A Rage For The Ages: The Unforgettable 'Pine Tar Game'

Jul 26, 2015

A game-winning home run becomes a game loser — and 25 days later, it's turned back into the game-winner.

That alone would warrant an entry in baseball's history books.

But cast it with David and Goliath, include a temper tantrum of epic proportion, and hinge it all on an obscure old rule — and you've got the infamous Pine Tar Game.

That 1983 game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals is recounted in a new book by New York Daily News sports columnist Filip Bondy.

The Context: Rivalries And Rules

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Bondy was covering the Yankees, and he says the Royals and the Yankees actually had a bit of a rivalry. The two teams kept meeting and clashing in the playoffs, where four years out of five they faced off for a berth in the World Series.

The Yankees usually won, but the Royals were very good. Their star was a third baseman named George Brett.

"George Brett is one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. I don't think anybody could debate that," Bondy says. "[In] every traditional statistical measure, George Brett was, I think, the greatest hitter of his generation."

Brett had a favorite bat: a particularly well-made Louisville Slugger with a handle covered in pine tar. He didn't like batting gloves, so the pine tar allowed him a better grip on the bat.

But there was a catch: an old rule banned pine tar from going up more than 18 inches on the bat. Not because pine tar is advantageous, Bondy says — but because pine tar smudges were ruining baseballs, and the owners didn't like having to frequently replace them.

"The only reason it was high up on ... George Brett's bat was because Brett had a habit of massaging his bat with his hands," Bondy says. "And the pine tar just kept getting higher and higher on his bat. But it was not affecting the flight or the distance of the batted ball."

By 1983, the pine tar was well past 18 inches. But it seemed that no one had noticed.

The Pine Tar Game

On July 24, 1983, the Royals were at the end of a four-day series in New York against the Yankees. The Yankees held a one-run lead going into the ninth inning, and the Royals were up to bat.

With two outs, the Yankees gave up a single. With that, it was Brett's turn to bat.

Pitching was Goose Gossage, the Yankees' star reliever. With the crowd holding their breath, Brett fouled off the first pitch deep in to left field.

The second pitch he wouldn't miss. It was an easy home run, deep into the right field stands. A two-run homer put Kansas City up 5-4.

"So he rounds all the bases, he comes back home. The Royals are celebrating in the dugout. Brett takes his seat in the dugout. But then, stuff happened," Bondy says with a laugh.

The Yankees had been tipped off about George Brett's bat. And they'd been waiting for a moment exactly like this to play their trump.

"Suddenly, [Yankees manager] Billy Martin is out there talking with the umpires, and the next thing we see is they're measuring the bat against home plate," Bondy remembers. "And the reason they're doing it is they don't have a measuring stick, but they know that home plate is 17 inches wide, and that this bat sure looks like it's been pine tarred a lot more than that."

In the broadcast, Yankees announcers Bobby Murcer and Frank Messer, along with the crowd, explode with excitement as the umpire gives the signal that Brett is out.

And Brett explodes, too. He came tumbling out of the dugout, arms flailing and his face getting redder and redder with each step as he sprinted toward home plate.

"He's steaming mad!" Murcer says on the call.

"That is what I remember as much as anything, are the arms, flapping flapping flapping," Bondy laughs. "And then I remember the headlock that [umpire] Joe Brinkman put on him from behind. Brett was just basically spitting curses. Nobody has ever exploded like that."

A group of four Royals and the umpire Brinkman had to pull Brett backward as he yelled, brows furrowed and breathing hard.

Another Royal absconded with the bat, darting into the dugout chased by a Yankee security guard.

All the while, the crowd was cheering wildly. The Yankees appeared to have won the game 4-3. Frank Sinatra's "Theme From New York, New York" blasted victoriously over the stadium loudspeakers.

The Aftermath: A Win And Wistful Memories

The Royals protested the game to the American League office, where the league president, Lee MacPhail, upheld their protest. He reinstated the home run and ordered that the game restart from that point — the Royals up 5-4, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.

"He decided that it was [a] ridiculous rule. If the pine tar did not really affect the flight or distance of a baseball, then it shouldn't be considered an out," Bondy says. "It was only fair that that home run be a home run."

On a day off, the Royals flew to New York to finish the game. When gameplay resumed in earnest, it was over in just eight minutes. The Royals had won the Pine Tar Game, as the announcers were already calling it, by a score of 5-4.

Bondy remembers the game fondly. Today, he says, cheating in baseball has a different meaning. It means steroids, performance-enhancing drugs. Or it means the Cardinals hacking into the Astros' internal database. That, he says, makes him want to turn his TV off.

But on July 24th, 1983, he says, "the worst thing that you could do was have pine tar above the 18-inch mark."

"So we tend to smile at it, and think of it as this wacky, funny, episode in baseball history."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A game winning home run becomes a game loser - twenty-five days later, a game winner again. I’m talking about an unforgettable baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals played 32 years ago. It’s memorialized in a book called “The Pine Tar Game.” The author is Filip Bondy, who watched the game from the press box at Yankee Stadium. NPR's Becky Sullivan talked with him last week to get the full story.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the late '70s and early '80s, the Royals and the Yankees were rivals. The two teams faced off for a berth in the World Series in '76, '77, '78 and 1980. The Yankees won three of those, but the Royals were good - really good, Filip Bondy say - and their star was a third baseman named George Brett.

FILIP BONDY: Every traditional statistical measure, George Brett was, I think, the greatest hitter of his generation.

SULLIVAN: George Brett had a favorite bat - a particularly well-made Louisville Slugger. And because he liked to bat without wearing gloves, he put pine tar on the handle of his bat.

BONDY: It's sticky, ugly, messy stuff, but it does help the grip.

SULLIVAN: But there was a catch; an old rule banned pine tar from going out more than 18 inches along the bat, because pine tar kept ruining the baseballs and the owners didn't like having to pay to keep replacing them. But Bondy told me that pine tar that high on the bat has no effect on a hit.

BONDY: Absolutely not. The only reason it was high up on George Brett's bat is that Brett had a habit of massaging his bat with his hands. And the pine tar just kept getting higher and higher on his bat. But it was not affecting the flight or the distance of the batted ball.

SULLIVAN: Even though that pine tar had crept up past the 18 inch mark, no one seemed to notice until July 24, 1983, a Sunday afternoon in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY MURCER: This is a final meet in the season between the Yankees and Kansas City.

SULLIVAN: We're listening to the Yankee call by Bobby Murcer and Frank Messer. The Yankees are up one at the top of the ninth. The Royals have two outs, but they've got a man on first, and up comes George Brett, facing off with Yankees reliever Goose Gossage. The Yankee stadium crowd holds their breath. Brett fouls off the first pitch deep to left field. And the second pitch - Brett just nails it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: Uh-oh. Uh-oh. It's gone.

(APPLAUSE)

BONDY: Brett hammered it. He just hammered it over the fence in right field.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: And now the Royals have the one-run lead.

BONDY: So he rounds all the bases, he comes back home. The Royals are celebrating in the dugout. Brett takes his seat in the dugout. But then, stuff happened

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: George Brett has just homered and Billy Martin and the Yankees want the bat.

SULLIVAN: The Yankees manager, Billy Martin, had been tipped off about the bat and that pine tar stretching all the way up to the Louisville Slugger logo. And he'd been waiting for a moment just like this to use that information. So he's out there talking with the umpires, and soon they take the bat and lay it next to home plate.

BONDY: They don't have a measuring stick, but they know that home plate is 17 inches wide and that this bat sure looks like it's been pine tarred a lot more than that.

SULLIVAN: In this clip, you can hear exactly when the umpire signals that Brett is out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK MESSER: They might be going to call George Brett out. They do. He's out. (Unintelligible) look at this.

SULLIVAN: And George Brett storms out of the dugout, arms flailing, his face getting redder and redder with each step as he sprints toward home plate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: He's steaming mad.

MESSER: He is out and having to be forcibly restrained from hitting plate umpire Tim McLelland.

SULLIVAN: I re-watched it this week and it is still just a spectacle. A group of four Royals and an umpire have to pull Brett backward as he yells and yells, brows furrowed, breathing hard. Meanwhile, another one of the Royals absconds with the bat, and a Yankee security guy chases him into the locker room. And the crowd is just going nuts, because the Yankees have won. That was out number three.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: And the Yankees have won the ballgame 4 to 3.

SULLIVAN: But it wasn't over just yet. The Royals protested the game to the American League president at the time.

BONDY: He decided that it was a ridiculous rule. If the pine tar did not really affect the flight or distance of a baseball, then it shouldn't be considered an out. It was only fair that that home run be a home run.

SULLIVAN: So 25 days later, the Yankees and the Royals met up to play the rest of the game - just four more outs. It was over in eight minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURCER: The final score - the Kansas City Royals five and the New York Yankees four, I think.

SULLIVAN: Today, cheating in baseball has a different meaning, Bondy says. It means steroids, performance-enhancing drugs. It means the Cardinals hacking into the Astros' internal database. All that makes Bondy want to turn his TV off.

BONDY: This was an era when the worst thing that you could do was have pine tar above the 18-inch mark. So we tend to smile at it and to think of it as this wacky, funny episode in baseball history.

SULLIVAN: That's sportswriter Filip Bondy. His new book is called "The Pine Tar Game." Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KANSAS CITY")

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) I'm going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.