It was a steamy July day in New York and George Brett was on fire. He had just stroked a Goose Gossage four-seamer into the Yankee Stadium bleachers for a dramatic two out, ninth inning, home run that put the Royals up 5-4. The Yankees manager, Billy Martin, decided to protest the home run based on excessive use of pine tar on Brett’s bat. He invoked Rule 1.01(c), which stated “a bat may not be covered by such a substance more than 18 inches [46 cm] from the tip of the handle.” At the time, July 24, 1983, the rule was interpreted so that if the bat was illegal (due to excessive pine tar), the hit was an illegally batted ball and the batter was automatically out.
The first Pine Tar game
Billy Martin and the Yankees were waiting for this day. Graig Nettles, a savvy veteran, known for slick glove work and an eye for gaining his team an advantage, remembered the other Pine Tar game, in July, 1975. The Yankees were visiting the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium.
The scoring began in the first inning when Thurman Munson banged a two out single to right to score Roy White. Twins Manager, Frank Quilici, asked the home plate umpire, Art Franz, to take a look at Munson’s bat and the generous amount of pine tar inching up the barrel. Franz placed the bat on home plate to measure the 17-inch (plate width) mark on the bat and determined that Munson had violated the rule. He declared Munson out and it ended the Yankees inning with no run scoring. The Yankees manager, Bill Virdon, argued with Franz while Munson let loose on Quilici. Ultimately, the Yankees lost the game 2-1.
Curiously, the Yankees did not protest the pine tar call so the American League president, Lee McPhail, was not asked to render an interpretation. This would not be the case eight years later when he would rule against the Yankees in the more famous Pine Tar game.
A simmering George Brett watched from the Yankee Stadium visiting dugout while Billy Martin, after a tip from Graig Nettles, approached rookie umpire, Tim McClelland and the rest of the umpiring crew, Drew Coble, Joe Brinkman and rules expert, Nick Bremigan, and asked for the bat to be inspected. Coincidently, Bremigan was the first base umpire in the Yankees/Twins Pine Tar game eight years prior. Initially, McClelland wasn’t sure how to measure the pine tar, but Bremigan, knew how to measure the bat using the 17-inch width of home plate. After examining the bat, McClelland ruled Brett out thus ending the game with a Yankees’ 4-3 win.
Brett charged out of the Royals dugout in an out of control rage to confront McClelland and the rest of the umpire crew. He went after McClelland but was intercepted by Joe Brinkman, who probably saved Brett and McClelland. Brett was ejected. Meanwhile, as Brett protested, Royals pitcher, Gaylord Perry swiped the bat, passing it to teammates Hal McRae and Steve Renko, who then handed off to the bat boy who raced up the clubhouse tunnel. This effort to tamper with evidence went for naught when a team of security men confiscated the bat outside of the Royals’ clubhouse.
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The Royals, under manager Dick Houser, protested the game, contending that according to American League regulation 4.23, the use of pine tar in itself shall not be considered doctoring the bat. The protest went to American League president, Lee McPhail. McPhail recited the history of the pine tar rule which was introduced in the Official Rules by the Playing Rules Committee in 1955, with the purpose of preventing baseballs to be discolored by contact with pine tar. As McPhail recalled years later, “The clubs were losing a lot of balls because the pine tar was getting on them, and they’d have to be thrown out in batting practice and everything else.” McPhail, who had been American League president for 10 years, overruled the umpire crew and allowed the home run and the game would continue play on August 18.
McPhail directed no blame to the umpires but instead cited ambiguous Official Playing rules. George Brett’s home run was re-instated and a media feeding frenzy ensued. Lawsuits were filed, countless letters written letters to the op-ed, and relentless pine tar conversation smothered the city like the summer heat. Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner was so furious that he made disparaging public comments about McPhail that would eventually cost him $250,000 in a fine levied upon him by Baseball Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn.
When the Pine Tar game resumed play a few weeks later, Brett would watch the game while eating Italian food in a New Jersey bar nearby the airport. He was, after all, ejected. The Yankees were still angry that the game was to be replayed. Billy Martin substituted pitchers for his starting fielders; Ron Guidry played center and lefty throwing, Don Mattingly played second base.
The best I ever had.
“The guy who made the bat was named Tiny, and Tiny would always put little red stars on the bat where the knots are, where the hard parts are,” he said. “And that bat, I think, was a seven-grainer. It was a really good piece of lumber. You look at a lot of these grains now, a good bat might be 10, 11, 12, a normal bat would be 13, 14, 15 grains going through it. This bat had seven grains, which meant it was really really hard.”
The result of all of this pine tar controversy is that the pine tar rule in today’s game is basically ignored. If a bat is found to have too much pine tar on it, the bat shall be removed from the game, but it will have no effect on any play that ensues from the use of the bat.
Don’t tell that to George Brett