Baseball is wacky. It’s a sport full of characters and storylines, oddballs and unlikely heroes. On July 24, 1983, that wacky sport saw one of its strangest moments, a game in which the outcome came down not to a pitcher or a hitter, but the bat itself.
It was the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium in New York City, with the visiting Royals trailing the hometown Yankees 4-3. With two outs and a runner on first base, legendary Kansas City third baseman George Brett came to the plate, facing another legend in New York closer Rich “Goose” Gossage. In a clash between two future Hall of Famers, Brett was the victor, crushing a two-run home run that would give the Royals a 5-4 lead.
However, Yankees manager Billy Martin had a well-timed trick up his sleeve. He approached home plate umpire Tim McClelland, then in his first season, and asked to inspect Brett’s bat. McClelland and the umpiring crew used home plate as a measuring stick and determined that the amount of pine tar on the bat violated Major League rules. Specifically, rule 1.10(c) states that pine tar cannot extend more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle. As home plate is 17 inches wide, and the amount of pine tar extended well beyond the edge of the plate, the umpires ruled that Brett had hit an illegally batted ball and called him out, ending the game as a 4-3 Yankees victory.
Brett was understandable furious, and manager Dick Howser had to physically hold him back from assaulting McClelland. Nevertheless, the umpires’ ruling stood.
That, however, wasn’t the end of the Pine Tar Incident. The Royals appealed the ruling to American League President Lee MacPhail, who, in principle, agreed that Brett had hit an illegally batted ball. The bat ought to have been removed from the game, and since Brett had hit the ball with an illegal bat, he would have been called out per Rule 6.06.
However, MacPhail ultimately sided with the Royals by looking to the intent of the rule. The rationale for limiting pine tar, he argued, was not to stop batters from gaining an unfair advantage, but rather to stop the ball from becoming discolored and thus forcing the home team to spend more money on replacements. George Brett’s use of too much pine tar, while technically against the rules, had no impact on the home run, as the bat had not been altered to improve the distance factor.
Thus, the home run stood, and the game would be resumed nearly a month later, on August 18, beginning immediately after Brett’s home run. Yankees manager Martin, faced with some tough strategic decisions – his center fielder had since been traded to Houston – gave a symbolic protest by putting pitcher Ron Guidry in center field. He also played first baseman Don Mattingly at second base, making him the last left-handed thrower to play at the keystone in the major leagues.
The Royals would go on to win the game, and Brett’s bat made it all the way to the Hall of Fame, a fitting end to one of baseball’s most memorable stories.