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Readorama: ‘Pine Tar Game’ author visits Kansas City July 30; friends remember poet James Tate

The Royals’ George Brett was livid after being called out during the famous pine-tar game in 1983. Brett was restrained by umpire Joe Brinkman after Brett’s bat, held by umpire Tim McClelland, was ruled illegal because of pine tar during the ninth inning of the July 24, 1983, game at Yankee Stadium. Brett had just hit a two-run home run to give the Royals the lead. Royals manager Dick Howser (left) argued on his team’s behalf.
The Royals’ George Brett was livid after being called out during the famous pine-tar game in 1983. Brett was restrained by umpire Joe Brinkman after Brett’s bat, held by umpire Tim McClelland, was ruled illegal because of pine tar during the ninth inning of the July 24, 1983, game at Yankee Stadium. Brett had just hit a two-run home run to give the Royals the lead. Royals manager Dick Howser (left) argued on his team’s behalf. The Associated Press

Friday marks the 32nd anniversary of the Pine Tar Game.

For anyone who doesn’t know:

On July 24, 1983, Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett hit a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning home run, giving the Royals an apparent 5-4 lead over the New York Yankees.

Yankees manager Billy Martin, invoking an obscure rule, challenged the amount of pine tar on Brett’s bat.

Umpire Tim McClelland ruled Brett out.

That’s when, as author Filip Bondy writes, “All sanity left the building.”

Brett’s subsequent 2-minute-and-10-second tantrum was only the beginning. Bondy unearths everything that followed in “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy,” available Tuesday.

Bondy covered the game for The Bergen Record and, after switching jobs, the subsequent litigation and final half-inning for The New York Daily News.

Let it be noted that Bondy, however pinstripy his bona fides, brings an open mind to the proceedings, many of which remain comic. Among them were the many interviews soon granted by Martin in which he defended the rule of law.

“Two guys who never had a nice word ever to say about the umpires — Billy Martin and (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner — suddenly were the great defender of the umpires,” Bondy said recently.

Dean Taylor, today a Royals vice president, and former general manager John Schuerholz drafted a three-page protest and forwarded it by fax to the American League offices.

Arguing that the umpires had misinterpreted the rulebook’s pine tar language, they held that Brett’s bat merely should have been removed from the game. They also noted how Martin’s “foreboding and intimidating manner created confusion in the minds of the umpires…”

After American League president Lee MacPhail ruled that Brett’s home run should stand and that the game be resumed, things went from ridiculous to bizarre. Roy Cohn, Communist-hunting attorney for U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, represented the Yankees in court, arguing that the team couldn’t guarantee the safety of those fans who showed up for the game’s resumption.

He wore a three-piece maroon suit while doing so.

“He looked like a Batman villain,” Bondy said.

One serious consequence was the episode’s effect on Martin. After a lifetime of gamesmanship, the pine tar gambit represented Martin’s “ultimate achievement,” Bondy said.

“He had out-thought everybody,” Bondy said. “He had tricked the world.”

To have it overruled took the wind out of him.

“He went into a deep depression,” Bondy said. “He started to drink a little more, to confront umpires to the point where it was absurd and ridiculous.”

Today the bat stands in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

From the Royals, Bondy interviewed Brett; radio talker Rush Limbaugh, then a Royals promotions director; Schuerholz; Taylor; and Jana Howser, a daughter of late Royals manager Dick Howser.

From the Yankees, he interviewed former second baseman Willie Randolph and former pitchers Sparky Lyle, Ron Guidry and Rich Gossage, who threw the pitch that Brett hit out.

During a 1995 Yankees-Royals spring training game Gossage, preparing to open a restaurant in Colorado, asked Brett for a bat covered with pine tar that he could display.

Brett applied tar, rosin and dirt continually over nine innings and presented the gunky bat to Gossage with a handshake. In 2013, when his restaurant business ran into cash-flow problems, Gossage generated $365,000 by auctioning off his baseball memorabilia, even a World Series ring.

But he didn’t sell the Brett pine tar bat.

Bondy speaks at 7 p.m. July 30 at Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd St., Fairway. For more info, go to rainydaybooks.com.

The late, great James Tate

Tater Bug.

That was the name James Tate — the Kansas City-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died July 8 — answered to during his years at Shawnee Mission East High School.

A common sentiment in interviews with Tate’s friends over the years was how their old classmate, however celebrated he became, never changed much since his Prairie Village youth.

That remained so even after Tate became a member of the Eastern literary establishment as a prize-winning poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“He was just a really good guy,” said Jack Kettler, a Shawnee Mission East classmate of Tate, who graduated in 1961.

Both Kettler and Tate were members of the Zoo Club, an approximately 25-member “gang” at East.

Tate received his nickname from the gang’s leader, Kettler said. Other members answered to “Bear,” “Rhino,” “Moose” — hence the zoo reference. (Kettler’s name: “Rabbit,” as in Jack.)

In a 2006 Paris Review interview, Tate described his “gang” in “American Graffiti” terms: ducktail haircuts, girlfriends, a preferred drive-in and the occasional tense moment when rival “gang” members trespassed on their turf.

“He may have glamorized it a little bit,” Kettler said.

“He called it a gang, which it wasn’t. We were just a bunch of guys. When we were growing up there wasn’t anything developed south of 103rd Street, so we had all those areas to find places to play, and we did.

“He was a handsome kid, with an infectious smile, and the girls all loved him.”

In the Paris Review interview, Tate proved candid regarding his sometimes melancholy childhood. He had been an infant when his father died during a World War II bombing run over Germany.

He described in detail his sometimes turbulent adolescence, at least at home. After his father died, Tate said, his mother remarried three times, with one husband mistreating her and another shooting up the house with a handgun.

Tate also described an angst-filled moment — again echoing “American Graffiti” — when he hesitated over going on to college. Tate described himself as an indifferent student at East and had not planned on enrolling.

But upon realizing in August that all of his friends were headed off to school, he submitted a hurried application to what is now Pittsburg State University in southeastern Kansas.

At Pittsburg, Tate met a faculty member who encouraged an interest in poetry.

The world knows the rest.

Over the years Tate would visit Kansas City — various “Zoo Club” members attended one reading years ago — and Kettler always followed his friend’s career. He remembers once leafing through an edition of People magazine and seeing a photo of Tate with novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s Tater with Kurt Vonnegut,’” Kettler said. “‘Not too shabby.’”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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