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Pine Tarred and Feathered?
2003-05-19 00:51
by Mike Carminati

"Prior to 1983, I was always ridiculed at ballparks about an ailment (hemorrhoids) I had during the 1980 World Series. Now, since 1983, I'm always known as the Pine Tar Guy. Now what would you rather be known as?"

- George Brett (as quoted by

Twenty years ago George Brett was robbed of a home run because of the famous Pine Tar Incident. My friend Barry brought up that game the other day and claimed that in college 15 years ago, I backed the reversal of the call and the game's being replayed. I had no recollection of the event-then again, my college career is sort of a blur-and chalked it up to a successful, apparently, attempt to annoy him.

Anyway, I told him that I would research the incident and let him know what I found. To refresh yourself with the particulars of the Pine Tar incident, here's an account of the game(s) from Baseball Almanac:

On July 24, 1983 George Brett took center stage in one of baseball's most controversial incidents which has been dubbed the Pine Tar Game. This highly unusual incident involved George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, Billy Martin of the New York Yankees, a home run in Yankee Stadium, a bat with pine tar on the handle, and the umpires' interpretation of the rules.

Rule 1.10(b) reads: 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. Umpire Tim McClelland ruled that Brett's bat had "heavy pine tar" 19 to 20 inches from the tip of the handle and lighter pine tar for another three or four inches.

The circumstances which led to the ruling occurred after Brett hit a two-out two-run homer during the ninth inning off closer Goose Gossage which gave the Royals a 5-4 lead. After crossing home plate, Brett went into his dugout, sat on the bench, and watched as Yankees' manager Billy Martin approached home plate umpire Tim McClelland. The umpiring crew conferred at home plate and measured Brett's bat up against the front side of home plate. McClelland eventually signaled that Brett was out and the infuriated thirdbaseman rushed from the bench in an attempt to attack both McClelland and Martin.

Brett was quickly ejected and Royals' manager Dick Howser argued the call, but McClelland's ruling stood and the home run was nullified resulting in a 4-3 Yankees win. The Royals protested the game and American League president Lee McPhail overruled the umpires decision and said that Brett 's home run stood and that the game was to be resumed.

Three weeks, four days, four hours, and fourteen minutes later the Pine Tar Game was resumed and the Royals won after closer Dan Quisenberry shut the door on the Yankees (part two took 12 minutes total time) to preserve a 5-4 Armstrong victory.

Here is the rule in its current configuration:
(c) The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its 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. NOTE: If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above 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.

And here is my initial assessment:

The "NOTE" was added because of Brett. But clearly the ump overstepped the limitations of the rule in calling Brett out. The rule says that the bat must be removed. It does not indicate what to do if it has been used in an at-bat.
That puts it squarely in a gray area. There is a rule that says that an umpire's judgment call is sacrosanct:
(a) Any umpire's decision which involves judgment, such as, but not limited to, whether a batted ball is fair or foul, whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, or whether a runner is safe or out, is final. No player, manager, coach or substitute shall object to any such judgment decisions.

Therefore, unless Lee McPhail felt that McClelland had disobeyed the intent of the rule--it is just meant for a bat that IS to be used, not one that has already been used--, I can't see how he could overrule the ump. I think that the ump made a bad call. How does a little pine tar plus a nebulous rule overturn a game-winning home run? But it was his decision and it apparently was a valid interpretation of the rule.
So, I agree that with what I said before: it was a bad call. But I can't see how it can be overturned. Also, the clarification takes care of future pine tar-type incidents. But what is the point of having the rule at all? As far as I know, it has never been used in a game [actually, it has]. It would have to be used before or during the at-bat, and it carries no penalty besides the loss of a bat so what's the deterrent? I will research further to find the original intent of the rule and determine if that was why the ruling was overturned.

One more thing about Brett: he was tossed after his fit of pique in the original game. When they replayed he remained in the lineup (though of course he did not bat again) and at third base. How can that be justified? He was not thrown out, from what I can tell, for using a pine tar bat but for behaving like a nut. I guess if the thinking is that they are replaying from the "bad" call, Brett is still in the game.

Well, I did a bit more research and found that the rule had been invoked on occasion for various offenses and that it was actually used in another Yankee game eight years earlier. However, this time it was against a Yankee and the decision was not reversed:

Here's basically what I would see as the final word on the matter from The Rules and Lore of Baseball. Thurman Munson was called out 8 years earlier for exactly the same reason. The decision was never overturned nor was the rule re-worded. So how could it be applied differently for Brett?
They got it wrong or someone owes Munson a posthumous RBI:

Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was the culprit in this episode. The Yankees and Twins met on the night of July 19, 1975 at Minnesota when umpire Art Frantz enforced this rule against Munson in the top of the first inning.

After Munson knocked in Sandy Alomar with a single, Minnesota manager Frank Quilici complained that the pine tar on Munson's bat exceeded 18 inches, which is in violation of the rule. The bat was checked by Frantz, and Munson was ruled out with the run being nullified. Minnesota catcher Glenn Borgmann was credited with a putout on the play.

Nick Bremigan recalls the incident vividly. "I was the ump at first that night. Munson always had a very wry sense of humor. When he returned after rounding first base, he kiddingly said to me, 'Better check the ball for blood.' He was referring to the fact that his single had been a bleeder, which indeed, it was. Munson was unaware of the situation at home plate where Quilici and Borgmann had prevailed upon Frantz, the plate umpire, to measure the pine tar on the bat. When Frantz found the bat to be illegal, he ruled Munson out.

I was aware of what was going on and casually said to Munson, 'Checking the ball would probably be irrelevant, because I think you've just been called out.'

Still unaware of the situation, Thurman retorted, 'Why? Did I hit the ball too softly?' He quickly became aware of the situation, and became very volatile. One of his major objectives each season was to get 100 RBI's.

Never being able to accept adversity calmly, Munson proceeded to vent his wrath for being deprived of an RBI-not so much at Frantz, but at Quilici and Borgmann for catching him."

The Yankees ended up losing that game 2-1 on a four-hitter by Jim Hughes. According to Retrosheet, Munson's at-bat was recorded as a play by the catcher (Glenn Borgmann) unassisted. Munson finished with 102 RBI anyway. The Yankees finished 12 games behind the Red Sox, so I guess there's no point in replaying at this point.

However, it did set a precedent that was ignored when Brett's more famous Pine Tar Incident occurred. Maybe AL president was unaware of the Munson incident. Maybe he was, but did not think the ruling was consistent with the intent of the rule. He did shore up the rule so that another incident would not occur. That's fine. However, he did create an inconsistency in the use of the rule by overturning the established interpretation basically on a whim.

Brett should have been out. The rule should have been changed to eradicate the inappropriate interpretation in the future. Thi may seem a logical inconsistency on my part, but I think that as with balls and strikes calls, the most important thing for an ump is consistency. If he calls one pitch a ball in the first inning, he should call the same pitch in the ninth a ball as well. The same goes for interpretations of rules. If Munson was out so should Brett be out. If the AL president feels that the rule as it was being applied at the time is incorrect, ammend it. But he should not re-invent a rule and retroactively apply the reinvention, unless he is prepared to do so for all like circumstances throughout baseball history (or at least since the rule's wording was established).

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