Rule 1.10(c) states that a batter cannot extend their pine tar on their bat more than 18 inches from the handle. For the majority of his career, George Brett didn’t care. Billy Martin, on the other hand, did.
It may seem nearly impossible to believe now, but starting in the 1970s, the Royals and Yankees were one of the best rivalries in all of sports. They faced off for three consecutive years in the ALCS from 1976-1978 and the Yankees got the best of the Royals every time. After taking a year off in 1979, the Royals and Yankees met in 1980 and the Royals finally exacted their revenge on their way to reaching their first World Series. By 1983, the rivalry had cooled some, but both franchises were still among the elite in the game and in the different time that it was, both were quite relevant, so the rivalry remained.
At the time of the pine tar game, both teams were two games out of first place, and while the Royals were just hovering around the .500 mark, the Yankees were well over .500 and in the midst of a dog fight with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers and Brewers. The two teams had split the first two games of the series and both very badly needed the third game in order to get a leg up in their respective division races.
Lefty Buddy Black took the hill for the Royals and was opposed by lefty Shawn Rawley who would go on to win 14 games in 1983. Neither starter was great and both were out of the game by the time the seventh inning began with the Yankees leading 4-3 after Black gave up three in the sixth. The top of the seventh passed by with no action. The bottom of the seventh was the same. The eighth inning was quiet as well. Royals vs. Yankees typically produced some drama, and this one seemed to be going almost too quietly.
In the top of the ninth, the Yankees did not go to their intimidating closer Rich “Goose” Gossage in a save situation, but rather stuck with Dale Murray. The move looked wise on Billy Martin’s part as Murray retired Don Slaught and Pat Sheridan in quick order to begin the inning. With the Royals just one out away from losing the game, U.L. Washington singled to center field. Due up next was George Brett, who spent his career making a habit of getting big hits in big situations. In 44 plate appearances in his career against Gossage, Brett hit .289/.364/.579 with three homers and 11 runs batted in. At the same time, Gossage was one of the best closers in baseball and has since been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
So the stage was set. One of baseball’s best closers was on the mound against one of baseball’s best hitters. The Royals trailed by one with two outs in the ninth inning. Brett had made a history of getting big hits and especially getting big hits at Yankee Stadium. Gossage delivered the pitch and Brett launched one into the right field upper deck seats at Yankee Stadium and the Royals had the lead at 5-4. Brett circled the bases while Billy Martin appeared to have something up his sleeve.
Martin emerged from the dugout to protest the home run to home plate umpire Tim McClelland. He requested McClelland to examine the bat. It has been reported that many on the Yankees team had seen the pine tar on Brett’s bat and mentioned it to Martin. Martin decided to wait for the best time to bring it up, and it seems that a homer to give the Royals the lead in the top of the ninth with two outs would be just that time. The umpires examined the bat as the Royals watched from the dugout, confused at first before realizing what was happening.
McLelland rested the bat across home plate (a 17 inch surface), conferenced with his umpires and had reached a decision. He lifted the bat, scanned the dugout to find Brett and pointed to him and then raised his arm to call George Brett out. Because the bat had too much pine tar on it, the ruling indicated that it was an illegally batted ball. One of the most iconic images in Royals history occurred at this point as George Brett shot out of the dugout like a cannon and looked for all the world like he was going to turn Tim McLelland into a former umpire.
The image of spit and sweat flying from Brett as his arms flailed while being restrained is one that is burned into the brain of every Royals fan. While those events were unfolding, Gaylord Perry, always the character, stole the bat and tried to hide it in the Royals clubhouse for fear of it being examined by the American League offices, but the bat was recovered and given to the proper authorities.
In later interviews, many Royals in the dugout would say that George Brett had mentioned he would go absolutely crazy if McLelland called him out. In watching Brett in the dugout, it really is an amazing sight to see his mood swing from jubilant from hitting the home run to give the Royals the lead to sheer anger. Him emerging from the dugout is one of the most lasting images in Royals history.
The Royals protested the game and American League President Lee MacPhail overruled McClelland’s decision and restored the George Brett home run. MacPhail indicated that the rule for pine tar was not because extra would give the hitter an unfair advantage, but rather an issue that pine tar discolored the ball when too much was used which meant the league would have to purchase more balls. He ruled Brett did not deliberately alter the bat to improve performance, and thus the ruling was overturned. The game was ruled to resume following Brett’s home run with Brett and manager Dick Howser ejected for their arguing and Gaylord Perry ejected for his role in the situation.
The game was completed on August 18 under interesting circumstances. Roughly 1,200 fans showed up to see the completion which featured some odd lineup choices from Yankees manager Billy Martin. Martin placed pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and first baseman Don Mattingly moved from first to second. He is still the last left-handed thrower to play second base in the big leagues. Before throwing a pitch in the resumption of the game, Martin ordered pitcher George Frazier to throw to every base as an appeal of whether or not George Brett touched the base on his home run trot a month earlier. Due to different umpires working the conclusion, each one had a signed affidavit from the league to confirm that Brett did indeed touch each base.
The game concluded without much more than a whimper. The drama from 25 days earlier was enough. 30 years later, we’re still talking about it. And the Royals still won the game.