" (Pedroia's beard), "The Wolf" (Ross's) and "The Saltine" (catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's).
It all started with outfielder Jonny Gomes arriving at spring training with a healthy wintertime scruff that has since become known as "The Ironsides." Napoli saw it and told Ross, "I'm gonna grow mine out." To which Ross replied, noncommittally, "Cool." A week later, per his custom of shaving every seven days, Ross walked into the clubhouse shorn of his whiskers. "And Napoli," he recalls, "looked like I shot his dog."
So Ross stopped shaving, too, and once there were three, the trend was official and spread like a neck rash. As Gomes sits at his locker, beard fanning out like Lady Liberty's crown inverted, Ted Williams looks down beatifically from a framed photograph just inside the clubhouse door. In the picture the greatest hitter who ever lived is smiling in wonder, seated in this very clubhouse, but six decades distant, his face as smooth as the coat of a Peruvian hairless.
At the precise moment in 1966 that he learned he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ted Williams was shaving. For most of the 20th century, that's what baseball players did every day, as hard as that is to believe now, in this age of bearded baseball colossi like Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson and Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth.
Giants manager John McGraw spoke for all of baseball in 1910 when he testified in an ad, "I wouldn't be without my Gillette, especially when I'm on the road with my team." Babe Ruth endorsed a straight razor embossed with his name and fought a constant battle against five o'clock shadow. His spring training barber, Lillie Bughardt of Lillie's Salon & Barber Shop in Sulphur Springs, Fla., once said of Ruth, "He had a heavy beard and I sometimes shaved him twice a day and he would go to sleep in the barber chair nearly every time."
On at least two occasions Ruth was photographed in his Yankees uniform wearing a false beard, mimicking the House of David baseball team, which was composed of members of a cultish commune in Benton Harbor, Mich., that didn't believe in cutting hair or beards. That team barnstormed around the country, playing to great crowds. Ruth was offered $35,000 to play for the House of David, but as he once said of his frequent appearances in a white beard to play Santa Claus, "It gets hot under them whiskers."
Whiskers were rarely allowed to gather in big league clubhouses. When the Cubs clinched the National League pennant in 1938, beating the Cardinals in the second game of a doubleheader, an eyewitness watched as winning pitcher Charlie Root "quietly removed himself to the corner mirror and began shaving." The Cubs' young batboy likewise celebrated by attempting his first shave. Manager Gabby Hartnett, fearing a bloodbath, removed the razor from the kid's hand and finished the job himself, leaving a clubhouse tableau that was not at all curious for the time: manager, pitcher and batboy, all shaving in celebration.
"A boy has more self-respect when he's clean-shaved," Pee Wee Reese explained a half-century- ago in a commercial for Super Speed razors, from Gillette, which has sponsored major league baseball for more than 80 years now and was ubiquitous on baseball broadcasts of the 20th century. Gillette's main office, then as now, is in South Boston, at 1 Gillette Park. A neon sign atop the factory there declares it world shaving headquarters.
A mere three miles away, at 4 Yawkey Way, stands the World Not-Shaving Headquarters. So how did baseball get from 1 Gillette to 4 Yawkey?
In the winter of 1968, the year Hair opened on Broadway, terrified major league general managers voted at a meeting in Colorado Springs to recommend a formal ban on mustaches, goatees and sideburns. White Sox GM Ed Short said, "Our concern was to keep the proper image of major league players [in front of] young fans especially."
The only mustache beneath a major league cap that season belonged to Satchel Paige, signed by the Braves as an adviser, then placed on the active roster as a "possible part-time player" in an effort to get the Negro leagues legend to five years of major league service, and thus to a major league pension. But Paige never appeared in a game, and the last mustache to do so remained the tidy one worn beneath the nose of A's catcher Wally Schang, 54 years earlier, in 1914.
Needless to say, the No Facial Hair Edict of 1968 was asking for stubble. When slugger Dick Allen arrived at the Cards' spring training camp in 1970 wearing a mustache and muttonchops, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated beneath the banner BASEBALL IN TURMOIL.
True, there was still a sword of Damocles hanging under Allen's head, and its name was Gillette: He was clean-shaven by Opening Day. But two years later a bigger star with greater clout arrived at A's camp wearing a mustache of pure defiance. Reggie Jackson's teammates -- financially encouraged by owner Charlie Finley -- followed suit, and by season's end, when they were winning the first of three consecutive World Series, 19 members of the A's rocked 'staches.
Soon Reggie had a full beard. And while other stars like Pete Rose continued to tout the benefits of shaving throughout the 1970s, it was too late. The genie was out of the Aqua Velva bottle.
Jonny Gomes, his face resting like a bust on the plinth of his beard, is talking about glue. Whether it's metaphorical glue or actual beard glue is not immediately clear. Indeed, there may no longer be a difference, for Boston at the moment is being held together by the Red Sox, and the Red Sox are being held together by their beards. "It's been all hands on deck, keep your eyes on the prize all year," he says. "This thing got glued together really quick. People aren't just jumping on now in mid-September."
He's speaking of his teammates -- many of whom are, like him, new to Boston this season -- but he's also referring obliquely to their beards, which are just the most obvious manifestation of team unity. Players also have subtle lines shaved into the backs of their haircuts, wear BOSTON STRONG T-shirts and rally around a cigar-store Indian purchased in San Francisco that now stands in the Fenway clubhouse in a Sox jersey.
"How many teams have Latin players, Japanese players, Americans, all wearing the same red-white-and-blue shorts?" says Ross, of the star-spangled American-flag gym shorts that Gomes ordered for the entire team last month to honor a five-year-old leukemia patient named Brady Wein.
"Don't forget the Canadian," says Dempster, the British Columbian -- his beard is called "The Canuck" -- who ordered a pair of Air Jordans for every member of the Sox. Pedroia bought red Beats headphones for all his teammates. Of their various efforts to bond, the beards just happen to be the most in-your-face, and on-your-face, accessory. "There's something different going on in here every day," says Dempster, whose T-shirt bears a likeness of William Shakespeare and a quote it attributes to the Bard: THIS S--- WRITES ITSELF.
And it sort of does. Dempster, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, outfielders Shane Victorino and Mike Carp, and manager John Farrell are all new to the Red Sox this season, unencumbered by the last-place finish of a year ago. Farrell, 51, remained clean-shaven while pitching in eight big league seasons and is not about to start competitive bearding now. But up in the Fenway press box sits former Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, whose career straddled the great facial-hair fault line: His face was hairless from 1964 to '72 and hairy from '73 to '82. Stroking his magnificent Fu Manchu, white and fluffy, El Tiante, now a Red Sox special instructor, strikes a godlike -- even Godlike -- figure, gazing down on seats speckled with tiny creatures in phony beards.
On Sept. 18, two days before they clinched the AL East, the Sox hosted Dollar Beard Night. Men, women and children in real beards, false beards and painted beards lined up for one-dollar entry into Fenway and tugged each other's whiskers in emulation of their heroes. In a lawsuit filed in 1934 by the House of David against another barnstorming baseball team wearing beards, federal judge John Woolsey declared facial hair to be in the "public domain" and upheld the right of the American people to wear the beards of their idols.
Wrote Woolsey, "Any man, if so minded, may -- without being subject to challenge, legal or equitable -- not only grow such beard as he can but may purposely imitate another's facial shrubbery -- even to the extent of following such topiary modification thereof as may have caught his fancy."
Not all the current Sox are imitating the facial shrubbery of Gomes or Napoli or Ross. Shortstop Stephen Drew's beard attempt came in patchy. Ace closer Koji Uehara has gone clean-shaven after wearing a beard from time to time. And DH David Ortiz maintains tight control of his close-cropped beard, denying Americans their constitutional right to the hirsute of Papiness.
But that's O.K. The Red Sox are quick to stress that their beards are nonjudgmental. "As I told someone the other day, beards are like snowflakes," Ross says. "Every one of them is unique, and beautiful in its own way."
As he spoke, five o'clock shadows were lengthening outside Fenway, in every sense of the phrase: All those bearded fans, gathering at the gates, hoped that the Sox and their polyglot beards -- black, brown, gray and red -- will make like the leaves, and peak in a blaze of color come October.