Thirty years later, Pine Tar Game sticks with Brett
Royals legend never tires of talking about incident at Yankee Stadium in 1983
KANSAS CITY -- George Brett says he never tires of talking about the Pine Tar Game, the curious moment of baseball history that defines him to today's fans.
"It was something I did good. I hit a home run off one of the toughest relief pitchers in baseball, a Hall of Fame guy," he said.
Brett met the press on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, a day in advance of the 30th anniversary of what has become a video classic of the incident on July 24, 1983, at old Yankee Stadium. His two-run homer off Goose Gossage which gave the Royals a ninth-inning lead was voided. The umpires, prompted by Yankees manager Billy Martin, decided Brett was using an illegal bat because pine tar extended more than 18 inches up the handle.
A hitter who never used gloves, Brett made heavy use of pine tar to help his grip on the bat.
Brett remembered sitting in the visitors' dugout with teammates Frank White and Vida Blue while Martin made his plea with plate umpire Tim McClelland.
"Somebody asked me if I corked my bat. I said, 'No ... I never corked one in my life.' And back then, people corked bats and I never corked one," Brett said.
Then McClelland called Brett out, ending the game in a 4-3 Yankees victory. Brett went ballistic and charged out of the dugout to confront the umpires.
"I think I totally blanked out because when I saw the video, I was amazed at my reaction," Brett said.
Smiling, Brett noted that the towering McClelland makes speaking appearances in the Midwest during the offseason and, known as the Pine Tar Umpire, he has a standard line: "George is 6-foot and 205 pounds, I'm 6-foot-6 and 250. I've got shin guards on, a chest protector, a mask in one hand and a bat in the other. What were you going to do to me?"
Brett does remember what he was yelling at the time.
"It wasn't something you say to children," he said.
The incident continues to be recalled, sometimes humorously. Just this year one of the Royals' farm clubs offered fans a Pine Tar bobblehead.
"Northwest Arkansas did a George Brett bobblehead. The head doesn't bobble, but my arms do," he said. "I'm still trying to get some of those because I think they're pretty funny."
Just as Brett has remained friends with Gossage, a fellow Hall of Famer, he's kept in touch with McClelland who is still an active umpire. A few years ago, Brett was sitting in the stands behind home plate in Kansas City and began razzing the umpire. Finally, McClelland turned and recognized Brett.
"He came over between innings the rest of the game and talked to me. He and I are great friends," Brett said. "Joe Brinkman, the umpire that got me in the headlock from behind, sent me a telegram the day that Lee MacPhail overruled the ruling by the umpires, saying, 'Congratulations on your news today, looking forward to seeing you in the near future.'"
Oh, yes, MacPhail, the American League president, did overturn the umpires' decision, permitted Brett's home run and ordered the game finished from that point in the ninth inning. Brett, tossed out of the game, didn't accompany the Royals back to Yankee Stadium for the Aug. 18 resumption of the game and the final four outs that resulted -- finally -- in a 5-4 Royals victory.
Instead, Brett went to a restaurant not far from the Newark, N.J., airport and the Royals' waiting plane with TWA rep Larry Ameche.
"We sat at a bar, had some Italian food and watched the game on TV," he said.
FYI, the 18-inch rule came about in 1955 because some club owners, led by Calvin Griffith of the old Washington Senators, were losing too many baseballs because of pine tar smudges from bats. In those days, owners coveted and counted the balls in stark contrast to today when they're routinely tossed into the stands.
What happened to the famous Pine Tar Bat?
It was one of Brett's favorites, and when he got it back from the league after the protest was upheld, he put it back to use although teammate Gaylord Perry kept telling him it was worth a lot of money.
"And I remember taking some alcohol and a towel and cleaning the bat up until 18 inches. I even drew a little red line where the 18-inch mark was and used it for one or two games," Brett said. "And Gaylord said, 'You're crazy to use that bat.' That's when I took it out of play."
For a while Brett put it in a restaurant he had in California, and then he sold it to New York collector Barry Halper for $25,000.
"Then, about a month later, I realized that that's mine. It should be in my possession," he said.
Halper returned it in exchange for the $25,000 plus a bat that Brett had used to hit three home runs off of Catfish Hunter.
"And then I gave it to the Hall of Fame," Brett said. "And that's where it is. Whenever I go back, I look at it. It's pretty cool. I wish I wouldn't have cleaned it up."
Brett, now the interim hitting coach for the Royals, had to get out to batting practice. But he told the assembled reporters that the Pine Tar Game has had a lasting impact on his life.
"It's what I'm known for, it really is," he said.
He recalled the 1980 World Series against the Phillies when he had the most celebrated case of hemorrhoids in sports history.
"Every time I went in the on-deck circle from 1980 to July 24, 1983, I heard every hemorrhoid joke in the world and I was the 'Hemorrhoid Guy,'" Brett said. "And, all of a sudden, after July 24, 1983, until now I have to remind people I had hemorrhoids. So how would you rather be remembered? Let's be realistic -- the slippery stuff or the sticky stuff?"