In a classic clash of individual free will versus organizational authority, Al Hrabosky challenged the rules of manager Vern Rapp, creating a controversy that threatened to divide the Cardinals during spring training in 1977.
Forty years ago, Rapp, the Cardinals’ first-year manager, had declared no Cardinals player could have a beard, moustache, long sideburns or long hair. Hrabosky, the Cardinals’ top relief pitcher, had earned the nickname “Mad Hungarian,” in part, because of an intimidating look that featured a Fu Manchu moustache.
Bristling at what he considered unnecessarily rigid rules and convinced a clean-shaven look hampered his effectiveness as a pitcher, Hrabosky ripped Rapp in comments to media.
For Rapp, who never had been in the big leagues until replacing the popular Red Schoendienst as manager, Hrabosky’s outburst was a critical test of his ability to command the respect of the team.
Spirit of St. Louis
A St. Louis native, Rapp was a catcher in the Cardinals’ system from 1946-50 and from 1953-54. He was a Cardinals minor-league manager from 1965-68 before moving to the Reds organization.
After the Cardinals fired Schoendienst, they hired Rapp because of a no-nonsense reputation.
Before leaving for 1977 spring training at St. Petersburg, Fla., Rapp, 48, revealed his edict on hair.
“Rapp’s tonsorial order took priority over a lot more important matters among St. Louis fans,” The Sporting News reported. “The two daily newspapers were swamped with letters, most of them in favor of the manager.”
In explaining why he implemented the ban, Rapp told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I’ve had those codes on teams I’ve managed since 1965. It’s to give the players a feeling of being responsible to the profession they’re in. The dress and hair codes reflect their character and personality to the public. It’s a big way they can start developing pride.”
Most Cardinals players reported to spring training clean-shaven and with haircuts. Third baseman Ken Reitz “was asked by the manager to get his hair trimmed and did, but not enough to suit Rapp,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
“There are a couple of others who still didn’t get their hair trimmed enough at the sides, but they will,” Rapp said.
The first player to challenge the rule was outfielder Bake McBride, who attempted to keep a goatee.
When Rapp ordered McBride to shave, McBride responded, “You’re going to make enemies.”
Said Rapp: “I didn’t come down here to win friends.”
Hrabosky, ever the showman, invited the media to film and photograph him as he shaved his Fu Manchu and beard.
The hair code wasn’t the only change introduced by Rapp. He issued daily step-by-step mimeographed instructions to the players, gave them identical team exercise suits to wear, required them to attend a demonstration by coach Sonny Ruberto on how uniforms should be worn and scheduled workouts before and after lunch.
After the Cardinals were beaten, 10-0, by the Mets in their spring training opener, “Rapp sent his players on a 15-lap tour from first to home,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
Hrabosky initially tried to use his unhappiness with the hair code as motivation to pitch well.
“I want to prove to Rapp that I’m his No. 1 relief pitcher,” Hrabosky said. “I want to be his No. 1 stopper. I wanted to be in a hate mood and Rapp put me there by taking away my beard and moustache. But, look, I super-like Vern. I want to help him, help the ballclub and help myself. He has aroused something in me to fight back.”
A few days later, though, Hrabosky directed his frustration at Rapp.
On March 20, Hrabosky told the Associated Press: “My mental outlook is atrocious. There’s more dissension on this club than I’ve ever seen.”
That same day, Hrabosky told United Press International his teammates were being stifled by Rapp. “The guys are just standing still,” Hrabosky said. “The reason is they’re afraid to move.”
Informed of Hrabosky’s comments, Rapp told the Post-Dispatch, “I just don’t understand it.”
Before the Cardinals left for their March 21 exhibition game against the Red Sox at Winter Haven, Fla., Rapp called a team meeting.
“I wanted to get everything out in the open,” Rapp said. “I wanted the players to know that I am the manager of this team. They fully realize this and they are willing to accept it.”
Hrabosky stood up at the meeting and apologized.
“I’m man enough to admit I was wrong … I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do what I have to do,” Hrabosky told the Post-Dispatch. “I offended Vern. I feel I threatened his helm. As a team member, I felt I had no right to say what I did.”
Catcher Ted Simmons, the only other player to speak at the meeting, urged his teammates to conduct themselves professionally. Said Simmons of Rapp: “He is the manager and that’s that. If he wants you to stand on your head, then you should do it.”
The Cardinals opened the regular season on April 7 and beat the Pirates, 12-6, at Pittsburgh. Hrabosky pitched 2.1 innings and helped protect the win for starter John Denny.
Afterward, a jubilant Hrabosky was asked by The Sporting News to reflect on his spring training criticism of Rapp. “Maybe I was a little selfish and a little childish about the matter,” Hrabosky said. “I accept it now.”
Peace, though, wasn’t long-lasting.
In May, Rapp suspended Hrabosky for insubordination after the pitcher refused the manager’s request to meet.
In June, McBride, who remained unhappy with Rapp, was traded to the Phillies.
In July, with Hrabosky beginning to grow facial hair and threatening to file a grievance with the players’ union, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch ordered Rapp to discontinue the hair code.
Hrabosky led the 1977 Cardinals in saves (10) and games pitched (65) but his ERA was 4.38. After the season, he was traded to the Royals.
Rapp was fired in April 1978 and replaced by Ken Boyer.