Commentary

Brett candidly recalls the Pine Tar Game

Originally Published: July 24, 2008
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It might be the most replayed baseball highlight from the last quarter century: George Brett -- eyes bulging, arms flailing -- sprinting out of the visitor's dugout at Yankee Stadium with intent, it seemed, to kill the home plate umpire, Tim McClelland.

"That," Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage said, "was the maddest human being that I've ever seen in my life."

George Brett
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesYankee Stadium, July 24, 1983: George Brett didn't just lose his cool, he lost his mind.
It was the famed Pine Tar Game -- Royals against the Yankees -- and Thursday marks its 25th anniversary. Brett says he can't count the number of times that he has seen the famous clip, but says "I have the game on tape, I watch it once a year with my boys. They don't want to watch the whole game, they just like to watch the aftermath when the umpire calls me out. When I first saw the replay, I had no idea what I had done. I said, 'You've got to be s------- me. I did that in public?' [Former manager] Earl Weaver said he didn't know what he was doing when he went out to argue a call. I had no idea what I was doing. When I looked at the replay, I was pretty amazed that I'd gotten that angry."

With two outs in the top of the ninth inning that day, Brett hit a home run off Gossage to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. As Brett circled the bases, McClelland was informed by Yankees manager Billy Martin that Brett's bat was illegal because the pine tar on the bat was too close to the barrel. Rule 1.10 of the rules of baseball stated that a bat may not be covered by such a substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle.

The Yankees had played the Royals in Kansas City two weeks earlier. Brett was using the same bat, his favorite.

"Everyone thinks it was Billy, but it was actually [Yankees third baseman] Graig Nettles who spotted it," Gossage said. "[Yankees catcher Thurman] Munson had been called out on that a few years previously. We were laying in the weeds. I had gotten George out in a big situation in Kansas City [two weeks earlier], and he was using the same bat. So when he came to the plate that day in New York, Nettles told me George was using an illegal bat. I said, 'Oh, good.' Then George hit the homer, and all hell broke loose."

Brett said he was sitting on the bench after the homer, and at the same time, the umpires were conferring at home plate.

"I had no idea what they were talking about," Brett said. "Then McClelland laid the bat on the ground, I looked at [teammate] Frank White on the bench and said, 'What the hell are they doing now?' Frank said, 'They're measuring for pine tar.' I turned to Frank and, I think, Vida Blue, and said, 'If they call out on that, I'm going to run out there and kill those SOBs.' That second, McClelland looked at me, pointed a finger at me, and called me out. It looked worse than it was because [second base umpire] Joe Brinkman was pulling me away [from McClelland]. Then it escalated into a brawl, or a pretty good argument."

During the confusion, Brett said, "[teammate] Gaylord Perry wrestled the bat away from McClelland and started running toward the dugout. He handed it off to [teammate] Steve Renko, who said, 'What the hell am I doing with this?' He handed it off to someone else, who was running with it through the dugout, then up the runway to the clubhouse. Security people were running after him. They yelled into their radios, 'Don't let that bat out of your sight!' The policeman who guarded the visiting clubhouse wouldn't open the door for the guy who was carrying the bat. The umpires confiscated the bat, and, by courier, sent it to [American League president] Lee MacPhail's office [in New York]."

The Royals played the game under protest; general manager John Schuerholz wrote a letter to MacPhail pleading the Royals' case. MacPhail upheld the protest, saying that the illegal bat "did not violate the spirit of the rules." Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was livid at the decision, saying, "I wouldn't want to be Lee MacPhail living in New York."

So, on Aug. 18, 1983, less than a month later -- on a day off, on their way to Baltimore -- the Royals went to Yankee Stadium to resume the game in the ninth inning. Brett's homer had counted, giving the Royals a 5-4 lead. It was a bizarre scene, only slightly more than 1,000 fans were in the stands. The Yankees played pitcher Ron Guidry in center field and Don Mattingly, a left-handed first baseman, played second base. Years later, Martin said the resumption of the game "was a mockery," and he would play it like it was.

"That morning," said Ken Nigro, then the Yankees' director of public relations, "I was in the Bronx County Courthouse because someone had filed an injunction trying to prevent the replay of the game."

Nigro had Pine Tar Game T-shirts printed, and had pine tar samples flown in from Maryland, for the large gathering of media. "The [samples] were hard to get," he said. "And there was this guy in Kansas City who wrote a song about the game called, 'The Ballad of the Pine Tar Game.' But I don't think it made the charts."

So the game continued. But before it restarted, Martin appealed that Brett had missed first or second base during the home run, but the umpires had an affidavit from the umpires who worked the original game saying that Brett had indeed touched all the bases. So, Hal McRae, the first Kansas City hitter, made an out to end the ninth against George Frazier. The Yankees then went out in order in the ninth against Royals relief ace Dan Quisenberry.

"The whole thing took about four minutes," Brett said. But he wasn't even in the ballpark at the time.

"I still don't know why, but I was thrown out of the [original] game [as was Perry, Royals manager Dick Howser and Royals coach Rocky Colavito]," Brett said with a laugh. "There was no reason for me to go. So Dick told me not to even come to the park."

I played 20 years in the major leagues, I did some good things, and the one at-bat I'm remembered for is an at-bat in July, not an at-bat in October like Reggie Jackson. Only in New York. It would have never been that big a deal if it had happened in Cleveland.

--George Brett

Brett watched the game at a hotel near the airport in New Jersey, with a representative from Trans World Airlines.

And now here it is, 25 years later, and Brett and Gossage are still talking about it. The famed bat is in the Hall of Fame, but it had quite a journey after it was sent to MacPhail.

"About two weeks later, I got the bat back when we were in Detroit," Brett said. "I took the pine tar down to the limit, 18 inches. And I drew a red line on my bat [so never to put the pine tar above it]. I used it for two games. Gaylord came up and said, 'Why are you using that bat? That's a historic bat. If you break it, it won't be worth anything.' So I put it in the bat bag, and now it's in the Hall of Fame.

"Originally, I sold it to a collector [Barry Halper] for $25,000. But a week later, or six months later, I didn't think that was the right thing to do. So I bought it back for $25,000. And I gave Barry the bat that I used when I hit three home runs in one game off [Yankees pitcher] Catfish Hunter in the playoffs."

Now the bat is in Cooperstown, on display, for everyone to see.

"I should have restored it to its original state," Brett said. "I should have put the tar up to 23 inches. The red line is still on it."

It has been 25 years, and Brett acknowledges that his bat was illegal, and putting too much pine tar on it was an "oversight" on his part. He says, without anger or bitterness, that, "I played 20 years in the major leagues, I did some good things, and the one at-bat I'm remembered for is an at-bat in July, not an at-bat in October like Reggie Jackson. Only in New York. It would have never been that big a deal if it had happened in Cleveland. Me against Goose made it a big deal. Billy being there made it a big deal. Something like this can only happen in New York."

"It has brought us a lot of fun over years," Gossage said. "I've always said that I'm proud of all the home runs that I've given up. That was my proudest one, but I wasn't happy when it happened at the time."

Brett can laugh about it all now. From that day, he got a national commercial from Emory Air Freight "that paid handsomely." And, that day also helped ease one of his most painful memories -- losing the 1980 World Series, and missing a Series game due to a case of hemorrhoids.

"From October 1980 to July 24, 1983, everywhere I went, I heard hemorrhoid jokes that were downright nasty," Brett said. "It's a no-brainer. I'd rather be known as the Pine Tar Guy."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.