Let's Talk Pine Tar

Yankee Stadium

Old Yankee Stadium, site of the Pine Tar Home Run

Recently at Kauffman Stadium the Kansas City Royals hosted “Pine Tar Night” as a promotion for one of their games. It’s safe to say that at least half the stadium probably wasn’t even alive for the Pine Tar Home Run or at least weren’t old enough to remember it when it happened. Occurring against the New York Yankees, it is probably one of the most legendary episodes in Kansas City sports history.

After four dramatic AL pennant showdowns in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Royals and Yankees were deep into a heated rivalry. On June 24th, 1983 they met in Yankee Stadium for a regular season game. Down 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Royals third baseman and future Hall of Famer George Brett hit a two-run homer to seemingly take a 5-4 lead. After rounding the bases he went into the dugout. Unfortunately Billy Martin, the Yankees manager, had picked up Brett’s bat and was showing it to the umpires.

George Brett was unusual among modern ballplayers in that he did not wear batting gloves at the plate. Brett, like many players before him, used a dark sticky resin called pine tar on the handle of his bat to give him better grip. A baseball fired from the pitcher’s mound to home plate at over 90 mph can be very hard to see; as such it became illegal in the early 20th century to do anything to darken, scuff, or otherwise change the appearance of the baseball. In addition, foreign substances can make the ball behave erratically, and these are also illegal. Any ball that has been marked or damaged is required to be replaced, which can be expensive. To avoid accidental contamination, an ancient rule was that pine tar on a bat was not allowed to exceed 17 inches from the bottom, which incidentally is the width of home plate. The rule states that any bat with pine tar exceeding this limit “is to be removed from the game”.

Earlier in the season, wily Yankees manager Billy Martin had noticed Brett’s pine tar far exceeded 17 inches, but had decided not to say anything until Brett had caused the Yankees some damage. The two-run homer that gave Kansas City a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth was the perfect opportunity and he sprang into action, grabbing the bat and showing it to the umpires.

For several minutes Brett and the rest of the Royals watched curiously as the umpires inspected the bat and then measured it against home plate. Finally they motioned to Brett in the dugout and indicated he was out, ending the game with a 4-3 Yankees victory.

In a sudden, fantastic rage that would immediately become iconic, Brett tore out of the dugout after the umpires, seemingly intent on tearing them limb from limb. He was just barely restrained in time, his own teammates and manager trying to contain his temper tantrum-fueled state while simultaneously screaming at the umpires themselves. Brett would later say he couldn’t remember the actual tantrum, consistent with a person who has temporarily lost their mind.

In the near-brawl that followed, crafty Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry slipped the bat to the Royals batboy and sent him into the clubhouse to remove the evidence. Yankees manager Billy Martin saw him and sent Yankees security after him. As one of the TV commentators later remarked, “Brett has become the first player in Major League history to hit a game-losing home run.”

The Pine Tar home run has since often been held up as an example of the conflict between adhering fanatically to the letter of the law (and an ancient, outdated one at that) and the spirit of the game. In Brett’s case, his extra pine tar did not help him achieve an illegal advantage at the plate.

I will go one further and touch on a more complicated nuance that is rarely brought up when the Pine Tar controversy is discussed. The specific rule concerning pine tar simply states that if the bat has too much pine tar, “it is to be removed from the game”. Nothing is mentioned about a player being out. Therefore, even if one is inclined to a strict interpretation of the rule, the next course of action would seem to be to simply remove the bat from the game. The home run would still count, the Royals would have a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth, and if Brett came up to the plate again, he would have to use a different bat.

However, the umpires defined the home run as an illegally batted ball, which is an explicit out, resulting in their ruling and the subsequent tirade by Brett.

After the game the Royals immediately filed an appeal with the American League. AL President Lee MacPhail overruled the umpires under the premise that Brett’s use of pine tar was not an attempt to obtain an unfair advantage, nor against the spirit of the rules. The game would be resumed when possible with two outs at the top of the ninth, 5-4 Royals. Brett, Perry, and Royals manager Dick Howser were all officially ejected for their role in the subsequent outburst.

The game was eventually resumed on August 18th, but not before Yankees lawsuits, an injunction to delay the game by a New York Supreme Court justice, and a subsequent overturning by a second New York Supreme Court justice.

Only 1,200 showed up for the final outs to be played in front of a different set of umpires than the original game. Yankees manager Billy Martin protested every possible way he could think of to show what a farce he considered the ruling. He started left-hander Don Mattingly at second base, a cardinal sin in baseball. This remains the last time in Major League history a left-hander has played second. More importantly, Martin began the action by having the Yankees throw to first, claiming Brett hadn’t touched the base and the home run was invalid. The nonexistent Brett was ruled safe. The ball was then thrown to second, with the same results. Martin stormed out onto the field to protest, but the umpires were ready, with a signed affidavit from the original crew that all bases had been touched.

Martin’s attempts to wreck the game exhausted, he stormed into the clubhouse and watched TV. The Royals eventually won the game 5-4, the Pine Tar incident passed forever into baseball lore, and Brett and his infamous bat would eventually make their way to Cooperstown.


Picture Credit: Fotopedia

2 thoughts on “Let's Talk Pine Tar

  1. Nice write-up. I remember that game. One of the funniest things about the whole incident is that the new umpire crew had a signed affidavit from the original crew that Brett had touched all the bases (as you pointed out)in the original play. Everyone knew Billy would pull every stunt he could think of. The guy was quite a piece of work. Funny how they nullified the home run instead of just removing the bat as the rules state. But then, that would not have made such a great story. One for the ages.

  2. Terry, I wasn’t old enough to remember it, but I’ve seen it and read about it so many times I can describe the whole thing from memory. The Pine Tar home run would have been fun and interesting anyway, but with guys like Brett, Martin, and Perry involved it really makes it legendary.

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