The Pine Tar Incident: Sticky World of Pine Tar

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We’ve all seen the video of an irate George Brett of the Kansas City Royals charging out of the dugout and confronting umpire Tim McClelland (and if you haven’t it’s worth a YouTube search). Brett had just hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees. Yankees manager, the crafty Billy Martin, noticed that Brett’s bat had quite a bit of pine tar on it. He requested that McClelland check the bat for exceeding the lower eighteen inches with pine tar. This is a major league rule violation. McClelland checked the bat against the 17-inch home plate and found the bat to be in violation.

Brett was ruled to be out for using an illegal bat. He was also the final out of the game. He was also really, really mad.  But what’s the problem with pine tar and why would using too much of it be troublesome?

Pine Tar

So, what is pine tar? It is a sticky material produced by the distillation of pine wood. As a result of this distillation, mostly charcoal and pine tar are produced.

Sticky Applications

Long before George Brett was charging out of dugouts and Justin Turner was painting the back of his jersey with it, pine tar was used, and still is used, for a great many things. Originally, pine tar was used as a wood preservative for wood exposed to harsh conditions–the rigging and/or decking of a ship, for example. It has also been used as a sealant, in soaps, and to treat certain skin diseases. Eventually, pine tar made its way to the baseball bat and onto the baseball (illegally, of course).

A Sticky Pastime

But how does pine tar fit into the National Pastime? This one is pretty simple. Batters can use it on their bats from the knob up to eighteen inches. Pitchers can use it, if they are trying to break the rules, in order for them to increase gripping ability and consequently, spin rate. So, the answer is no dice for pitchers and yes to batters, but don’t get too crazy.

Batters use pine tar to improve their grip on the bat, which allows them to have a looser grip with less worry of the bat flying out of their hands. This relaxed hold creates more “pop” and less stinging when contact is made. The problem with putting pine tar above the legal eighteen inches is that it is more likely to come in contact with the baseball when the ball is hit. And when the stickiness of the bat has relations with the ball, the result is more backspin on the ball. More backspin equals a better chance of the ball landing in your nachos and the batter touching them all.

Pitchers illegally use pine tar for the same reason, the stickiness. But pitchers are not allowed to put any foreign substances on the ball. Pine tar is a foreign substance, so even though many pitchers would like to increase their grip on the ball, especially on a cold day, the rules say no. If a pitcher ends up saying yes and gets caught, they will be ejected from the game and probably suspended.

What Happened With George Brett

The last time we saw George Brett he was really, really mad. But mad or not, the game was over. The players left the field and the Yankees won the game. Billy Martin felt pretty good about himself. On the other hand, the Kansas City Royals were just as mad as their All-Star third baseman and decided to protest.

Four days after the official protest was filed, the American League President Lee MacPhail found in favor of the Royals. He decided that the official pine tar rule (Rule 1.10(c)) was created with economics in mind and not cheating. MacPhail stated that Rule 1.10(c) was drafted to keep baseballs from being dirtied with pine tar. The dirty ball would then have to be pulled from the game and replaced with a clean ball. This caused clubs to spend more money on baseballs. MacPhail said that Brett had not broken the true meaning of the rule and wasn’t trying to put more backspin on the baseball.

25 Days After the Inning Began…

What does this mean? It means that George’s home run counted and that there was still a ballgame left to be played. But remember Brett got really, really mad, along with a few of his coaches. They argued quite forcibly with the umpire. This didn’t go unnoticed by MacPhail, so when the game resumed with two outs in the top of the ninth, Brett and two of his coaches were ejected from the game, along with Gaylord Perry. What did Old Gaylord do? Being no stranger to the art of deception, Perry, during the argument, snagged the bat in question and instructed the bat boy to hide it from scrutiny.

The game ended four outs later with a 5-4 Royals victory. George’s illegal bat, pine tar and all, resides in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.



“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images

Players Mentioned:

George Brett, Justin Turner, Gaylord Perry