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Michael Hammond

Hairs vs. Squares

Baseball, social change, and tradition.

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The traditional look of baseball was challenged as teams looked for ways to capitalize on the cultural shift of the 1960s. The most innovative and non-traditional team of this period was the Oakland Athletics, owned by Charles O. Finley. Finley Ball: How Two Outsiders Turned the Oakland A's into a Dynasty and Changed the Game Forever is a recollection by Nancy Finley, the owner's niece. Her father, Carl Finley, helped his brother Charles manage the business affairs of the A's, first in Kansas City, and later when they moved to Oakland for the 1968 season.

Charles Finley challenged the traditional corporate structure of his fellow baseball owners, and they rejected him for it. He was a self-made man who grew wealthy in the insurance industry and considered himself an innovator and marketing genius. Among his ideas to liven up the game were the designated hitter, day-glo orange baseballs, and a donkey mascot named "Charlie O" after the owner himself. He tagged his star players with nicknames so that they would be more memorable to fans, and it worked for Blue Moon Odom and Catfish Hunter. He hired 11-year old Stanley Burrell—later to earn fame as rap star MC Hammer—as a team executive and his clubhouse spy. Tradition was nothing but a nuisance to Finley.

The first players strike took place at the start of the season in 1972, another step toward shifting power from owners to players. 1972 was eventful in many other ways. It was the year of Nixon's campaign against McGovern, which included the Watergate break-in. Nixon went to China that year, J. Edgar Hoover died, and The Godfather won best picture. Jackie Robinson died three weeks after throwing out the first pitch for game two of the World Series. Hairs vs. Squares: The Mustache Gang, the Big Red Machine, and the Tumultuous Summer of '72, by Ed Gruver, documents the 1972 season from the strike through game seven of the World Series between the A's and the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds represented stereotypes of the Midwest. Their team was sparked by the ultra-competitive Pete Rose, an all-star player who compensated for a lack of physical giftedness by outworking and outhustling his opponents—and then telling you all about how he did it. The Reds abided by the traditional appearance guidelines of baseball: high stirrup socks, clean-shaven faces, and moderate hair length.

The Oakland A's of 1972 were a contrast, literally and symbolically. Oakland was home to the Black Panthers and Hells Angels, and racial tensions and protests continued in the Bay Area that year. Charlie Finley had selected bright green and yellow uniforms, gleaming white cleats, and strongly encouraged long hairstyles as well as mustaches and beards. Star outfielder Reggie Jackson had grown a mustache at the start of the season, which made him the first big leaguer on record with facial hair since Wally Schang in 1914. The notoriously cheap Finley seized the opportunity and paid his players a bonus of $300 to wear a mustache for the season. On Fathers' Day, any fan with facial hair got into the A's game free. Soon the whole team sported mustaches, and the A's stood out against the traditional clean-cut image of ballplayers. Reds General Manager Bob Howsam thought the A's were a joke. He had taken the Reds policy against facial hair so seriously as to remove the 19th century-style handlebar mustache from the "Mr. Red" mascot on the team logo in 1968. One Oakland columnist derided Reds manager Sparky Anderson as a "short-hair freak." Oakland versus Cincinnati represented innovation and splashy marketing against tradition and values. Soon baseball players would persevere against the reserve clause and open a new era of moderated free agency. The traditional power structure of America's pastime was slowly shifting.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has struggled to compete for viewers and fans as louder and faster sports attract attention away from the deliberate nature of baseball. In response to this market competition, teams have enhanced their ballparks with amenities such as playgrounds, gourmet dining, boutique shopping, carnival games, party decks, and of course, ample Wi-Fi and device charging options. It is possible for a fan to purchase a ticket to a baseball stadium, remain occupied with options within the stadium, and never sit in a seat and watch the game. Baseball's distinctive appeal to a simpler time directly challenges the drive to reinvent the game for television, Internet, and the drifting attention of casual fans.

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