“The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.”
It was a seemingly obscure rule which, on July 24, 1983, made news in what many consider one of the more controversial calls and subsequent reversals in Major League Baseball history.
Now, 30 years later, the ‘Pine Tar Game’ between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium is being remembered again. Recently, I had the chance to speak with the home plate umpire from that game, Tim McClelland, who was in his first season in the majors in 1983 and today is one of baseball’s most veteran umps.
To set the stage, the Yankees led the Royals, 4-3, in the top of the ninth inning. There were two outs and Kansas City’s U.L. Washington was on first base. George Brett stepped to the plate against Yankees closer Rich ‘Goose’ Gossage, in a battle of future Hall of Famers, and launched a two-run homer to right field, giving Kansas City a 5-4 lead.
As Brett rounded the bases, Yankees manager Billy Martin approached McClellland.
“Billy said ‘get the bat’,” McClelland recalled last weekend from St. Louis. “Billy felt there was too much pine tar on the bat. I told him to wait a minute and I conferred with the umpiring crew.”
The umpires consisted of crew chief Joe Brinkman, as well as Drew Coble and Nick Bremigan. Back then, the rule stated that if the bat was illegal, the batter in question would be called out. Since the Royals were down to its final out, the game, in essence would be over and the Yankees would win.
Now, bear in mind that Martin supposedly knew all along that day that Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it, but obviously was waiting for the right situation to bring it to the umpires’ attention. Had Brett popped up to end that game, would the call have been made?
“No way,” McClelland said. “If he pops up and the game is over, no one says anything about that bat. But because it changed the course of the game, the Yankees wanted the bat checked.”
McClelland remembers Bremigan as the point man when it came to any rule in baseball.
“Nick knew the rule book as well as anyone I’ve ever known,” McClelland said. “The rule said there couldn’t more than 18 inches of pine tar, or substance, to improve the grip of the bat. With that said, I began measuring the bat against the width of home plate.”
Brett had long returned to the dugout and sat on the bench while McClelland and his crew mates checked the bat.
“What I thought was weird was that no one from Kansas City even came out to see what I was doing while measuring the bat,” McClelland recalled. “(Royals manager) Dick Howser was sitting there, but he didn’t come out to see what was what. Once I realized there was more pine tar on the bat than the rules allowed, the call was simple.”
The umpires conferred and agreed that Martin was right.
“Joe (Brinkman) asked me if he wanted to tell the Royals the bat was illegal, but I said no, that I was on the plate and I’d make the call,” McClellland said. “I looked to the Royals dugout and pointed to Howser and said that Brett was out. Usually, the call is made to the manager, anyway, but to be honest, I didn’t see Brett when I signaled out.”
Brett, in a scene which will forever be linked to baseball lore, tore out of the dugout and ran toward McClelland. He was held back by other umpires, as well as Howser, who had also gone out to argue at that point.
The Yankees were considered the winners, but the Royals would eventually protest and American League president Lee MacPhail overruled McClelland’s decision and ordered the game be completed on an agreed-upon date.
“Lee basically said it was the spirit of the restriction, and that the pine tar didn’t give Brett an advantage,” McClelland said. “But when we’re on the field, we couldn’t consider that. The rule was in place and we had to adhere to it, since the Yankees had appealed.”
McClelland had no idea the call would create so much controversy.
“I got home that night after the game and it was all over the news,” McClelland said. “I would have never thought a rather simple call would create such craziness.”
Ironically, five days later, on July 29, 1983, McClelland was on the plate for a game in Detroit that featured Kansas City.
Tim McClelland, here speaking with Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa during the 2005 National League championship series as umpire Phil Cuzzi watches, has seen his share of controversies as a Major League umpire. He’s now in his 31st season and 14th year as a crew chief.
“I’ve always said that in my 30 years of umpiring in the majors that George Brett was one of the best players I ever worked with,” McClelland said. “So when he came up to bat that day in Detroit, I just asked him if there was anything going on with the bat he was using and he just said, ‘I’d rather just forget about that’, and that was it.”
In another bit of irony, McClelland was the first base umpire on Sept. 30, 1992 when Brett collected his 3,000th career hit, a single, at Anaheim Stadium. McClelland was among the first people to congratulate Brett after his historic hit.
MacPhail’s overrule of McClelland’s call meant the game with the Yankees wasn’t over. On Aug. 18, 1983, it was concluded when the teams met at Yankee Stadium to finish the game, which Kansas City eventually won, 5-4. At the end of the ’83 season, the pine tar rule was amended to say the bat would be tossed out of the game, or needed to be cleaned up, but a player would not be automatically called out.
Thirty years have passed since the Pine Tar game. Both Martin and Howser have passed away, as have MacPhail, Bremigan and the Royals’ closer, Dan Quisenberry, who retired the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth to record the save some 25 days after the game had started.
Three players, Brett, Gossage and the Yankees’ Dave Winfield, would eventually be selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Royals’ starting pitcher, Bud Black, is now the manager of the San Diego Padres while current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was in his first extended season with the Yankees and would begin an era of offensive dominance the following season. Hal McRae was the next batter for Kansas City after Brett’s homer.
When the teams concluded the game on Aug. 18, the umpiring crew was different.
“We weren’t scheduled to be New York, so they went with a crew that had been working the Yankees series that week,” McClelland said. “Tim Welke’s crew completed the game.”
The game took about 15 minutes to finish and was played before about 1,200 fans at Yankee Stadium. Those that had tickets to the July 24 game were granted free access while others paid $2.50 to get in. There were numerous court appeals filed by the Yankees and the conclusion of the game itself wasn’t finalized until after the Royals landed at Newark Airport on Aug. 18. Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry played centerfield and Mattingly moved from first to second for the final Kansas City out in the top of the ninth, making Mattingly one of the rare left-handers to play second base in a Major League game. (Those moves were made by Martin, who was still fuming over McClelland’s call being overturned, as a form of protest).
When the game resumed, the Yankees appealed that Brett didn’t touch first base after hitting the homer and pitcher George Frazier threw to first base before McRae batted, but Welke, the first base ump, ruled Brett had touched the base. An affadavit, signed by the original four umpires was also produced by second base umpire Dave Phillips, verifying that Brett and Washington did touch all the bases after the two-run homer.
Brett was not at the conclusion of the game. He went directly to Baltimore, the Royals’ next stop on their current road trip, after the team arrived at Newark Airport. Brett had actually been ejected from the game for his outburst at McClelland, as was Howser, for arguing the call on July 24.
Does McClelland have any animosity toward MacPhail’s decision 30 years later?
“No, not at all,” McClellland said. “We made the call based on the rules at the time. It was as simple as that.
“But it’s amazing how that game still resonates 30 years later.”