Today is the anniversary of the infamous Pine Tar Game

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The Pine Tar Game.

If you’re young, that term may put you in mind of some pitcher like, say, Michael Pineda, putting it on his fingers in order to doctor pitches. If you’re of a certain age, however, that phrase instantly puts an image of Hall of Famer George Brett losing his dang mind. That mind-losing happened on July 24, 1983, thirty-seven years ago today.

On that day the Kansas City Royals were playing the New York Yankees in the Bronx. Kansas City was down 4-3 with one man on and two men out in the ninth inning. Yankees manager Billy Martin called on the intimidating Goose Gossage to face Brett. Brett was not intimidated. He came to the plate and deposited a two-run home run into the right field stands, putting the Royals ahead 5-4.

Or so it seemed. Normally, by the time Brett crossed home plate, the bat boy would’ve taken his bat away and placed it in the bin in the dugout. The batboy working for the Royals that day, however — a teenager named Merritt Riley — was a big Brett fan and he wanted to greet Brett at home plate with a high five. In doing so he left the bat laying there. Yankees catcher Rick Cerone looked at it. Then he kicked toward the Yankees dugout. Then it was handed to Martin. Then all hell broke loose.

At the time baseball Rule 1.10(c) specified that pine tar, which hitters use to get a better grip on the bat handle, could not go farther up the bat than 18 inches. The purpose of the rule was not because it gave batters an unfair advantage. Rather, it was a cost savings measure: if the pine tar was up on part of the bat most likely to come into contact with the ball, more balls would have to be removed more quickly due to blemishes. If you violated this rule you weren’t necessarily out or ejected or anything, but if you hit a ball with such a bat it was, historically, ruled an “illegally hit ball” under Rule 6.06, and then the batter was out. That distinction would come to matter later.

In the moment, Martin eyeballed Brett’s bat. He suspected that it had too much pine tar on it. He took the bat out onto the field and told home plate umpire Tim McLelland what he was thinking. The umpires huddled for what seemed like forever. Then, using the 17-inch home plate as an impromptu ruler, McClelland determined that Brett’s bat had pine tar too far up the handle. McClelland called Brett out, taking the two Royals runs off the board and giving the game to the Yankees.

Brett, as you’ll see at the 2:38 mark, took the call something less-than-well:

 

To this day I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ballplayer rage that much at a call. Which is sort of weird because given the two minutes between the homer and the out call, everyone sort of knew what was going on, right? The announcers in the video diagnose the issue immediately and, based solely on what the umps were looking at, Brett had to know that there was at least a possibility that they’d call him out, even if he didn’t think he deserved it. I feel like, in those two minutes, part of his brain had to at least be warning him of the possibility. So, when it actually happened, you would think that, rather than shock and anger, he’d have something a bit more measured prepared. Then again, I’m not a ballplayer, so what do I know? All I know is that Brett blew a dang fuse. But it was to no avail: Brett was out and the Yankees won 4-3.

But then the Royals protested the Pine Tar Game. And it was well taken, with American League president Lee MacPhail noting that the spirit of the rule was cost savings, not unfair advantage, and that, in the event, no unfair advantage was conferred. In this MacPhail was following a ruling he had made eight years earlier when he upheld the umpires’ decision to not call John Mayberry — also of the Royals — out after he hit a home run with an excessively pine-tarred bat. In 2010 Major League Baseball would officially codify that interpretation in the pine tar rule. Now you, officially, simply have to get a different bat.

With precedent controlling, MacPhail restored Brett’s home run and ordered the Pine Tar Game resumed with two outs in the top of the ninth inning and the Royals leading 5–4. He did, however, eject Brett for his outburst at the umps. He also ejected Royals manager Dick Howser and Royals coach Rocky Colavito for arguing with the umpires. Oh, and he ejected Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry — a master of foreign substances in his own right — for giving taking the bat during the argument and giving it back to that bat boy to hide it in the clubhouse in case anyone tried to impound it to send to the league office.

The game — after the Yankees attempted to stall it and some fans attempted to sue over it — was resumed 25 days later. Billy Martin, angry that it was being played, messed around a bit, putting pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and first baseman Don Mattingly at second base. Which was the first time a left-hander had played second base in like 20 years at that point and, unless I’m missing someone, is the last time a left-hander played second in a big league game.

As it was, the Royals only sent one more batter to the plate in the resumed top of the ninth, with Hal McRae striking out. The Yankees then went down in order in the bottom half, giving the Royals a 5-4 victory in the infamous Pine Tar Game. The Royals, who had flown into New York specifically to resume the game, then went right back to the airport and flew on to their next series in Baltimore. Brett did not attend the game in Yankee Stadium. He stayed at the Newark airport and played cards and then greeted his teammates back on the charter.

Later Brett would sell the bat to a collector for $25,000, think better of it, buy it back, and then donate it to the Hall of Fame. Brett would join the bat in Cooperstown in 1999.

Happy 37th birthday, Pine Tar Game