The Pine Tar Game: A Super Quick History

In one of the most infamous moments in baseball history, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals and Billy Martin of the New York Yankees were instrumental parts of a controversial call  involving the amount of pine tar on a bat. Today we’ll look back at the game, and how the Yankees tired everything they could to prevent the game from being resumed.

On Sunday July 24, 1983 the Kansas City Royals were visiting the New York Yankees to play the last game of a four game series. Coming into the game the Royals had a win/loss record of 44 wins and 45 losses (and one tie, stemming from a game they played with the Rangers in May of that season), the Yankees had a record 52 wins and 40 losses.

The game was a back and forth affair through most of it, with the Royals trailing the Yankees 3-4 in the top of the 9th inning. The Yankees got the first two outs, but Royal’s shortstop UL Washington was able to reach first base with a single. 

Because the next batter was third baseman George Brett, the Yankees decided to replace relief pitcher Dale Murray with their closer Rich Goose Gossage (seen here apparently forgetting where the players parking lot is, and showing up just in time to pitch).  Brett would foul off the first pitch, but on the second he crushed the ball into the right field stands for a two-run home run, which gave the Royals a 5-4 lead.

Yankees manager Billy Martin left the dugout to speak to home plate rookie umpire Tim McClelland as Brett was still rounding the bases. McClelland (seen here with this amazing trading card, that has fascinating tidbits like, “my favorite food is anything that’s in front of me”. Well, McClelland was asked by Martin to examine Brett’s bat due to the amount of pine tar on it. Martin brought up an obscure rule within MLB’s rule book,  Rule 1.10(c)  which states, “A bat may not be covered by such substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle.” If found breaking this rule, a hit would be considered an illegally batted ball and according to rule 6.06 of the rule book any batter who hits an illegally batted ball is automatically called out.

Martin became aware of this rule prior to the start of the series, when the Yankees had noticed George Brett put an unusually large amount of pine tar on his bat when the Yankees after visiting Kansas City two weeks before. The pine tar reminded Yankees first basemen Greg Nettles of a similar situation that took place 8 years before, So let’s take a moment and flashback to 1975… In a game against the Minnesota Twins, Yankees catcher Therman Munson was called out after hitting a go ahead run in the first inning for having too much pine tar on his bat. Munson was furious, but the ruling stood and the Yankees ended up losing the game 2-1. Jumping back to 1983, Nettles told manager Billy Martin about what had happened in the game, and Martin waited for the right time to use the rule against George Brett and the Royals.

By this time Brett had crossed home plate and preceded back into his dugout. The umpire crew then decided to inspect the bat, and measure the amount of pine tar. Using the width of home plate (which is 17 inches wide) as a measuring guide, the rule again stated that no substance can be more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle of the bat. With the pine tar clearly exceeding that amount, home plate umpire McCelleand  looked for Brett in the visitors dugout, pointed at him and called him out, thus winning the game for the Yankees as that was the third out of the ninth inning.

An absolutely enraged George Brett stormed out the dugout and ran towards McCelleand before having to be physically restrained by several people including his manager Dick Howswer, and umpire Joe Brinkman. At this point there was nothing the Royals or George Brett could do after being called out, the ruling stood and the game was over.

Immediately following the game the Royals protested the result of the game, and within four days the president of the American League Lee MacPhail ruled in their favor. MacPhail stated that rule originated not because of an unfair advantage but due to economic costs of the time. When the rule was first created, if a ball was scuffed or marked with pine tar it had to be removed from the game thus increasing the home team’s cost of supplying balls. MacPhail further went on to say that George Brett had not violated the spirit of the rules, nor deliberately “altered the bat to improve the distance factor.”

MacPhail ordered the game to be resumed after George Brett’s home run in the 9th, with the Royals leading 5-4. However, MacPhail also ordered the ejections of several Royals players and coaches for the resumed game. George Brett was ejected over this angry outburst in the original game, manager Dick Howser and Rocky Colavito were ejected for arguing with the umpires, and pitcher Gaylord Perry was ejected for hiding Brett’s bat in the Royal’s clubhouse after giving it to a bat boy.

The Yankees reacted to the news of the resumed game by waiting as long as they could to schedule it, in the hopes the game might instead be forfeited. They also attempted some clever tricks to postpone the play of the game, for example the Yankees announced they would charge $2.50 for non season ticket holders to attend the resumed game. This triggered lawsuits against the Yankees, and the Bronx supreme Court ordered an injunction to keep the game from being replayed until the lawsuits were settled. The American League stepped in and appealed the injunction, which was overturned by the Supreme Court Appellate Division, allowing the game to be resumed.

The game would pick up right after George Brett’s home run in the 9th with two outs, and it was finally scheduled to be resumed on August 18, a full 25 days after the pine tar incident. The Royals who were actually flying to New York as all of the lawsuits were happening, didn’t know if they’d be able to play the game until they landed in Newark Airport. The Yankees eventually agreed to allow fans to attend the resumed game with no additional cost  if they had a ticket stub from the July 24th game. George Brett did not attend the game due to his ejection, and went straight to Baltimore to wait for the next series to start against the Orioles. 

At the start of the resumed game, the controversy was ignited again as the Yankees threw the baseball to first base to challenge whether or not George Brett had touched the base during his home run trot. The umpire crew called Brett safe, and then Yankees tried throwing the ball to second to again challenge if Brett had not touched second base while running the bases. And once again, the umpire crew called Brett safe.

At this point, Yankees manager Billy Martin came out of the dugout to protest the call. The umpire crew, anticipating such a protest, pulled out a notarized affidavit from the original umpire crew of the July 24th game stating that George Brett had touched every base. Martin was taken back by the affidavit because he claimed that he spoke to Drew Coble (who was the first base umpire during the July 24th game), and said that Coble to him he wasn’t looking when Brett crossed first base. Billy Martin then proceeded back to the dugout to let the game resume, but not before telling the umpires that his team was still playing under protest. 

The Royals would strike out to finish the top of the 9th inning, leading 5-4. In the bottom of the 9th, the Royals closer Dan Quisenberry came into the game and got three outs in order, winning the game. Ultimately, the outcome of the game would prove inconsequential to the season as neither team made it to the postseason that year. 

George Brett (seen here in an intimate moment with his bat) actually continued to use the pine tar bat for a few more games after the incident, but it was suggested to him that he stop using it because the bat would be worthless if he broke it. So Brett decided to sell the bat to a collector, Barry Halper who was also at that time a part owner in the New York Yankees. Halper had been collecting various pieces from the incident including the home run baseball Brett hit, the can of pine tar that was used, and even the business card of the justice who had issued the injunction over the resumed game. Brett sold the bat to Harper for 25,000, but had second thoughts and repurchased the bat from Harper for the same amount. Brett then decided to donate the bat to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it’s been since 1987.

It would take another 27 years before the substance rule was changed in the MLB rule book. In 2010 MLB updated the rule to state, “If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 1.10(c) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.” In other words, if the opposing team doesn’t mention anything before the bat is used, then they can’t protest it afterwards just because they didn’t like the outcome of the play.

In the years following the pine tar game, it’s become a legendary moment in baseball history. Collectable items such as tee shirts, bobble heads with an apparent receding hairline, and even specialty made bobble arm figures were created to immortalize the incident. It also changed George Brett’s life, prior to the pine tar game Brett was most known for having a bad case of hemorrhoids during the 1980 World Series. In a recent interview about the pine tar game he said, “ It’s the greatest thing to ever happen to me…before that, I was the hemorrhoid guy. After that, I was the pine tar guy. What would you rather be?”

So that does it for this day in sports history, what did you guys think about George Brett’s pine tar incident? And what did you think about the Yankees basically doing everything they could to not resume the game? Let me know in the comments below! For more on sports history check out my website at, and be sure to follow my social media pages (which I’ve posted the link to in the description below). And thanks for watching!


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