Thirty-two years ago this month, George Steinbrenner offered some advice to Lee MacPhail, a seasoned baseball man who was then the president of the American League.
“He had better start house-hunting in Missouri,” the bombastic New York Yankees owner said, “close to Kansas City.”
Why was Steinbrenner suggesting that the Manhattan-based MacPhail had betrayed his adopted hometown? And what made him think that MacPhail, himself a onetime Yankee executive, would be embraced by a city of Royals fans?
As evidenced by Steinbrenner’s posturing, an already tense Royals-Yanks rivalry took a turn for the strange in the summer of 1983, and unsolicited real-estate recommendations were only the start of it.
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The cause: One very sticky Louisville Slugger.
Filip Bondy chronicles it all in “The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy,” due out Tuesday. As penned by a longtime New York sportswriter who covered the game in person, it’s a rollicking account of a clutch home run, a marvelous temper tantrum and an inning that took almost a month to complete.
Bondy takes a long view, and although he occasionally pads his narrative with unnecessarily long quotes and more than a few digressions, he does a fine job of placing the action in context.
Kansas City’s rich, sometimes painful relationship with the sport is a vibrant through-line in this astute book. Bondy revisits the transcendent Monarchs squads of the 1930s and ’40s, the miserable Athletics of the ’50s and ’60s and the Royals-Yankees playoff battles of the ’70s.
Though the Royals ultimately defeated the Yankees in the matchup in question, they were initially victimized by what appeared to be “the ultimate oxymoron: a game-losing home run,” Bondy writes.
At issue was the permissibility of a pine tar-caked baseball bat, a dispute that would be adjudicated first by a crew of four umpires, and then by Major League Baseball executives and New York state judges.
On July 24, 1983, Rich “Goose” Gossage, a hard-chucking Yankees reliever, threw a high fastball to George Brett, the Royals great third baseman. With his team one out from defeat in the top of the ninth, Brett drove it into the seats beyond Yankee Stadium’s right-field wall, a two-run blast. Suddenly, the visitors were on top, 5-4.
“For the record,” Bondy writes, “the baseball struck Brett’s bat at the heart of the barrel, above the pine tar.”
This is a crucial point, as the Yankees were about to make an unconventional argument about the legality of a certain 34.5-inch, 32-ounce piece of lumber.
Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles and Don Zimmer, a coach, had been urging manager Billy Martin to keep an eye on Brett’s bat. Both suspected that the all-star was in violation of one of the game’s more arcane regulations.
“The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip.” So said a rule put in place in 1976, Bondy explains, out of deference to “skinflint owners” who argued that excessive pine tar use was dirtying lots of baseballs, which umpires then removed from play.
Brett’s bat seemed to be a borderline case, and right after he homered, Martin came out and complained. Tim McClelland, who was calling balls and strikes, eyeballed it next to the 17-inch-wide home plate, and then huddled with his three fellow umps. “The pine tar extended anywhere from 22 to 24 inches from the end of the bat,” Bondy says.
Brett had circled the bases and returned to the Royals dugout. But moments later, McClelland stepped in his direction and raised his right fist. Brett was out, his go-ahead home run was erased and the game appeared to be over, a 4-3 Yankees win.
A fiery presence even when things were going his way, Brett barreled toward McClelland, fury in his eyes and fearsome language on his lips. Another ump, Joe Brinkman, grabbed him from behind and tried to pull him away from McClelland, but not before Brett had staged a feral protest.
After which, unexpected developments followed in quick succession:
▪ The bat itself briefly disappeared, only to resurface after an unsuccessful concealment effort by two Royals.
▪ The umpires’ call was appealed by the Royals and overturned by MacPhail, who ruled that Brett shouldn’t have been called out for a relatively minor transgression (this prompted Steinbrenner to say the league president should move to Missouri).
▪ Yankees fans sued to prevent the game from continuing, which compelled the involvement of New York State’s judiciary (the courts didn’t interfere with MacPhail’s ruling).
The negotiations finally waned, and on Aug. 18 the teams took the field in the Bronx to finish the game. A total of 1,245 came out for the conclusion. “After 25 days of waiting,” Bondy writes, “after all the fussing and fighting in courtrooms and club offices, the whole thing on this Thursday (took) nine minutes, 41 seconds.”
Even those who know the story from top to bottom might find something new in “The Pine Tar Game.”
Relying upon the recollections of those close the Yankees, Bondy takes the reader into the team’s dugout, explaining that although many claim that Nettles was the one who encouraged Martin to complain, “it was actually Zimmer who reminded the Yankees manager.” One of Bondy’s Kansas City sources, meanwhile, contradicts the popular belief that Brett was completely unaware of the regulations.
“Despite some hedging that day and in years to come,” Bondy writes, “Brett understood full well that his precious seven-grain bat was in violation of the pine tar rule.”
Bondy also does a solid job of depicting the odd purgatory into which the game itself was plunged, and the sense that just about anyone might become involved in the saga. At Steinbrenner’s behest, Bondy notes, Roy Cohn, the former government lawyer known for his role in Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hunt of the 1950s, offered legal help to the New York fans who filed suit to stop the game’s resumption.
In the end, the result didn’t much matter. Though the Yankees and the Royals were tremendous rivals at this point — they met in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons ending in 1978 — both teams would miss the postseason in ’83.
Still, their encounters rarely lacked for tension. And to judge by comments from those involved, if it wasn’t pine tar, something else would’ve gotten them stirred up.
In one of the many new interviews conducted for the book, Willie Randolph, the Yankees second baseman from 1976 to 1988, tells Bondy that the antagonism persists to this day: “It’s weird, but when I see an ex-Kansas City player, I usually get the silent treatment…. There was mutual respect, but nobody liked anybody.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy” by Filip Bondy (256 pages; Scribner; $25)