The Pine Tar Game Finally Ends

August 18, 1983


On August 18, 1983, the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees met at Yankee Stadium to play the last four outs of a game that had already begun and ended on July 24th. That time, it was the Yankees who had emerged victorious, thanks to umpire Tim McClelland’s nullification of George Brett‘s ninth-inning homer. But the Royals successfully appealed, overturning the umpires — and, in the rematch, the Yankees.

It was a wild finish in the first game. The Yankees led 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth when former MVP George Brett drove a high heater from Goose Gossage into the stands to take the lead. Or so he thought. As the Royals rejoiced and the Yankees moped, Billy Martin emerged from the Yankees dugout.

Baseball’s Rule 1.10(b) states that “the bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.”

Martin was aware for some time that Brett’s bat, slathered with pine tar, violated the rules. But the wily Yankee skipper waited until the best possible moment to bring this to the attention of the umpires. “We’d seen it earlier,” Don Zimmer (who coached third base at the time) remembered. “But you don’t say anything when the guy doesn’t get a hit.” Martin began explaining the violation to McClelland, who — after holding the bat across home plate to see if Brett had hit the ball with the pine-tarred area of it — called Brett out. The Yankees had won, 4-3.

Brett was furious. His eyes bulging, he came charging out of the Royals’ dugout and went straight for McClelland. As his teammates and umpire Joe Brinkman tried to restrain him, Brett hurled obscenities at anyone and everyone. For the first time in his career, Brett had hit a game-losing home run.

Pandemonium broke out as the Royals’ Gaylord Perry grabbed the bat and headed for the clubhouse, only to be stopped by stadium security and summarily ejected. So were Brett, Royals manager Dick Howser and coach Rocky Colavito. Everyone at Yankee Stadium was stunned. Confused fans were booing and cheering at the same time, and even the Yankees’ TV announcers were so shocked by the call that they wouldn’t accept that the game was over. In fact, they said that they were only giving the final score out of respect for their network.

The brouhaha continued after the game, as the Royals immediately filed a protest with the American League. Within a week, AL president Lee MacPhail decided to uphold the protest, ruling that Brett’s bat did not violate “the spirit of the rules.” The decision restored Brett’s home run, prompting Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to snarl, “I wouldn’t want to be Lee MacPhail living in New York.”

The Yankees announced they would charge regular admission for the continuation of the game on August 18, and although they quietly changed that policy only twelve hundred fans showed up. Brett wasn’t there — his ejection from the game stood. Howser and Colavito stayed in the clubhouse. The Yankees’ third hitter scheduled in the ninth was Jerry Mumphrey, a center fielder who had since been traded to the Houston Astros.

It was a bizarre scene. Yankees ace pitcher Ron Guidry was in center field, filling in for the departed Mumphrey. And before Yankees’ pitcher George Frazier even threw a pitch, Martin appealed at both first and second base, charging that Brett had missed one or both of the bags during his home-run trot. His appeal was denied by the umpires, who pointed to a notarized letter from the original umpires attesting to the legality of Brett’s jog.

Hal McRae, who had been in the on-deck circle during Brett’s homer, had pledged to hit one over the fence himself. “I didn’t come all the way here, some 2,000 miles for just a single,” he explained. “That would be like going all that way for a kiss.” But he struck out, and Dan Quisenberry finished off the Yankees in the ninth. The Royals had won, 5-4.

For the record, the rule book now notes: “If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above [the pine-tar rule] until a time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.”

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