- The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy by Filip Bondy
It was bliss to be a fan of the champion Kansas City Royals in 2015; in the late 1970s, not so much. Then the Royals squared off against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series for three successive years, losing each time. It was a "war between two worlds" (50), as Filip Bondy makes clear in The Pine Tar Game.
It was Ewing Kauffmann, the staid and proper owner of the Royals, who built his fortune in pharmaceuticals, vs. George Steinbrenner, heir to a shipbuilding fortune, and the volcanic, imperious owner of the Yankees. It was George Brett, the Royals' intrepid batsman and future Hall of Famer, vs. Billy Martin, the unpredictable (and probably certifiable) manager of the Yankees. It was the proletariat vs. the capitalists, new money vs. old, rubes vs. city-slickers, the heartland vs. the evil empire.
In the 1976 series, Brett hit a game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning of the deciding game, but Chris Chambliss trumped it with a homer in the ninth to win it for the Yanks. Brett tripled to put KC up 3–1 in the eighth inning of the 1977 deciding game, but the Yankees scored three runs off three different Royals pitchers in the ninth to win, 4–3. And, in 1978, Brett hit a three-run dinger off Catfish Hunter in the pivotal third game, but Reggie Jackson countered with 3 RBI off Paul Splitorff, and Thurman Munson won it with a homer in the ninth. Then, in Game 4, Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage stifled KC, 2–1. Given this lamentable history, we can well believe Bondy when he tells us that George Brett hated the Yankees.
At last, in 1980, the Royals swept the playoffs against the Yankees, but they subsequently lost the World Series to the Phillies. Brett, though frequently injured, hit .401 as late as August 27, finished at .390, and knocked in 118 runs in 117 games.
This background of almost hereditary enmity serves as Bondy's preamble to the pine tar game itself, Sunday, July 24, 1983, at Yankee Stadium, with both teams two games off the pace in their respective divisions. The Yanks led KC 4–3 in the ninth inning, with two out, one man on, and Brett at bat. Brett loved pine tar, his bat was slathered with it, exceeding the eighteen-inch limit above the handle by some several inches. Yankees Graig Nettles and Don Zimmer recognized this infraction and alerted Billy Martin, who cached the information for an appropriate moment. Said moment arrived when Gossage challenged Brett with a fastball that Brett turned into a two-run homer, giving KC a 5–4 lead. Martin pounced, protesting to umpire McClelland, who [End Page 207] famously measured the pine tar on Brett's bat against the seventeen-inch width of home plate, and declared Brett out for "an illegally batted ball." No home run, game over. Yanks win 4–3. The sight of Brett erupting from the Royals' dugout is preserved online, as is the desperate, head-lock restraint applied by the umpires. Gossage later commented, "That was the maddest human being I ever saw in my life" (149).
Royals owner Kauffmann, watching the melee unfold on TV, told his daughter, "Quit worrying. We're going to appeal this and we're going to win" (149). And they did. AL President Lee MacPhail agreed that the rule book specified that the bat, not the batter, should be removed from the game. The hit was not to be undone because it could not be demonstrated that the pine tar enhanced the "reaction or distance factor of the bat." MacPhail ordered that the game be resumed from the point of Brett's home run, with the Royals ahead 5–4 and two out in the top of the ninth.