George Brett nearly hit .400 in 1980 for a pennant-winning team, reached 3,000 hits and is a Hall of Famer.
Yet the one thing he gets the most notoriety for —whether on the golf course or with minor leaguers in spring training —is the infamous “Pine Tar Game” which took place on July 24, 1983 at Yankee Stadium.
“Pretty much whenever I’m playing golf,” Brett said. “They always want to check my club for pine tar. If I’m playing with strangers or in a pro-am or some kind of celebrity tournament, the gallery at every hole brings it up. It’s kind of funny the first couple of holes but then after a while it gets old.”
Now the hitting coach for the Royals, Brett discussed the events of that day 30 years later, including the pine tar, the aftermath and the comedic elements to the incident during a 20-minute press conference Tuesday afternoon.
In a game against Billy Martin’s Yankees, Brett appeared to hit a two-run, go-ahead home run against Goose Gossage with two outs in the ninth inning. He did everything associated with a home run, completing the home-run trot and shaking hands with teammates.
Except at that moment it wasn’t.
Just as Brett crossed the plate, Martin came out to argue with plate umpire Tim McClelland, who was in his first full season and working behind the plate at Yankee Stadium for the first time. After Martin demanded the bat be measured for having too much pine tar, Brett charged out of the dugout and went nose-to-nose with McClelland before getting ejected.
“Right after the game I didn’t think that much of it to be honest with you,” Brett said. “I remember after the game getting to my hotel room, calling up one of my brothers telling them what happened and he said, ‘I know, I was watching another game on TV and they broke in and showed what happened.’ I thought it was just going to be over with but it’s amazing how much play this one at-bat or this one hit has gotten over the years.
“I guess it’s unprecedented, you hit a home run and then get called out for using an illegal bat and then Lee MacPhail, the American League president, overruling the umpires’ decision. [Kansas City general manager] John Schuerholz wrote a nice letter of protest to Lee MacPhail at the time and Lee read the rule book and said ‘I agree with you’ and then it just became even more of a controversy.”
The argument was based on rule 1.10 (b), stating that a bat may not be covered by substance more than 18 inches from the tip of the handle. The umpires measured it by placing the bat across home plate (17 inches) and discovered that the pine tar exceeded the legal limit.
The rule had its origins in the late 1950s by Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith. Griffith was a member of the playing rules committee and his issue with excessive pine tar was that it was discoloring baseballs, making them unusable and costing him extra money.
After that, it happened in three instances during the 1970s.
In 1973, John Mayberry, a teammate of Brett, was not called out for using a pine tar bat and when the Angels protested, that set a precedent.
Two years later, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and Cubs pitcher Steve Stone had hits nullified but neither were protested to the league offices.
Initially, Brett thought he was going to get called out for having a corked bat, which is what Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog accused Mets third baseman Howard Johnson of and what Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa were suspended for in 1994 and 2003 respectively.
“I think back then there were a lot of guys using corked bats,” Brett said. “I know there were a few guys I played with that used them and at first that’s what I was thinking they were going to call me out because I had never heard any rule about excessive pine tar on a bat.
“So when I was sitting in the dugout and somebody said, ‘Did you cork your bat?’ I’m going, ‘I don’t need to cork my bat and I don’t know how to cork my bat.’”
The hi-jinks began after a conversation where according to Brett, second baseman Frank White hinted that he might be called out. Brett’s response was, “If they do that, I’ll kill one of those SOBs” and when McClelland heard that, he began looking and pointing at him before calling him out.
“If there was no controversy, this would be no big deal,” Brett said.
Afterward, there were more comedic capers as pitcher Gaylord Perry confiscated the bat and security guards chased the bat while communicating on their radios through the bowels of Yankee Stadium.
However, any hostility toward the umpires ended the next day and umpire Joe Brinkman sent him a telegram reading, “Congratulations a big day for you and looking forward to seeing you soon.”
A week later, McClelland was the plate umpire in Detroit and Brett had just gotten the bat back. Brett was asked if he wanted to have some fun and get the bat checked. He then used it for two at-bats and donated it to the Hall of Fame.
The game was resumed a month later and since Brett had been ejected, he watched the final four outs from an Italian restaurant near Newark Airport. It featured Ron Guidry playing center field and Don Mattingly at second but before it could start pitcher George Frazier appealed that Brett had missed the bag. Martin argued, but crew chief Dave Phillips produced a notarized letter that said both runners touched the bases and the runs counted.
Eventually Brett became friends with Gossage. During one spring training Brett was asked by Gossage to donate a bat to his Colorado restaurant.
And of course, it had pine tar on it.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.