The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy

The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy

by Filip Bondy


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476777184
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 330,395
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.37(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Filip Bondy has been a sports columnist for the Daily News (New York) for more than twenty years, regularly covering the Olympics, World Cup, and Wimbledon. Before that, he was an Olympics writer for The New York Times. Some of Bondy’s previous books include a look at the watershed NBA draft (Tip Off) and a lighthearted view of the worst players in Major League Baseball history (Who’s on Worst?).

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The Pine Tar Game


The story begins, as all the best ones do, with a bat and a ball. The tale is layered with rules, with politics, with tantrums, with a David and Goliath rivalry, with judicial procedures, with Roy Cohn working for one side and Rush Limbaugh for the other, with deep, lasting friendships and with strong, quirky ballpark personalities. But the saga of the Pine Tar Game centers on a Hillerich & Bradsby model T (for Marv Throneberry)–85 Louisville Slugger, 341/2 inches long, 32 ounces in weight. Some players, as Pete Rose once did, constantly fiddle with bats during their careers, changing models, lengths, and weights as often as they do their socks. They create hybrid models, mutants. Others, like Derek Jeter, retain the same design and weight for every game they play. Jeter swung the P‐72 Louisville Slugger for 20 years with the Yankees. The T‐85 was George Brett’s model and the pine tar bat was his favorite T‐85, ever. The bat now rests inside a glass display case in Cooperstown. Some of the pine tar has been scraped off, or worn off. Look closely and you’ll see a red line where that nasty stuff once rose to a level deemed sinful by the umpires, until it wasn’t.

The bat was a small botanical miracle, just seven grains of ash. “You look at these grains now, maybe, a good bat might be a 10-, 11-, 12-grainer, a normal bat would be 13, 14, 15 grains going through it,” George Brett says. “But this one had seven, which meant it was really, really hard.” Brett had a contact at Hillerich & Bradsby, a fellow he knew only as Tiny. Tiny would look out for the Kansas City Royals’ third baseman, search the lumber for the very best stock. He manufactured this bat for Brett, and then Tiny marked red stars on top of the knots, which highlighted the hardest parts of the wood. This Louisville Slugger would not snap or splinter easily, not like those maple toothpicks that shatter today at the first sight of a cut fastball.

In 1983, almost all the bats were still Louisville Sluggers, made from ash trees. Since then, an epidemic of emerald ash borers—an Asian beetle invasion—has hurt the stock. Besides, a lot of ballplayers simply decided they preferred maple, which is a heavier, harder, smoother wood with thinner grains; or even birch wood, a compromise material. Nathan Stalvey, curator at the Louisville Slugger factory and museum, estimates that the percent of ash bats used in the major leagues has dipped in the past few decades from about 95 percent to 40 percent. Hillerich & Bradsby’s share of the market has also slipped substantially, because of globalization and player endorsements. The Louisville company that once held a monopoly on bats must now share the market with 32 other manufacturers, including Rawlings, Mizuno, Old Hickory, Trinity, and Chandler. Only about 30 percent of the bats in major league games are now produced by Hillerich & Bradsby. Brett kept his own precious bat unvarnished, raw. “I just liked the way it felt, liked the way it looked,” he says. “Plain, tempered, raw ash, that came out real white.” But plain only went so far. He kept applying more of a sticky hydrocarbon substance, made from the stumps of pine trees, for a better grip. He was one of the few players then or now who never wore batting gloves, preferring bare hands on raw bat. Brett was also one of only a few hitters to use so much pine tar. Great batters like Pete Rose and Ted Williams preferred their bats much tidier. Both would douse their bats daily in wood alcohol. Brett was a bat slob, and is the first to admit it. “What happens in my case is the pine tar gets in the grain and starts growing inside,” Brett says. “It’s not just caked on the bat, it’s kind of growing inside the grain. As a result of using a bat for three or four weeks and putting pine tar on three, four times a day, it’s gonna get pretty ugly. And the bat was pretty ugly. But it was still working.”

It was working very well on Sunday, July 24, 1983, the finale of a tight, four-game series in the Bronx. The Yanks had taken two of the first three games and were within spitting distance of winning the fourth when Brett knocked a ripping fastball from Goose Gossage over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium. The home run arrived with two outs and one runner on base in the ninth inning, the Yanks up, 4–3, and with the best reliever in baseball about to close out a save against the pesky, small-market rivals. Suddenly, the Royals were ahead, 5–4. And then, just as suddenly, they weren’t, which is when the story of the baseball itself comes into play.

This was a different time, and the economics of Major League Baseball were considerably more modest. While George Steinbrenner was relatively extravagant in all eras, he was still spending only $13 million total on his player payroll in 1983, about $40 million in 2015 dollars. The Yankees are now forever flirting with a $200–$225 million payroll, more than five times as great, not always with wonderful results. Brett, a veteran superstar, was earning $1 million with the Royals. At this juncture, it was still possible for a merely wealthy man to own a baseball team. He didn’t have to be a billionaire or a conglomerate. One such owner, a famous miser, was Calvin Griffith, who took over the Washington Senators in 1955, moved them to Minnesota in 1961 as the Twins, and held on to the reins until 1984. Griffith was a cantankerous man, who unfortunately remains best known for explaining in 1978 why he relocated his team to Minneapolis: “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” the Canadian-born owner told a local Lions Club. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.” The poor Lions at the meeting left the place understandably disturbed. One businessman told a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, “I can see why he has trouble with some of his players after listening to him talk.”

Again, this was a different time, and such ignorant speech did not disqualify Griffith from owning the Twins, or even earn him a suspension. Over the years, Griffith became thoroughly annoyed at the costs of running a franchise and began to micromanage his team’s budget in much the same way as Charlie Finley with the A’s. Among his pet peeves was that the Twins were exhausting more than their designated allotment of baseballs in games, replacing dirty ones with fresh ones too often. By today’s standards, the baseballs then were being mightily overused, because now they are directly tossed into the dugout at a pitcher’s discretion, or whenever they so much as touch the dirt. Not so long ago, a pitcher dissatisfied with a seam or the slickness of a baseball would have to relay it for inspection to the umpire, who might reject the plea and throw the old ball right back into play. Griffith began to look into the causes of soiled baseballs and discovered that many were stained by contact with dirt on bats. In particular, contact with that sticky, contagious black pine tar. As Lee MacPhail, president of the American League, confirmed 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.” If only pine tar were white, like the accessible rosin bags that pitchers use before gripping the baseball, this would never have become an issue. Rosin was just fine for pitchers, even encouraged. Pine tar was a different story—as starter Michael Pineda of the Yankees discovered in April 2014, when he was caught with a strip of the dark substance on his neck and tossed from a game against the Red Sox in Boston.

Back in 1976, Griffith retained considerable influence with the rules committee and, aided by other skinflint owners, was able to push through Rule 1.10 (c), which stated, in passive-aggressive fashion, “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, including pine tar, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, in the umpire’s judgment, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game. No such material shall improve the reaction or distance factor of the bat.”

The issue was complicated, however, and interpretations murky. There were two related rules that possibly could render a ball struck by an illegal bat an illegal hit. Or not. There were gray areas, and contradictory precedents. The pine tar rule actually had some organic roots in the Big Bang beginnings of baseball. The origins of the decree, and that 18-inch mark, can be traced all the way back to 1885. According to baseball historian John Thorn, a rule was then put into place stating, “The handle of the bat may be wound with twine not to exceed 18 inches from the end.” The next year, 1886, another statute was added to deal with such gritty stuff as rosin and dirt: “A granulated substance may be applied to the bat handle not to exceed 18 inches from the end.” In 1893, this same rule was modified a bit, into, “The bat must be made wholly of hard wood except that the handle may be wound with twine, or a granulated substance applied, not to exceed 18 inches from the end.”

This was then refined, yet again: “The bat shall be round, not over 23/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part, not more than 42 inches in length, and entirely of hard, solid wood in one piece. Twine may be wound around it or a granulated substance applied to it, for a distance of 18 inches from the end of the handle, but not elsewhere.”

For decades, that sufficed. The 18-inch margin never changed. There was no denying, however, that baseballs were getting dirtier faster, and concern had grown in the sport about discolored, hard-to-spot baseballs ever since Ray Chapman was killed by a soil-camouflaged fastball from Carl Mays in 1920. Some batters used a combination of rosin and pine tar for a better grip. Others, most famously Stan Musial, would apply beeswax to the handle. When it became fashionable during the 1950s to wrap the handle of bats with adhesive tape (every kid’s sandlot bat in that era was swathed in black tape), the Playing Rules Committee enacted more specific modifications in 1954: “The bat shall be a smooth, rounded stick not more than 23/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood or formed from a block of wood consisting of two or more pieces of wood bonded together with an adhesive in such a way that the grain direction of all pieces is essentially parallel to the length of the bat. Any such laminated bat shall contain only wood or adhesive, except for a clear finish. For a distance of 18 inches from the end by which the bat is gripped, it may be roughened or wrapped with tape or twine.”

Ergo, the origin of it all, the primordial ooze that begat one of the most absurd, most entertaining baseball games in major league history. Or maybe it was two games, depending on how you look at it.

• • •

No sporting event is played exclusively outside some degree of social context. The year 1983 was a particularly apprehensive time in New York City, fraught with fears over the spread of a relatively new plague, AIDS. By the end of the year, more than 850 New Yorkers were known to have died from the disease, which was still not understood at all. Could it be spread by close contact in large crowds? By public toilet seats at ballparks? Mayor Ed Koch, serving the sixth year of his 12-year term, seemed curiously uninterested in the growing epidemic. The administration had spent a grand total of $24,500 on the subject. Two New York gays, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, published a book, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, considered somewhat reckless at this stage by many doctors.

In Kansas City, the impact of this disease was yet to be felt in full. Instead, the city was immersed in a fiscal battle with its Missouri neighbors over school busing and desegregation, hoping to end a pattern of white flight to the suburbs by creating an attractive magnet system within its borders. The battle was eventually lost and cost a small fortune. Kansas City was also fighting a more stereotypical, outsider’s view of the place that it was good for ribs, barbecue sauce, and little else. There was a lot of bad news to deal with in the early eighties, the worst of which was the walkway collapse at the Hyatt Regency on July 17, 1981, which killed 114 people and injured 200 more. That tragedy became something of a symbol for the crumbling infrastructure of the inner city. So these were not easy times for either metropolis, but the cities’ baseball teams could always supply some small relief. This game on July 24, 1983, would provide the sort of escapist fun and debate badly required by all. It would also sell newspapers, never a bad thing at any time.

• • •

I was there in the press box at Yankee Stadium when it happened, when Brett went nuts. Honest. I got one of those “I Covered the Pine Tar Game” T‐shirts handed out to the Yankee beat writers by the team’s playful public relations director, Ken Nigro—though I don’t for the life of me know what happened to that precious relic. My wife probably threw it out, as she does many other things, which is her only bad habit. At the time, I was the beat writer for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, and about to accept a job with the New York Daily News sports department for more money to support a young family. This was a big career transition for me, and when researching this book it became a bit of an inconvenience. To read my coverage of the game, and my take on Lee MacPhail’s surprising decision to replay the final inning, I went through a reel of microfiche in Hackensack’s Johnson Library for old Record articles. But to retrieve my stories on the court proceedings and the actual replay that followed, I needed to pester helpful Daily News library researchers for copies of the yellowed clippings.

Those articles told of a very different era, of course. The relationship between the media and the baseball teams in New York was just beginning to turn adversarial. I recall being on the road with the Yankees in 1983, having a beer with Mike McAlary of the New York Post and Bill “Killer” Kane, traveling secretary for the club. Kane was lamenting how we all used to be partners in this business, and how the reporters had changed that with their intrusive, negative coverage. There was no going back, however. The Yankee Stadium press box then was the center of the sports universe—the communications nexus between George Steinbrenner and the public that he so desperately wished to convince about one ridiculous matter or another. Reporters like Murray Chass and Joe Durso of the New York Times, McAlary and Henry Hecht of the New York Post, Bill Madden and Phil Pepe of the Daily News, and Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger would spend great lengths of time in the locker room named after longtime equipment manager Pete Sheehy. They would chat with players and listen to Billy Martin rant in his office about some slight perpetrated upon him by an umpire or imagined enemy. On his better days, Martin would share some of his tactical insight, his genius, and make us remember why anybody bothered to put up with him. Having completed this pregame ritual, we would carry our clunky, primitive computers from the basement press room to the elevator in the Bronx, then walk along the concourse to the press box for a perfect view of a renovated, yet somehow ageless, ballpark.

Telephones were everywhere, and dictated our lives. Martin had a telephone on his desk that was a hot line from the owner. When it rang, he often smirked and ignored the call. We didn’t have that option. Each media outlet had one or two phones in the press box. If these devices rang, the call was either from an editor demanding to know what was happening or it was from a Steinbrenner operative, hand-delivering a scoop to the favored journalist du jour, who was summoned to the big man’s office. The Boss was a manipulative son of a gun. If he planted a story, he expected favorable press in return. Negative stories about the owner were punished quickly enough by a news blackout, or a leak to a rival reporter. When it was time to file our stories, we needed those phones again. Our computers—our machines, as we called them—could only relay copy back to the office through couplers that needed to fit snugly over receivers.

Deadlines for the three or four editions of each newspaper were tight, chaotic for night games. We got a break with the Pine Tar Game, though. It was played on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that we had plenty of time to figure out what was going on out there, to interview all the players and reread the rule book before filing. We didn’t need to post on the internet. We didn’t blog. We didn’t tweet. We just went back down to the clubhouses and talked with Brett, with Gossage, with Martin—who was looking very much like the cat who had swallowed the canary.

Reading about the Pine Tar Game once more in these clips, it became clear all over again: When umpire Tim McClelland laid Brett’s bat down on the ground to measure it against the width of the plate, this was a special moment, the sweet collision of chaos and structure in sport. Nothing could ever again be as much fun.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Aristocrats and Vandals 9

2 The Renaissance 15

3 The Entrepreneur and the Lady 25

4 The Magnificent Robber Barons 33

5 All the Boss's Men 41

6 A Different Kind of Rivalry 49

7 The Fan 61

8 The Screw Turns 67

9 One Last Kick in the Pants 77

10 The Employee 85

11 Can't Lose 'Em All 91

12 Big Apple Circus 99

13 When the Royals Were Not So Royal 107

14 The Talent and the Temper 115

15 The Game 127

16 The Ninth 137

17 The Rules Nerd 155

18 In the Spirit of the Rules 165

19 The Boss Is Burning 175

20 The Resumption 185

21 Post-Pine-Tar Depression 191

22 To the Victors… 201

23 Different Kind of Rivalry 209

24 All Is (Almost) Forgiven 221

Acknowledgments 227

Bibliography 229

Index 233

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The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Baseball fans will not forget that day. Probably never will see something like that again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago