Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Farewell to a Mustache Forever Linked to the Mets

[Photographs by Joshua Bright for The New York Times]
Keith Hernandez had his mustache shaved for the first time
in 25 years on a small stage set up outside CitiField
on Thursday as 300 baseball fans looked on.

Without his mustache, would Clark Gable have been as silkily charming when he told Scarlett O'Hara he frankly did not give a damn? Would Groucho Marx have delivered his one-liners with the same zing?

And would Keith Hernandez have been as identifiable and beloved as a New York Met?

The latter question hung in the air Thursday, like a tightrope walker in a publicity stunt (which the event unashamedly was), as Mr. Hernandez had his now graying chevron-style mustache shaved off. A barber had been flown in for the occasion from Las Vegas, with 300 baseball fans ogling and recording Mr. Hernandez by iPhone in front of a small stage set up outside Citi Field.

The impetus for the public depilation was what Mr. Hernandez, now a Mets broadcaster, said "was a flippant remark on the air" raising the prospect of shaving his mustache for charity. The event raised $10,000 (contributed by the Schick razor company) for a Brooklynday care center for Alzheimer's patients named in honor of Mr. Hernandez's mother, Jacquelyn, who died of the disease in 1989.

Stunt notwithstanding, some fans on the way to the Mets game to watch R. A. Dickey and his mustache win his 20th game lamented Mr. Hernandez's decision.

"He should keep it," said Marsha Landar, 54, a retired real estate broker from Queens Village, Queens. "My second husband looked like Keith Hernandez. That's why I married him. I wouldn't let him shave his mustache. C'mon, it's sexy."

But Sol Passik, 61, a retired social worker from Holliswood, Queens, said Mr. Hernandez, despite revealing his upper lip for the first time in a quarter century, still has "a recognizable nose and profile."

"As a friend suggested, he'll grow it back and do it again next year and make more money," Mr. Passik said.

Mustaches are believed by advocates, if not always by their spouses, to add dash and a touch of virility to their owners' faces. Yet they have a checkered cultural history. Americans have not voted for a mustachioed president since William Howard Taft and his handlebar.Thomas E. Dewey, with his neat mustache, lost the 1944 and 1948 elections.

But Hollywood has loved mustachioed actors like Gable, Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds, and sports at times has loved mustaches, too.

Facial hair has been a feature of most New York teams, sometimes in their proudest eras. Phil Jackson and Walt Frazier were memorably mustachioed members of the Knicks' only two championship teams, though Patrick Ewing sported a mustache when he helped them return to the finals decades later. In football, the Jets' most celebrated quarterback, Joe Namath, had a mustache that arced as parabolically as his forward passes.

But it was in baseball where the mustache achieved its greatest stature.

In the early days of baseball, handlebar mustaches were common in a game that was long attributed to Abner Doubleday. (Doubleday, who never claimed to have invented baseball, had a mustache not too different from Mr. Hernandez's.)

By 1900, the clean-shaven look had the upper hand (and upper lip); legends like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb spurned facial ornament. Then in the early 1970s, when hair became associated with sexual freedom and hippie nonconformity, Charles Finley, the owner of the Oakland Athletics, offered players $300 each to grow mustaches, as some players had already done. Rollie Fingers sported a handlebar coiled at both ends, and Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, chevrons straining toward Fu-Manchus.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Hunter went on to play for the Yankees, whose owner George Steinbrenner periodically — usually when his team was losing — banned facial hair, though he permitted neatly trimmed mustaches like those worn by the first baseman Don Mattingly and the catcher Thurman Munson.

Mr. Hernandez became one of the mustache's more famous exhibitors. In an interview before his shearing, Mr. Hernandez, now 58, said that he grew a mustache as a young man because he was raised on mustachioed tough guys like Paladin, the lead character played by Richard Boone on the late 1950s and early 1960s television show "Have Gun Will Travel," and John Wayne in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

He said he had shaved it off three or four times but not since 1988, when he was still a Met.

After the barber, Elliott Chester, took it off (using a battery-powered trimmer and only at the end picking up a Schick razor). Mr. Hernandez, groaning and chuckling at all the attention, said he "looked 20 years younger" but also pointed out portentously: "I can always grow it back."

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