It seems like it took place yesterday, but on July 25, 1983, one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of Major League Baseball. It involved future Hall of Famer George Brett, to this day one of my all time favorite ball players, during a game between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees, and it has gone down in the annals of baseball history as the “Pine Tar Incident.”
This incident provides classic footage to this day, showing an enraged Brett charging out of the dugout toward rookie umpire Tim McClelland after he disallowed a two-run homer off Yankee closer Rich “Goose” Gossage that would have given the Royals a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth inning. The reason, Yankee manager Billy Martin protested to McClelland, was the amount of pine tar Brett had applied to his bat. “You gotta call him out, pal,” Martin told McClelland, “you gotta call him out.”
McClelland consulted with the other umpires before measuring the bat. According to the rules, pine tar could not exceed seventeen inches on the grip end of the bat. “When we measured it, the pine tar was a good seven or eight inches farther,” McClelland recalled, “and I knew then we had a problem.” He called Brett out, and the Royals great went from euphoria to rage in an instant. Brett admitted that never before had he been so mad. “I’d been frustrated before,” Brett said. “You’re frustrated that you…made an error that let in two or three runs and we ended up losing the game by one or two runs. That’s frustration. That’s not mad.” This incident first made him incredulous that the umpires would enforce such a rule, and then his incredulity turned to stark red-eyed anger. Brett commented, “when they put the bat on the ground, to measure it against home plate, someone said, ‘They’re measuring the bat against the plate to see how much pine tar you have on it.’…And I said, ‘If they call me out for that, they’re in trouble’.”
Brett had to be tackled and held down from attacking McClelland. He blistered McClelland with every epithet he knew, and every player knows many. The video of the fight became the standard on television for the rest of the season and periodically thereafter. Lip readers enjoyed picking out Brett’s phrases from the video and manager Dick Howser had to protect his greatest player from emptying benches on both sides. All the while, the paranoid and brilliant Billy Martin stood off to the side and let the Royals self-destruct.
That night, McClelland stumbled across the entire Royals team in the airport. Acting the gentleman, he walked up to Brett and tried to make amends, “You’re not really that mad at me, are you?” Brett responded, “you’re [darn] right I am.” To this day, Brett believes that McClelland should not have enforced that rule.
Dick Howser protested the call and the game, and American League President Lee McPhail, “in the spirit of the rules,” finally allowed the home run on appeal. Out of the whole mess, one irony was not lost on McClelland. “George Brett was probably, and I think most umpires would tell you this, one of the best players to umpires that there’s been in the game,” he said. “George was always joking, always having fun.” He was a gentleman every other time they met, but he was truly angry at this petty ruling. McClelland was ever after “The Pine Tar Umpire.” Martin also lost the Yankee advantage they had once enjoyed over the Royals. It made them all the more competitive every time they met.
There is no question that Billy Martin was playing psychological games in calling our Brett with this obscure and truly arcane rule. Even so, in part through the crucible of the Pine Tar Incident, Brett emerged in 1984 to lead the Royals to their first division title since 1980. They did not advance in that post-season but they did the next year. This set the stage for the 1985 world championship season in which the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in what has come to be known as the “I-70 Series.”
A great video of the incident, along with interviews with Brett and others involved, may be found here.