The national baseball media has given Manny Ramirez plenty of grief over the years over his hair. And yet for all their bluster, there’s nothing even slightly revolutionary about Manny’s hair. Manny is not simply being Manny, he’s being baseball. Baseball players and bad hair have gone hand in hand since Harry Wright refused to comb his beard for old food before the first Cincinnati Red Stockings game in 1869. Since then, bad hair has been a requirement for those who want to join a big league club.
Bad hair isn’t just an endearing facet of baseball; it’s struck other major sports through the years as well. Football? Been sufferin’ since the late Sixties, and hockey since the Seventies. Just because they wear helmets doesn’t mean the bad hair isn’t there. In fact, the NHL’s insistence on the helmet has only helped bad hair flourish (just look at Jaromir Jagr and his SuperMullet for proof).
And where does basketball fit, you may ask? I’d say that basketball players seem to be the most in tune with how normal, non-famous athletes wear their hair. I’d even go so far as to proclaim basketball players the most hair-conscious among players from the four major sports. And yes, I’m aware of what Rick Barry looked like in his playing days.
There are many reasons why I’ve placed basketball players at the top of the heap. First, baseball hair wasn’t just bad for a few years here and there—it’s been consistent. There’s never been any evolution in baseball hair; it’s never gotten better, just stayed consistently inconsistent. Johnny Damon’s Rip Van Winkle beard was just as bad as Cap Anson’s little tuft on his forehead, as bad as Bill Buckner’s encroaching neck hair and as bad as anything Steve Stone ever sported. Second, hockey and bad hair go together like hockey and missing teeth. It’s just a natural fit. Third, a football helmet is not designed to help keep your hair looking sharp—it’s there to keep your head on your neck. Even Burt Reynolds’ perfect coiff was no match for a helmet in The Longest Yard. Those reasons alone almost leave the NBA the clear winners. Here are a few others, in order of importance to the sport’s success:
• Artis Gilmore’s Afro Dr. J’s afro was good, but Artis Gilmore’s afro was great. You could argue that Gilmore dominated because of his size, his scoring touch and his tenacity in the lane. But don’t underestimate the power of the Afro. It added at least six inches to his already gigantic 7’2” frame, and it was never clear where his head ended and his hair began. He could have easily had an IQ over 300 with a brain that big.
• Dominique Wilkins’ Flattop Fade What made ’Nique cooler: his unbelievable skill and dunks or his kick-ass fade? I wanted to get something shaved into the back of my head badly for a very long time, but my hair was not made to accommodate that wish. This is one of my deepest regrets.
• Michael Jordan’s Shaved Head After Jordan became a national star, shaving your head became the biggest thing since short shorts to NBA players. This was only alleviated with the arrival of
• Darius Miles’ Cornrows Braiding never had a place on the national stage before, so that naturally made the appearance of cornrows huge. Like them or not, cornrows pushed the evolution of NBA hair to new heights.
Maybe the biggest reason for the dominance of NBA hair is that once a style gained acceptance in the NBA, players in other sports began to emulate it, thus giving the style legs across the country, and often not just within arena walls, but in popular culture as well. All of the styles I’ve mentioned here (the Afro, the shaved head, the fade and cornrows) existed before NBA players took them for their own. But none of them enjoyed as great a widespread acceptance until after the NBA player made it famous. None of the other sports can lay claim to something like that, simply because bad hair doesn’t need a famous subject to make it better. If anything, they’ll just make it worse.