July 24, 2023

The 40th Anniversary of the Pine Tar Game

A comprehensive review of the historic Pine Tar Game and a history and reason for the rule

The 40th Anniversary of the Pine Tar Game

Today, marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Pine Tar Game when George Brett’s two-run homer off Yankees’ reliever “Goose” Gossage in the top of the ninth gave the Royals an “apparent” 5-4 lead but was nullified by the umpires because they ruled the amount of pine tar on Brett’s bat exceeded the legal 18-inch limit.  Instead, the Yankees were declared “apparent” 4-3 victors. The Royals protested the umpires’ decision to then American League President Lee MacPhail who upheld the protest. He ordered the game to be resumed at a future date with the Royals batting in the top of the ninth with two outs and leading, 5-4. That proved to be the final score.

The 1983 Illegal Bat Rules

Before we go further it would be important to know the history and reason for the rule and how the batting rules read at the time.  Team owners had discovered that pine tar on bat handles was the leading culprit for the increasing number of soiled baseballs being thrown out of play by umpires. Led by Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith, the owners, with an eye on saving money, pushed for a more specific rule that mentioned the sticky substance.

Rule 1.10 (b) stated, “The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material (including pine tar) to improve the grip. Any such material, including pine tar, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, in the umpire’s judgment, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game. No such material shall improve the reaction or distance factor of the bat.”

Rule 2.00 said, “An illegally batted ball is one hit with a bat that does not conform to rule 1.10 (b).

If you stop there, it appeared that by rule, Brett used an illegal bat.

Rule 6.06 (a) stated, “A player is out when he hits an illegally batted ball.”

Rule 6.06 (d) read, “A player’s use of a doctored bat results in the batter being called out, ejected from the game, and the imposition of additional penalties as determined by the League President.”

Any bat that was “filled, flat surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc.” was considered a doctored bat.  What did etc. mean?

1975 Pine Tar Situations

During the 1975 season there were two incidents involving a pine tar bat ruling that needs to be explored. One occurred on the evening of July 19th in Minnesota where the Twins hosted the Yankees and the other took place in Anaheim on Sept. 7th where the Royals played the Angels.

In the top of the seventh of the Yankees-Twins game, Thurman Munson was batting with the bases loaded and two outs when he knocked in Sandy Alomar with a single. Twins’ manager Frank Quilici complained that the pine tar on Munson’s bat exceeded the 18-inches allowed by rule. The bat was checked by plate umpire Art Frantz, who ruled that the bat had exceeded the pine tar limit and called Munson out. Munson, furious over the decision, lost the RBI, and the Yankees lost the game, 2-1.

“Munson always had a wry sense of humor” recalled the late Nick Bremigan, who was the first base umpire that night. “When he returned after rounding first base, he kiddingly said to me, ‘Better check the ball for blood.’ He was referring to the fact that his single was a bleeder, which indeed it was.

“I was aware of what was going on (Frantz checking the bat) and casually said to Munson, ‘Checking the ball would probably be irrelevant, because I think you’ve just been called out.’”

When Munson realized he was called out, he became volatile. He targeted his anger on Quilici and Twins’ catcher Glenn Borgmann for initiating the bat protest.

Now, let’s go to the Royals-Angels game, won by the Royals, 8-7. In that game, the Royals’ John Mayberry hit two home runs. Angels’ manager Dick Williams argued that the bat Mayberry used for his second home run had pine tar in excess of the 18-inches allowed. But the umpires allowed the home run to stand despite the extra goo. Williams protested the game, but MacPhail ruled that even though Mayberry’s bat had excessive pine tar it was a legal bat.

MacPhail’s opinion was that the intent of the pine tar rule was to prevent baseballs from being discolored during game play and that any discoloration that may have occurred to a ball leaving the ballpark did not affect the game’s competitive balance. He stated that pine tar did not affect the distance a ball traveled. Using legal judicial terms, he saw excessive pine tar on a bat as a misdemeanor not a felony.

Unlike the Mayberry game, however, Yankees’ manager Bill Virdon never protested Frantz’s ruling. If Virdon had protested, I’m sure MacPhail would have upheld the protest like he did in the Mayberry protest seven weeks later.

Here’s my question: If MacPhail made a ruling on the pine tar question from the Mayberry protest, why didn’t that make its way into clear and specific language in the 1976 Official Baseball Rules and thereafter?

Also, why did the umpires who worked the Brett pine tar game, ignore MacPhail’s ruling in the Mayberry episode eight years later?

The Pine Tar Game

Let’s fast forward to the July 24, 1983, Royals-Yankees game played on a sultry, Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. At the time, Brett was one of the few players who didn’t wear batting gloves. Instead, he relied on pine tar to get a good grip on the bat.

Yankees’ manager Billy Martin and other members of the team had noticed a couple of weeks earlier in Kansas City that Brett had an excessive amount of pine tar on his bat. But Martin had chosen not to say anything until it was strategically useful to do so.

The Yankees held a 4-3 lead entering the top of the ninth inning. Yankees’ reliever Dale Murray retired Don Slaught and Pat Sheridan before U.L. Washington singled to center field. Martin then brought in Gossage to pitch to Brett for the final out.

Brett spoiled the day for the Yankees and shocked the 33,944 fans, sending a Gossage pitch into the right field seats to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. As Brett crossed the plate, Martin approached rookie home plate umpire Tim McClelland.

The Transfer of the Bat

Royals’ bat boy Merritt Riley’s job was to pick up the batter’s bat after the ball was put in play. He then would place it in the bat rack inside the dugout. But for some reason, the 17-year-old Riley, who became a New York City police officer, got caught up in the moment and watched Brett circle the bases.

Just before Washington crossed the plate, Yankees catcher Rick Cerone flipped the bat to Riley who was a bit tardy getting to the plate area.  Cerone, was then immediately instructed by Martin to recover the bat.  “Cerone, being the arrogant guy that he was, grabbed the bat out of my hand,” recalled Riley. “He examined the bat thinking Martin wanted it checked for cork. But he saw no evidence of cork and threw the bat down at my feet. I picked it up, but it wasn’t long before McClelland took it from me as Martin was making his way out of the dugout.”

McClelland then walked out toward the pitcher’s mound with the bat to huddle with his brother umpires- Bremigan, Joe Brinkman, and Drew Coble

“Brett paced up and down the dugout,” recalled Riley. “He said to nobody in particular, ‘If they call me out, you’re going to see four dead umpires.’” McClelland and the rest of the umpiring crew walked back toward home plate where McClelland measured the pine tar on the bat by laying it on the plate which is 17-inches wide. It was determined that the amount of pine tar on the bat’s handle far exceeded the 18-inch limit.

McClelland searched for Brett in the visitors’ dugout, pointed at him with the bat in his left hand and signaled with his right arm that he was out. This was the third out of the inning which ended the game handing the Yankees an apparent, 4–3 win.

An enraged Brett catapulted from the dugout with freakishly glazed eyes and arms flapping wildly in the direction of McClelland. Brett had to be physically restrained by Royals’ manager Dick Howser, and several of his teammates, including Brinkman, who had him in a choke hold. As one commentator noted, “Brett had the ignominious distinction of hitting a game-losing home run.” Despite the loud protests of Brett and Howser, McClelland’s ruling stood.

While Brett was being restrained, to conceal the evidence 44-year-old Royals’ pitcher Gaylord Perry, the “Mahatma of the Spitter,” swiped the bat from McClelland.  In putting the disseminated information together, Perry got rid of the bat and coach Rocky Colavito picked it up. He tossed the bat toward the Royals’ dugout where it was reported that pitcher Steve Renko standing on the top step picked it up and made a dash toward the clubhouse.  He was chased by Brinkman while security personnel yelled into their radios, “Don’t let that bat out of your sight!” The security guy who guarded the visiting clubhouse wouldn’t open the door for Renko who was carrying the bat.

He was cooked. Baseball’s version of the French Connection chase had ended.

Renko reportedly relinquished the “hot bat” and the umpires sent it by courier to MacPhail’s office to be examined.

Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” blasted victoriously over the Stadium loudspeakers as the Yankees fans gleefully left the park.

In retrospect, Riley possibly could have prevented the “Pine-Tar” incident if he had picked-up the bat in a timely manner and placed it in the bat rack where it might have been impossible to determine which bat was used by Brett.

“I really believe the Pine Tar Game never would have happened if I hadn’t done what I did,” revealed Riley.

The Royals subsequently protested the game. MacPhail ordered the game to be resumed on August 18th with two outs in the top of the ninth inning with the Royals leading 5-4. Needless to say, Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner was livid over MacPhail’s ruling. “He (MacPhail) is certainly not a scientist and in no position, I feel, to make such a judgment,” said Steinbrenner to UPI. “Nor would I be, nor any of my staff or his.”

Between the ending of the July 24th game and the resumption of it on August 18th, the Yankees unsuccessfully fought a series of pine tar wars that extended into the New York court system.

Steinbrenner was fined $300,000 (some say the fine was $250,000) by major league commissioner Bowie Kuhn after he made the threatening statement, “If the Yankees lose the pennant by one game, I wouldn’t want to be Lee MacPhail.” He added, “I suggest he go house hunting in Kansas City.”

Resumption of the Game

The game resumed on August 18, 1983. The Yankees took the field with pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and lefty first baseman Don Mattingly at second base. Guidry had replaced Jerry Mumphrey, who had been traded to Houston and Mattingly replaced Bert Campaneris because he was injured. Before throwing a pitch, the Yankees appealed that Brett never touched first base. Yankees’ pitcher George Frazier threw to Ken Griffey at first, but the appeal was denied by first base ump Dave Philipps.  Frazier then appealed at second base, on the grounds Brett failed to touch the base while circling the bases when he hit his July 24th home run.

The appeals were denied which brought Martin onto the field to meet with Phillips. But Phillips took away Martin’s thunder when he took out a notarized affidavit that was produced by Bob Fishel, MacPhail’s administrative assistant. The document was signed by the four umpires who worked the July 24th game stating that Brett touched all the bases.

How did MacPhail’s office have such foresight?

“Umpire supervisor Dick Butler got word that Martin was going to appeal Brett missing a base,” explained McClelland. “So, he had the umpires who worked the Brett game sign an affidavit that Brett touched all the bases.”

George Maloney, the plate umpire for the resumed game, announced that the Yankees were playing the game under protest which created the oddity of two opponents protesting the same game. But the protest was DOA.

Frazier struck out McRae to end the top of the ninth, 25 days after the inning began.

Royals’ reliever  Dan Quisenberry then got New York out 1–2–3 in the bottom of the ninth to preserve the Royals’ 5–4 win. He retired Mattingly, Roy Smalley and Oscar Gamble, who pinch-hit for Guidry. Gamble grounded out to second baseman Frank White who flipped the ball to first baseman John Wathan, the father of current Phillies’ third base coach “Dusty” Wathan, for the game-ending out.

Martin unsuccessfully argued that Quisenberry should not be eligible to pitch because he was on the DL for the July 24th game.

The final four outs of the game took a total of 12-minutes. Only 1,245 people attended, paying either $1.00 for a bleacher seat or $2.50 for a general admission ticket. Rainchecks from the July 24th game were honored. The Yankees estimated that playing the game cost them $25,000.

Before the 1984 season, the Official Playing Rules Committee clarified the so called “pine tar rule” to stipulate that a violation of the 18-inch limit shall call for the bat’s removal but not for nullification of any play that results from its use.

In 2010, Major League Baseball amended the official rules with a comment on rule 1.10(c), formerly 1.10 (b), clarifying the consequences of using excessive pine tar on a bat. The comment codified the interpretation of the rule issued by McPhail in his reversal. It read:

“If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 1.10(c) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.”  The current rule is 3.02 (c). In essence, excessive pine tar on a bat is a benign violation.


There are several questions:

(1) Why didn’t the Official Playing Rules Committee pay any attention to MacPhail’s 1975 Mayberry ruling?

(2) Why didn’t MacPhail direct the Committee to include an amended rule 1.10 (b) in the 1976 Official Baseball Rules following the Mayberry decision?   

(3) Reflecting back to the Munson/Mayberry issues, why did it take nine years for the pine tar rule to be clearly stated in the Official Baseball Rules?

As a credit to MacPhail, he did not fix blame on the umpires, instead he cited the imprecision of the Official Baseball Rules. He laid the responsibility with “those of us in administrative positions in baseball, including myself.”

In summary, The Pine-Tar controversy, the cause célèbre for baseball in 1983 that continues to resonate 40 years later, exposed a dysfunctional system that primarily involved MacPhail and the Official Playing Rules Committee. Like the line in the movie Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

But despite this impaired system, one of the greatest rule controversies in the history of the game could have been avoided if a bat boy only had done his job.

Rich Marazzi

Rules consultant/analyst:  Angels, D’backs, Dodgers, Nationals, Orioles, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Red Sox, Rangers, Royals, Tigers, Twins, White Sox, Yankees, Bally Sports, YES, and NBC Sports Chicago.  

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