The book: “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy”
The author: Filip Bondy
The vital statistics: Scribner, 256 pages, $25
Find it: At Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: The book won’t come out until July – schedule for release right before the next anniversary of the incident that took place in 1983 – but this review copy has stuck by us for some time now.
Honestly, we’d been pining for a book about this subject for years.
Factually, and actually, we have a bottle of “liquid pine tar.” It came from the Brett Brothers bat company, included in an order we made to buy a new bamboo bat so we could head to the batting cages and not feel as if we were making some heavy metal music.
With the jar came a pine tar rag (which we also have, but haven’t used either).
To make it clear why this particular pine tar is special, the Bretts decided to attach a sheet to the side of the bottle to explain the “controversial ‘pine tar’ game.”
It goes like this:
“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. Moments after crossing the plate and entering the dugout, Brett saw Yankee manager Billy Martin approach home plate umpire Tim McClelland. 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 and coaches. Despite the protest of Brett and Royals manager Dick Howser, the ruling stood. The next day AL president Lee MacPhail acknowledged Brett had pine tar too high on the bat but overturned McClelland’s decision and reinstated Brett’s homer.”
If only it was that simple.
Filip Bondy, as a beat writer for the Yankees some 32 years ago and working for the Bergen Record (about to take a new job with the New York Daily News), was covering this game.
Believe it or not, he actually had time after the game’s controversial conclusion to go down to the locker room and ask some questions.
“We got a break … it was played on a Sunday afternoon,” he writes. “We didn’t need to post on the internet. We didn’t blog. We didn’t tweet. We just went back down to the clubhouses and talked with (George) Brett, with (Goose) Gossage, with (Billy) Martin – who was looking very much like the cat who had swallowed the canary.”
There was far more to it than the famous video of an enraged Brett sprinting out of the Royals’ dugout with steam coming out of his ears. And much more than all the protests, and having to replay the final four outs of the game back at Yankee Stadium some 25 days later in an exercise that took nine minutes and 41 seconds, before 1,245 curious fans.
What Bondy does is give all the subtext to these two rival teams, the cause-and-effect hatred that built over the years. So much so that the game itself isn’t worth writing about until he gets to Chapter 15.
You get to decide who’s more at fault here.
Brett knew the bat was crossing a line, whether he agreed with it or not.
The Yankees knew weeks ahead of time he’d been using that bat. It was a matter of waiting for the right time to pull the pin on the grenade.
“There may have been some cold-blooded calculation involved in the unlawful use of this bat, even if the crime was petty,” Bondy writes. “And while Brett might have known he was guilty of stretching the rules in this matter, he seemed largely unaware of the potential consequences for such misconduct.”
So the future Hall of Famer hits a go-ahead, two-run homer against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, off another future Hall of Famer, which leads to Yankees coach Don Zimmer reminding Martin, who goes out to talk to rookie umpire Tim McClellan and point out this supposed infraction.
The umps chat, and Brett is ruled.
The reason is given as Rule 1.10 (c) — which stats “in passive aggressive fashion,” according to Bondy — that any substance on the bat past 18 inches up on the bat is not good.
The rule, pushed by Minnesota Twins cheapskate owner Calvin Griffin, was done to prevent too many expensive balls from being thrown out of play because they were getting dirty.
After McClellan made his ruling, “all sanity left the building,” notes Bondy.
Brett’s tantrum lasted just two minutes and 10 seconds, but the story grew as the days went on.
We are introduced to Dean Taylor, an L.A. native from Claremont McKenna College who was the Royals assistant director of scouting development and knew the rules backwards and forwards. He realized that the umps misunderstood the rule and confused one with another, since McClellan ruled not that the bat was illegal, but Brett was guilty of an “illegally batted ball.”
This rule had come up years before, as it turned out. The Royals beat the Angels, 8-7, in a game where John Mayberry hit two home runs with a bat that Angels manager Dick Williams noted had too much pine tar up the handle. The umpires denied his request.
To our knowledge, this rule has never been enforced since the Pine Tar Bat Game, apparently cleaned up so if called into question again, there’d be no argument. As such, this incident will live on as a freak of baseball nature.
Brett’s Louisville Slugger, a 7 grain ash piece of lumber that is 34 ½ inches long and 32 ounces, remains propped up on display in Cooperstown, with plenty of sticky hydrocarbon substance still in place, but not as high as it once was beyond that red mark that Brett put on it. He had scraped the tar down and used the bat for some time after that game.
Bondy says Brett “wants someday soon to tar up the bat again to where the sticky stuff reached on July 24, 1983.”
What’s to stop him now? The rules surely say he can do it.
More to know:
== The 1998 book “Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame:The National Baseball Hall Of Fame And Museum” by John Thorn includes the Brett pine-tar bat.
== The official box score, and a description of the ninth inning, from the game on July 24, 1983, from Retrosheet.org. Here is the ninth inning play-by-play:
MUMPHREY REPLACED PINIELLA (PLAYING CF); WINFIELD CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING LF); KEMP CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING RF);
Slaught grounded out (shortstop to first);
Sheridan made an out to first;
Washington singled to center;
GOSSAGE REPLACED MURRAY (PITCHING);
Brett homered [Washington scored];
This is George Brett’s Pine Tar Home Run; when the Yankees objected to the amount of pine tar on the barrel of the bat, the umpires huddled and HP umpire Tim McClelland measured the bat against the front of HP; he pointed to the Royals bench and ruled Brett out; Brett charged out at McClelland and was restrained; Gaylord Perry tried to take the bat to the Royals clubhouse but was stopped by crew chief Joe Brinkman; the ruling that Brett was out for an illegal bat ended the game; Brett, Perry, Royals manager Dick Howser and Royals coach Rocky Colavito ejected by McClelland; the Royals protested the game and on 7/28 the ruling was reversed by AL President Lee McPhail, who ordered that the game resume from this point; the game was completed on 8/18 (an off-day for both teams), beginning at 6:05 PM; note Don Mattingly at 2B and Ron Guidry in CF upon resumption of the game Yankees pitcher George Frazier appealed at 1B and 2B that George Brett had missed the bag; Yankees manager Billy Martin came out to argue that Brett had missed a base but crew chief Dave Phillips produced a notarized letter stating that both runners had touched all the bases and both runs counted;
FRAZIER REPLACED GOSSAGE (PITCHING);
GRIFFEY REPLACED CAMPANERIS (PLAYING 1B);
WYNEGAR REPLACED MUMPHREY (PLAYING C );
MATTINGLY CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING 2B);
GUIDRY REPLACED CERONE (PLAYING CF);
McRae struck out;
2 R, 2 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Royals 5, Yankees 4.
QUISENBERRY REPLACED ARMSTRONG (PITCHING);
PRYOR REPLACED BRETT (PLAYING 3B);
WATHAN CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING 1B);
SIMPSON REPLACED AIKENS (PLAYING LF);
Mattingly flied out to center; Smalley flied out to left; GAMBLE BATTED FOR GUIDRY;
Gamble grounded out (second to first);
0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Royals 5, Yankees 4.