The pine tar games

The scenario is a familiar one to anybody with even a modest knowledge of baseball history. The visiting team’s best batter comes up and gets a clutch two-out hit to put his team ahead. The opposing manager then comes onto the field with a bizarre complaint: the hitter’s bat had too much pine tar on it. The home-plate umpire measures the bat against home plate and confirms the violation. Going by the rulebook, he calls the batter out, nullifying his crucial hit. The sticky-handed batter, always a little hot-headed, goes ape over the ruling, to no effect against the umpires.

You think I’m talking about George Brett and the Royals versus Billy Martin’s Yankees on July 24, 1983. Not yet, I’m not.

The infamous Pine Tar Game had a little-remembered prequel eight years earlier, on July 19, 1975. The New York Yankees were involved that time, too. And soon after this was an even less well-remembered prequel, with the Royals involved, that had a large effect on what would transpire eight years hence. With the anniversary of the first game upon us, I thought I would look back on these games and show how what happened in 1975 influenced what would happen in 1983.

History, before it repeated itself

Weirdly enough, the day of the first Pine Tar Game began the way that the more famous Pine Tar Game would end, with the completion of an interrupted game well after it had begun. The New York Yankees came to Metropolitan Stadium to play the Minnesota Twins seven days after a Twins-Yankees game in New York was suspended after 14 innings due to an AL curfew. Minnesota wasn’t visiting Shea Stadium again that season (the Bombers played there while Yankee Stadium was undergoing renovations), so the completion of the 6-6 game was moved to Minneapolis.

The 15th frame was scoreless. The Twins, batting in the top of the 16th (a novelty at home), plated a two-out run when Rod Carew was singled home by pinch-hitter Tom Lundstedt—who had been in Triple-A Tacoma when the game began. The Yankees sent in relief pitcher Tippy Martinez—who had been in Triple-A Syracuse when the game began—to notch the third out. New York then mounted its comeback. Roy White and Thurman Munson singled with one out, but Chris Chambliss’ grounder forced Munson. Graig Nettles singled White home, Lou Piniella singled Chambliss home, and the Yankees had a dramatic 8-7 win.

There would be more drama that night, and it was not long in coming.

The Yankees, back to batting first in the regularly scheduled game, made two quick outs in the first inning. Roy White, who ignited the winning rally in the previous game, singled to keep things alive. This brought up Thurman Munson.

Munson was having one of his best seasons. Entering the game, the future Yankee captain was fourth in the AL in batting average and would finish the season third. Munson was on his way to playing all but three games for New York, catching for 130 of the 157. Nobody on the team would play more.

And as always, Munson was rough, gruff, and took no nonsense. He was possibly the least likely player in baseball to respond philosophically to what happened next.

White stole second to set up the RBI opportunity, and Munson took advantage. He laced a single past second base, and White came around to give New York the early advantage. Then out came Minnesota manager Frank Quilici to take that advantage away.

Quilici notified home-plate umpire Art Frantz that Munson’s bat had too long a stretch of pine tar on the handle, thus making the hit illegal. Contemporary accounts of the rule conflict with the rule that would become famous in 1983. Newspapers in 1975 reported that the last 18 inches of the barrel of the bat had to be free of foreign substances; in 1983, the rule was that such substances were permissible only on the first 18 inches of the handle. The second version is correct. It appears The New York Times‘ game story made the initial error, and other sources took it as gospel.

Frantz had a firmer grip on the rules. Laying the bat along the 17-inch width of home plate, he determined that Munson had violated the 18-inch limit. He made the call: Munson was out, no run had scored, and the Yankees were out of the inning.

They were also out of the dugout, irate. Manager Bill Virdon and a string of Yankees came shouting at Frantz, which of course accomplished nothing. Munson directed his wrath at Quilici as well as Twins catcher Glenn Borgmann (possibly for squealing to Quilici about the pine tar). Surprisingly, he didn’t tear into Frantz, perhaps realizing that that would probably earn him an ejection. (He had only six in his career, lower than his reputation would suggest.) No Yankees got tossed, and the game eventually resumed.

New York got on the board to stay in the third, when a White grounder plated Sandy Alomar. Minnesota struck back in the sixth. Pinch-hitter Danny Thompson’s double scored Eric Soderholm and Lyman Bostock, though Borgmann was thrown out at the plate, giving Munson a slight measure of revenge.

After that, Munson may have wished he’d gotten himself heaved in the first. With the bases loaded and two out in the seventh, Munson struck out to snuff a rally. With one out in the ninth, his team still down one, and White again on base for him, Munson lined a pitch to right field. Bostock made a nifty play to snag it, though, and the Yankees’ last gasp could not produce the tying run. New York lost the game, 2-1, for want of that RBI single in the first.

It was the 15th defeat in 21 games for the Yankees, a slump that took them from a game-and-a-half ahead of the Red Sox to seven games behind. Virdon would get his Yankees to tread water at 7-7 for the next two weeks before getting the axe from owner George Steinbrenner, the first of Steinbrenner’s many managerial firings. Virdon’s successor was Billy Martin.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Lost in the brief kerfuffle over pine tar was one key fact: Virdon did not protest the game. He screamed at Frantz but didn’t make his objection official. This neglect, in light of what would happen eight years later, is shocking. Someone who could take a decision such as that one so passively was never going to last long under Steinbrenner. It’s only surprising now that it took The Boss two weeks to get around to sacking him.

This left the larger question—whether the ruling against Munson was correct—untested. It would not remain so, thanks to the power display of a certain Kansas City Royals player. That test would come, not in eight years, but in two months.

The spirit of the rule

The Twins-Yankees pine tar game brought a brief spate of copycat appeals to minor-league baseball. On July 20, the very next day, the Orlando Twins (Minnesota’s Double-A team) used the rule when Jacksonville Sun Tom Poquette singled home a run to tie the game. Poquette not only lost the hit and the RBI but was ejected for using an illegal bat. The runner was returned to second and never scored, and Jacksonville lost by that one run, 3-2.

Three days later, the Triple-A Richmond Braves tried the stratagem. When the Pawtucket Red Sox’s Kim Andrew singled in two runs, Braves manager Bob Lemon called him for excessive pine-tar use. Umpire Steve Fields, however, denied the appeal and refused even to examine the bat, saying “it wasn’t very much.” Those upheld runs were decisive in Pawtucket’s 3-2 victory. Lemon and Richmond protested to the International League but were denied. (Lemon, of course, would later succeed—and be succeeded by—Billy Martin as Yankees manager.)

On September 7, pine tar mania found its way back to the bigs. On a Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, Royals designated hitter John Mayberry swatted two home runs using a slathered bat. He wasn’t the Angels’ worst problem that day as first baseman Tony Solaita hit three, plus the go-ahead single in extra innings. Mayberry was, however, the problem California could do something about. The umpire crew refused to penalize Mayberry for his tarry bat, so the Angels took that step that Bill Virdon never did, protesting the game to AL president Lee MacPhail.

MacPhail’s first move was to examine, not Mayberry’s bat, but the rule in question. The Playing Rules Committee had added the rule in 1955, with the purpose of preventing bat contact from discoloring baseballs. As MacPhail recalled in 2003, “The clubs were losing a lot of balls because the pine tar was getting on them, and they’d have to be thrown out in batting practice and everything else.”

Clean baseballs were a valid concern. Nobody wanted a repeat of Ray Chapman’s death from a discolored, difficult-to-see baseball pitched by Carl Mays in 1920. The 1955 rule acted on that matter and apparently no other. There was no concern that pine tar would provide an unfair advantage to the batter. It would improve his grip, but the pitcher’s rosin bag does much the same thing. Not only is that permitted, but by the current rulebook at least [3.01(f)], it’s required.

It was in this spirit that MacPhail denied California’s protest. He dismissed the technical matter of how many inches of pine tar the bat had, calling instead on the original intent of the rule that didn’t touch on competitive balance. For a protest to stand, the act in question must have adversely affected the protestor’s chance of winning. MacPhail found no such adverse effect in a baseball being potentially discolored as it left the ballpark. Mayberry’s home runs, and Kansas City’s win, stood.

With that, the focus on the pine tar rule drifted away. The Rules Committee amended rule 1.10(b) the next year to specifically mention pine tar and to state that bats breaking this rule were to be removed from the game. That was virtually all the attention anybody paid the rule for years. MacPhail’s decision held as the final word—a word he would end up having to repeat.

Digression, and confession

The more casual reader may skip this section, and my pride will be a little better off if you do. For I have to admit here that my intent when I began this piece was to criticize Lee MacPhail for his inconsistency in handling the two New York pine tar games. I am lucky to have found my mistake.

I knew of the Munson game (and not the Mayberry game) and assumed MacPhail had denied a Yankees protest. This would mean that MacPhail had ruled in opposite directions on the same point of the rules, the only consistency being that the New York Yankees were the losers in both instances. I was even ready with my speculative theory on why MacPhail switched directions. Before becoming AL president, he had been general manager of the Yankees from 1967 to 1973. This means he got a short taste of the unique management style of incoming owner George Steinbrenner—right before resigning his post.

It all fits, right? So scalded was he from his brief contact with The Boss that, not only did he flee the team as soon as possible, he used his high executive position to shaft Steinbrenner coming and going, even at the cost of contradicting himself. It meshes so well with our prevailing attitudes about Steinbrenner. You don’t even need a grassy knoll.

Then I went and did the research. And I learned better.

I learned that Virdon never protested the Munson call. I learned that MacPhail made a pine-tar ruling in 1975, one wholly consistent with his 1983 decision. I learned how the alteration of rule 1.10(b) called for a punishment that did not involve nullifying hits. That shifted the ground under my feet. To paraphrase a certain politician, I am entitled to my own opinions, but not my own facts. And the facts, when I dug them out, forced a change in my opinions.

I would say this episode taught me always to double-check my facts, but I already knew that. That’s how I discovered my goof. Better to say that the lesson here is never to write your game recap on the way to the ballpark. Or if you do, be fully prepared to do a rewrite.

Deja vu all over again

And so we finally come to July 24, 1983, at Yankee Stadium. This wasn’t the first “Pine Tar Game” the major leagues would see, or the second for that matter. It wasn’t even the first such game either team was involved in. It was the first such game where the rule that would be invoked had been clarified by a previous ruling from the sitting American League president. And neither team seemed to know it.

The Yankees remembered their particular pine tar game, or at least one player did. Graig Nettles was one of three Yankees still around from the Minnesota debacle, and he liked looking for the angles. He gained infamy back in 1975—that year again—when he broke his bat on a base hit and all the Superballs packed into the barrel of the bat came bounding merrily out. This time, he thought he had the rulebook on his side.

Playing in Kansas City two weeks earlier, Nettles noticed the wide swath of pine tar on George Brett’s bat. Remembering what had happened eight years back, Nettles took his information to Martin, now in his third stint managing the Yankees. “I knew it was a stupid rule, but it was a rule,” Nettles would later say. “I told Billy about it, and he said let’s just wait and see if he gets a big hit against us.”

Not everyone got the word to be patient. Yankees catcher Rick Cerone told umpire Richie Garcia about Brett’s bat, saying Brett should be called out on any hit he made with it. Garcia soon went to the Royals dugout and warned Brett to clean up his bat, which he did. Two weeks later, though, in the return series at the Bronx, the pine tar was back, if anything longer than before. The sting was back on.

Martin did wait until Brett got a big hit, about as big as possible. With the Royals one out from defeat, Brett clouted a fastball from Yankees closer Goose Gossage into the upper deck in right, putting Kansas City ahead 5-4. Then Billy sprung the trap.

The umpire crew was actually familiar with this rule: they had handled a similar challenge in a Boston-Cleveland games two weeks before. (Jim Rice’s bat turned out to be legal.) They weren’t familiar with the 1975 ruling, apparently, but this can be forgiven. Nobody else was on that day.

Crew chief Ed Brinkman was momentarily puzzled as to how to measure Brett’s bat for pine tar, but he got help. “[Third-base umpire] Nick Bremigan was my rules man,” he would recall, “and he realized that home plate is 17 inches across. So, [plate umpire Tim] McClelland laid the bat across the plate. It was like 26 inches of pine tar.”

Bremigan certainly should have known that trick. He had been the first-base umpire in July of 1975 when Frantz measured Munson’s bat the same way.

So McClelland made his famous “out” call, and Brett made his famous charge from the dugout. It doesn’t take great perception to say Brett was not acting like a man confident of an injustice being overturned on appeal. Neither did his Royals teammates act as though they were on the side of the angels (the non-division rival kind).

As Brett’s argument raged, pitcher Gaylord Perry (whose involvement was by itself enough to trigger a presumption of guilt) snuck up and swiped the bat. The Royals formed a bucket brigade of evidence tampering, passing the bat to Hal McRae and then Steve Renko, who ran up the clubhouse tunnel with it. A combination of the umpires and Yankee Stadium security ran him to ground and reclaimed the bat.

Manager Dick Howser and the Royals did protest the game, and the matter went straight to the American League president, still Lee MacPhail. Someone in the Royals organization finally dug up the Mayberry precedent, but that became only a secondary component of Kansas City’s case. “We’re basing our protest,” said team president Joe Burke, “on the fact that … pine tar does not make a bat a doctored bat.”

Precedent was on their side, and so was MacPhail’s inclination. He had not changed his mind about the intent of rule 1.10(b) over the years. The rule itself was now slightly clearer, and in calling only for such bats to be removed implied that no greater punishment should apply, an added weight on the scales. There were also the American League Regulations, a more esoteric body of commentary and interpretation of the rules. Regulation 4.23 stated, “The use of pine tar in itself shall not be considered doctoring the bat,” exactly as Kansas City claimed.

The only remaining wrinkle was whether MacPhail would overrule his umpires. He had never done so in 10 years as league president, and was loath to do it now. On July 28, four days after the game, he overcame that scruple. He took care to fix no blame on the umpires, citing instead the imprecision of the Official Playing Rules. Responsibility for that he laid with “those of us in administrative positions in baseball, including myself.”

This conscientious assumption of personal blame, in the last sentence of his ruling, drew almost no attention in the furor surrounding his core decision. Brett’s home run, and Kansas City’s lead, were reinstated, and the game would be completed on August 18. The Yankees fulminated against MacPhail’s nebulous “spirit of the rules.” The press went into a feeding frenzy. Steinbrenner even took the matter to real court, his appeals finally shot down with the two-word ruling, “Play ball!” The resumption of the game degenerated into farce, but the outcome did not change. New York lost the Pine Tar Game by one run. Again.

In the end, though, the Yankees had nobody to blame but themselves. They could have received the benefit of MacPhail’s “spirit of the rules” eight years earlier, had they asked for it. Afterward, they assumed Frantz’s ruling was frozen in amber, unchanged by anything in the intervening years, never mind later that very season.

The Royals were in the right, but only accidentally. Brett, given a warning, kept crossing the line with his pine tar. His whole team acted in apparent ignorance of the Mayberry ruling, and Perry’s pilfering of the bat proclaimed guilty desperation as though he had bought a billboard ad. Their victory in MacPhail’s office was a ducksnort of justice, not a screaming liner. But ducksnorts count, too.

As for pine tar, the rulebook was now made explicit as to what penalties did and did not apply for its overuse on bats. That, and the place the 1983 Pine Tar Game still holds in baseball’s collective memory, made any future dispute extremely unlikely and returned this mundane substance to a quiet, uncontroversial place in baseball.

Well, except for Kenny Rogers in the 2006 World Series. But that is another story.

Last-minute addendum: And just as I’m finishing this up, who should come along to get it all started again but Ozzie Guillen and Bryce Harper? Last Sunday’s Nationals-Marlins game included some classic Ozzie outbursts over pine tar on Harper’s bat. And catch this excerpt from a Washington Post article on the fray:

“Baseball’s rules prohibit pine tar from being spread above the label. The goo creates more friction and spin when the bat meets the ball, which allows the ball to travel further.”

Just when you think it’s all sorted out …

P.S. Bryce, that’s twice now you’ve popped up in my articles. I would start charging you rent, except you already seem to be living rent-free in Ozzie Guillen’s head. (Of course, it’s probably crowded in there.)

References & Resources
The Sporting News
The New York Times
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Wire service reports from Gannett and the Associated Press
Baseball Digest
Cecilia Tan, The 50 Greatest Yankee Games
Bruce Weber, As They See ‘Em

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Alan Nathan
11 years ago

“Baseball’s rules prohibit pine tar from being spread above the label. The goo creates more friction and spin when the bat meets the ball, which allows the ball to travel further.”

The essential assumption of the above argument is that with increased friction, the batter is able to put more backspin on the batted ball.  For a ball hit at not-too-high a vertical launch angle, more backspin keeps the ball in the air longer so that the ball travels farther.

But is the assumption consistent with experimental data?  The answer is:  No, it is not.  The data (and I’ve done these experiments myself) show that for balls hit at a not-too-large vertical launch angle (say, <40 deg), additional friction between the ball and bat does not lead to more backspin and therefore does not lead to longer fly balls.  The kind of batted balls that would be affected by the additional friction from the pine tar are those from very oblique ball-bat collisions that usually result in foul balls.  For such oblique collisions, the ball slides along the surface of the bat, creating the “smoke” that Ted Williams asked Mark McGuire about at the 1999 All-Star Game.  With pine tar on the bat, there is less sliding, less smoke, and higher likelihood of the ball being in play rather than foul.

I remember it well
11 years ago

Thanks!  Nice to know a lot more of the background.  I remember wanting the Royals to lose, simply because of the on-field events.  This plus reading Creamers book on 1941, including Lee MacPhail, makes me think that he was a great deal for baseball.

11 years ago

The intent of the rule was to keep players from putting that much pine tar on the bat by punishing them for doing so. It doesn’t matter why they didn’t want the pine tar or what effect the pine tar had or didn’t have. Don’t do X or you’ll get penalty Y. That’s what a rule is.

And Dr. Nathan (above) also had a nice paper on the trampoline effect and how a corked bat has no measurable effect on it. But we enforce that rule.

My final nitpicking complaint : the correct word is “farther”.

Shane Tourtellotte
11 years ago

Hopbitters:  That’s a fair and arguable position.  That was certainly my position before I did my groundwork for this article.  It might still be the right position.  But Lee MacPhail found a reason to rule otherwise in 1975, and he stuck by that ruling in 1983.  As we say with umpires sometimes, he might not have been right, but he was consistent. (Not that having both isn’t better.)

And you’re correct:  it should be “farther.”  Of course, I was quoting the Washington Post’s article directly, so it is no skin off my nose.