If you’ve been following the World Series contest between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, you may have noticed that the men of the Red Sox have conspired to grow dumb beards all over their faces in a scruffy demonstration of team solidarity and/or capitulation to sports superstition. Fine. But now, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody—himself a keeper of an unkempt beard—has stepped in to argue that the conspicuous chin growths are more than just silly postseason accessories. Gross beards, he says, are evidence of the team’s superior character.
“One of the beauties of the beard is that its lushness is polysemic, lending itself to an interpretive exuberance to match its flow,” Brody writes. “A beard is a celebration of nature that brings appearance closer to that of untamed human animals—a Rousseau-esque gesture that was crucial to the age of Aquarius, a time when long-established norms of behavior collapsed and made public life a clearer expression of formerly unspeakable private desires. By contrast, the shaven and crew-cut athlete suggests a martial fury that is joyless—a grim, self-denying efficiency that may work in war but is exactly the opposite of the essence of baseball, which, for all its competitive ardor, is playtime.” Putting down the razor, Brody argues, “implies a monastic indifference to worldly cares, a hermetic withdrawal from ordinary concerns, and a fixed focus on the higher mysteries, whether divine, philosophical, or the split-finger fastball.”
Enough. It’s time we stop congratulating these men for simply presenting a secondary sexual characteristic with no accompanying display of follicular craft or even basic self-control. Brody’s colleague, Roger Angell, agrees. “Where are the Red Sox wives or sweetie pies in all this?” Angell writes in reply. “How does it feel to wake up, night after night, in immediate proximity to a crazed Pomeranian or a Malamute or an Old English sheepdog stubbornly adhering to the once caressable jaw of the guy on the nearest pillow? Doesn’t it scratch? Doesn’t it itch? Doesn’t it smell, however faintly, of tonight’s boeuf en daube or yesterday’s last pinch of Red Man?”
In the absence of “wives and sweetie pies,” I will volunteer my services. I’ll dispense with the Red Sox first. Jonny Gomes (left field): Your teammates’ attempts to rip the beard off your face have unfortunately proven unsuccessful. I know you know how razors work, because you employed one to stupidly shave all the hair off the top of your head to better accentuate your ridiculous beard. Doesn’t count. Mike Napoli (first base): Your teammate Brandon Workman has described your growth as “full caveman.” While the troglodyte look is occasionally acceptable—noble even—it must be paired with a sophisticated male wardrobe. Boston Red Sox skullcaps do not qualify. Ryan Dempster (pitcher): Umm … it’s an improvement on the goatee. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (catcher): Looks like pubic hair. Clay Buchholz (pitcher): You’ve smartly shaved your beard into an acceptable facial outline, but then you grew it out a half inch too long. You’re hedging. It’s embarrassing. Junichi Tazawa (pitcher): Junichi, honey. Did the other boys talk you into this? I can’t imagine that the stubble you’ve cultivated in the general sideburn area to point conspicuously toward your dismal patch of chin growth was an entirely personal decision. Why mess with that face? David Ortiz (designated hitter): You can do whatever you want.
Of course, simply integrating a razor into your morning routine doesn’t constitute a victory. The heavily manscaped Cardinals lineup could also use some work. Randy Choate (pitcher): That goatee looks like your name sounds. Yadier Molina (catcher): Your stubble game is remarkable. Why shave it into such a measly strap? Stretch out into the cheek area a little bit. Not too much. Right there. Yes. Jason Motte (pitcher): “I’m lazy. I don’t feel like shaving,” you told the Associate Press, as if that’s something to be proud of. The result of your indifference is a Red Soxian beard that “descends from [the] chin in two wide curls, like a waterfall going over a rock.” And yet, with just a bit of sculpting, your face could be luxuriating in a serene pool of ginger. You’re wasting your talents, Jason. Matt Holliday (left field), Adam Wainwright (pitcher), Pete Kozma (whatever): You have achieved full coverage without descending into ostentatious wispiness. Nice work.
Perhaps the men of the World Series are under the assumption that their sports scruffs are above aesthetic critique. But when it comes to the cultural impact of the beard, the female perspective is instructive. This spring, a pair of University of New South Wales researchers published a study on female facial hair preferences and found that women preferred men who displayed a state of “heavy stubble” over those sporting clean-shaven smoothness or full, unmitigated growth. The researchers posited that stubble signaled the “threshold of masculinity”—it’s the mark of a man who is capable of accessing his raw masculine power but displays the restraint necessary to keep it from careening down into the neck area.
“There’s no point to a trimmed and well-groomed beard, which resembles exactly the sort of suburban lawn that often led to the growing of the beard in the first place,” Brody asserts incorrectly. The point is that the man who wields the trimmer is the master of his own beard, never the other way around. The game of baseball is built on this graceful balance of strength and precision, of power and restraint. (And try telling the dedicated landscape artists who mow the lawn at Fenway that their intricate pattern work is less than divine.) Perhaps this is why departed Yankees owner George Steinbrenner famously outlawed all facial hair but made an exception for the upper lip—at least a mustache requires a respect for boundaries.