In the midst of the 1983 season, future Hall of Famer George Brett was involved in one of the stickiest incidents in baseball history. It involved a home run, some pine tar, and the rule book.
The controversial “Pine Tar” game became a headache for many involved, but looking back on the event, Brett remembers the incident in a positive light. In 1980, when he had made a run at a .400 batting average and helped Kansas City to the American League pennant, Brett had suffered the discomfort of hemorrhoids during the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. He was reminded of the ailment consistently over the next few years of his brilliant career.
“Every time I got in the on-deck circle, every time I went someplace, everybody always had to make the wisecrack about hemorrhoids,” Brett recalls. But that unwelcome notoriety was erased when Brett hit the pine-tar home run three years later in The Bronx.
“Ever since July 24, 1983, now I’m the pine-tar guy. What would you rather be remembered as? So, in all honesty, it was the greatest thing that ever happened in my career.”
The controversy began on July 24, 1983, in Yankee Stadium, when Brett hit a ninth-inning, two-out, two-run homer off Goose Gossage that gave the Royals a 5-4 lead. It wasn’t the first time that Brett and Gossage had faced off, the two had matched up previously in the heated post-season rivalry between Brett’s Royals and Gossage’s Yankees three years earlier. Brett had blasted a homer into Yankee Stadium’s upper-deck off Goose in Game Three of the 1980 American League Championship Series to seal a three-game sweep of the Yankees. This time, the stakes weren’t as high, but the drama that unfolded became legend.
Brett’s blast came with teammate U.L. Washington on first base with two outs, and gave the Royals an apparent 5-4 lead. Moments after crossing the plate and entering the dugout, Brett saw Yankee manager Billy Martin approach home plate umpire Tim McClelland. Soon McClelland summoned Brett’s bat from the Royal dugout and conferred with his umpiring crew at home plate. Martin watched from a few feet away and Brett looked on curiously from the bench. A moment later McClelland thrust his arm in the air and signaled that Brett was out for excessive use of pine tar on his bat, nullifying the home run and ending the game.
Brett stormed from the dugout in a rage and had to be restrained by teammates, coaches, and umpire crew chief Joe Brinkman. McClelland had cited rule 1.10(b) which read that “a bat may not be covered by such a substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle.” The umpire ruled that Brett’s bat had “heavy pine tar” 19 to 20 inches from the tip of the handle and lighter pine tar for another three or four inches. McClelland had measured the pine tar by placing the bat across home plate, which is 17 inches across with a one-inch border.
Despite the protests of Brett and Royals’ manager Dick Howser, the ruling stood. Brett was ejected and the home run had been nullified, giving the Yankees a 4-3 win. Martin had realized Brett was in violation of the rule earlier in the season when Yankees’ third baseman Graig Nettles pointed it out to him. “We noticed the pine tar on his bat in Kansas City,” Martin said. “You don’t call him on it if he makes an out. After he hit the home run, I went out and said he’s using an illegal bat. It’s a terrible rule, but if it had happened to me I would have accepted it. It turned out to be a lovely Sunday afternoon.” The cagy Yankee skipper had helped his team dodge the Brett home run and win the game. Or so it seemed.
Subsequently, the Royals protested the game, while the episode gained national attention. Eventually A.L. President Lee MacPhail (himself a future Hall of Famer) overturned McClelland’s decision and re-instated Brett’s homer. Acknowledging that Brett had pine tar too high on the bat, McPhail explained that it was the league’s belief that “games should be won and lost on the playing field – not through technicalities of the rules.” MacPhail believed that a distinction should be made between using an altered bat which makes the ball go farther, and using a bat which had excessive pine tar. Brett had the sticky substance high on his bat because he did not wear batting gloves, and would regularly tap his hands on the pine tar spot to help secure his grip.
Predictably, the Yankees were upset by MacPhail’s ruling, and the resulting loss, which dropped them into a tie for first place. “A rule is a rule is a rule,” Yankees’ outfielder Lou Piniella said, echoing the sentiments of his teammates.
MacPhail ordered the game resumed on August 18 (a scheduled off day for each team), at the point following Brett’s home run with the Royals leading 5-4. Martin continued to protest the decision. On the date the game was resumed, before New York pitcher George Frazier could throw a pitch to Royals’ batter Hal McRae, Martin challenged that Brett had not touched all the bases when he hit the homer, nearly four weeks earlier. The Yankees contended that the umpiring crew (which was not the same one that had officiated the original game), had no idea if Brett had circled the bases legally. Despite the clever move by Martin, crew chief Davey Phillips was prepared. Phillips produced an affidavit signed by the four members of Brinkman’s crew, stating that Brett and the baserunner in front of him (Washington) had touched all the bases on July 24.
The issue was resolved, but not before Martin gave his last act, arguing until he was ejected from the game. After the Royals’ third out of the top of the frame, the bottom of the ninth inning was recorded without incident, the Royals prevailing, 5-4. The completion of the game had taken 12 minutes and 16 pitches to complete, with Dan Quisenberry nailing down the save in a game that saw New York feature pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and rookie outfielder/first baseman Don Mattingly (who threw left-handed!) at second base. Brett wasn’t even on hand for the conclusion of the drama that his homer had started. He was on the Royals’ plane at Newark Airport playing cards with other team officials who didn’t make the trip to Yankee Stadium. The Royals were scheduled to fly to Baltimore for a series which began the next day.
The “Pine Tar Bat” has become a famous reminder of that peculiar game and the controversy that sprung from it. The bat, which Brett claimed was one of the best he ever had, a “seven-grainer,” was broken in Milwaukee in early August. In 1987, Brett loaned the bat to the Hall of Fame, a striking reminder of one of baseball’s most bizarre episodes.