The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy

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9781476777177: The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy
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The Pine Tar Game Introduction


The story begins, as all the best ones do, with a bat and a ball. The tale is layered with rules, with politics, with tantrums, with a David and Goliath rivalry, with judicial procedures, with Roy Cohn working for one side and Rush Limbaugh for the other, with deep, lasting friendships and with strong, quirky ballpark personalities. But the saga of the Pine Tar Game centers on a Hillerich & Bradsby model T (for Marv Throneberry)–85 Louisville Slugger, 341/2 inches long, 32 ounces in weight. Some players, as Pete Rose once did, constantly fiddle with bats during their careers, changing models, lengths, and weights as often as they do their socks. They create hybrid models, mutants. Others, like Derek Jeter, retain the same design and weight for every game they play. Jeter swung the P?72 Louisville Slugger for 20 years with the Yankees. The T?85 was George Brett’s model and the pine tar bat was his favorite T?85, ever. The bat now rests inside a glass display case in Cooperstown. Some of the pine tar has been scraped off, or worn off. Look closely and you’ll see a red line where that nasty stuff once rose to a level deemed sinful by the umpires, until it wasn’t.

The bat was a small botanical miracle, just seven grains of ash. “You look at these grains now, maybe, a good bat might be a 10-, 11-, 12-grainer, a normal bat would be 13, 14, 15 grains going through it,” George Brett says. “But this one had seven, which meant it was really, really hard.” Brett had a contact at Hillerich & Bradsby, a fellow he knew only as Tiny. Tiny would look out for the Kansas City Royals’ third baseman, search the lumber for the very best stock. He manufactured this bat for Brett, and then Tiny marked red stars on top of the knots, which highlighted the hardest parts of the wood. This Louisville Slugger would not snap or splinter easily, not like those maple toothpicks that shatter today at the first sight of a cut fastball.

In 1983, almost all the bats were still Louisville Sluggers, made from ash trees. Since then, an epidemic of emerald ash borers—an Asian beetle invasion—has hurt the stock. Besides, a lot of ballplayers simply decided they preferred maple, which is a heavier, harder, smoother wood with thinner grains; or even birch wood, a compromise material. Nathan Stalvey, curator at the Louisville Slugger factory and museum, estimates that the percent of ash bats used in the major leagues has dipped in the past few decades from about 95 percent to 40 percent. Hillerich & Bradsby’s share of the market has also slipped substantially, because of globalization and player endorsements. The Louisville company that once held a monopoly on bats must now share the market with 32 other manufacturers, including Rawlings, Mizuno, Old Hickory, Trinity, and Chandler. Only about 30 percent of the bats in major league games are now produced by Hillerich & Bradsby. Brett kept his own precious bat unvarnished, raw. “I just liked the way it felt, liked the way it looked,” he says. “Plain, tempered, raw ash, that came out real white.” But plain only went so far. He kept applying more of a sticky hydrocarbon substance, made from the stumps of pine trees, for a better grip. He was one of the few players then or now who never wore batting gloves, preferring bare hands on raw bat. Brett was also one of only a few hitters to use so much pine tar. Great batters like Pete Rose and Ted Williams preferred their bats much tidier. Both would douse their bats daily in wood alcohol. Brett was a bat slob, and is the first to admit it. “What happens in my case is the pine tar gets in the grain and starts growing inside,” Brett says. “It’s not just caked on the bat, it’s kind of growing inside the grain. As a result of using a bat for three or four weeks and putting pine tar on three, four times a day, it’s gonna get pretty ugly. And the bat was pretty ugly. But it was still working.”

It was working very well on Sunday, July 24, 1983, the finale of a tight, four-game series in the Bronx. The Yanks had taken two of the first three games and were within spitting distance of winning the fourth when Brett knocked a ripping fastball from Goose Gossage over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium. The home run arrived with two outs and one runner on base in the ninth inning, the Yanks up, 4–3, and with the best reliever in baseball about to close out a save against the pesky, small-market rivals. Suddenly, the Royals were ahead, 5–4. And then, just as suddenly, they weren’t, which is when the story of the baseball itself comes into play.

This was a different time, and the economics of Major League Baseball were considerably more modest. While George Steinbrenner was relatively extravagant in all eras, he was still spending only $13 million total on his player payroll in 1983, about $40 million in 2015 dollars. The Yankees are now forever flirting with a $200–$225 million payroll, more than five times as great, not always with wonderful results. Brett, a veteran superstar, was earning $1 million with the Royals. At this juncture, it was still possible for a merely wealthy man to own a baseball team. He didn’t have to be a billionaire or a conglomerate. One such owner, a famous miser, was Calvin Griffith, who took over the Washington Senators in 1955, moved them to Minnesota in 1961 as the Twins, and held on to the reins until 1984. Griffith was a cantankerous man, who unfortunately remains best known for explaining in 1978 why he relocated his team to Minneapolis: “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” the Canadian-born owner told a local Lions Club. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.” The poor Lions at the meeting left the place understandably disturbed. One businessman told a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, “I can see why he has trouble with some of his players after listening to him talk.”

Again, this was a different time, and such ignorant speech did not disqualify Griffith from owning the Twins, or even earn him a suspension. Over the years, Griffith became thoroughly annoyed at the costs of running a franchise and began to micromanage his team’s budget in much the same way as Charlie Finley with the A’s. Among his pet peeves was that the Twins were exhausting more than their designated allotment of baseballs in games, replacing dirty ones with fresh ones too often. By today’s standards, the baseballs then were being mightily overused, because now they are directly tossed into the dugout at a pitcher’s discretion, or whenever they so much as touch the dirt. Not so long ago, a pitcher dissatisfied with a seam or the slickness of a baseball would have to relay it for inspection to the umpire, who might reject the plea and throw the old ball right back into play. Griffith began to look into the causes of soiled baseballs and discovered that many were stained by contact with dirt on bats. In particular, contact with that sticky, contagious black pine tar. As Lee MacPhail, president of the American League, confirmed in 2003, “The clubs were losing a lot of balls because the pine tar was getting on them, and they’d have to be thrown out in batting practice and everything else.” If only pine tar were white, like the accessible rosin bags that pitchers use before gripping the baseball, this would never have become an issue. Rosin was just fine for pitchers, even encouraged. Pine tar was a different story—as starter Michael Pineda of the Yankees discovered in April 2014, when he was caught with a strip of the dark substance on his neck and tossed from a game against the Red Sox in Boston.

Back in 1976, Griffith retained considerable influence with the rules committee and, aided by other skinflint owners, was able to push through Rule 1.10 (c), which stated, in passive-aggressive fashion, “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. Any such material, including pine tar, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, in the umpire’s judgment, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game. No such material shall improve the reaction or distance factor of the bat.”

The issue was complicated, however, and interpretations murky. There were two related rules that possibly could render a ball struck by an illegal bat an illegal hit. Or not. There were gray areas, and contradictory precedents. The pine tar rule actually had some organic roots in the Big Bang beginnings of baseball. The origins of the decree, and that 18-inch mark, can be traced all the way back to 1885. According to baseball historian John Thorn, a rule was then put into place stating, “The handle of the bat may be wound with twine not to exceed 18 inches from the end.” The next year, 1886, another statute was added to deal with such gritty stuff as rosin and dirt: “A granulated substance may be applied to the bat handle not to exceed 18 inches from the end.” In 1893, this same rule was modified a bit, into, “The bat must be made wholly of hard wood except that the handle may be wound with twine, or a granulated substance applied, not to exceed 18 inches from the end.”

This was then refined, yet again: “The bat shall be round, not over 23/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part, not more than 42 inches in length, and entirely of hard, solid wood in one piece. Twine may be wound around it or a granulated substance applied to it, for a distance of 18 inches from the end of the handle, but not elsewhere.”

For decades, that sufficed. The 18-inch margin never changed. There was no denying, however, that baseballs were getting dirtier faster, and concern had grown in the sport about discolored, hard-to-spot baseballs ever since Ray Chapman was killed by a soil-camouflaged fastball from Carl Mays in 1920. Some batters used a combination of rosin and pine tar for a better grip. Others, most famously Stan Musial, would apply beeswax to the handle. When it became fashionable during the 1950s to wrap the handle of bats with adhesive tape (every kid’s sandlot bat in that era was swathed in black tape), the Playing Rules Committee enacted more specific modifications in 1954: “The bat shall be a smooth, rounded stick not more than 23/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood or formed from a block of wood consisting of two or more pieces of wood bonded together with an adhesive in such a way that the grain direction of all pieces is essentially parallel to the length of the bat. Any such laminated bat shall contain only wood or adhesive, except for a clear finish. For a distance of 18 inches from the end by which the bat is gripped, it may be roughened or wrapped with tape or twine.”

Ergo, the origin of it all, the primordial ooze that begat one of the most absurd, most entertaining baseball games in major league history. Or maybe it was two games, depending on how you look at it.

• • •

No sporting event is played exclusively outside some degree of social context. The year 1983 was a particularly apprehensive time in New York City, fraught with fears over the spread of a relatively new plague, AIDS. By the end of the year, more than 850 New Yorkers were known to have died from the disease, which was still not understood at all. Could it be spread by close contact in large crowds? By public toilet seats at ballparks? Mayor Ed Koch, serving the sixth year of his 12-year term, seemed curiously uninterested in the growing epidemic. The administration had spent a grand total of $24,500 on the subject. Two New York gays, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, published a book, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, considered somewhat reckless at this stage by many doctors.

In Kansas City, the impact of this disease was yet to be felt in full. Instead, the city was immersed in a fiscal battle with its Missouri neighbors over school busing and desegregation, hoping to end a pattern of white flight to the suburbs by creating an attractive magnet system within its borders. The battle was eventually lost and cost a small fortune. Kansas City was also fighting a more stereotypical, outsider’s view of the place that it was good for ribs, barbecue sauce, and little else. There was a lot of bad news to deal with in the early eighties, the worst of which was the walkway collapse at the Hyatt Regency on July 17, 1981, which killed 114 people and injured 200 more. That tragedy became something of a symbol for the crumbling infrastructure of the inner city. So these were not easy times for either metropolis, but the cities’ baseball teams could always supply some small relief. This game on July 24, 1983, would provide the sort of escapist fun and debate badly required by all. It would also sell newspapers, never a bad thing at any time.

• • •

I was there in the press box at Yankee Stadium when it happened, when Brett went nuts. Honest. I got one of those “I Covered the Pine Tar Game” T?shirts handed out to the Yankee beat writers by the team’s playful public relations director, Ken Nigro—though I don’t for the life of me know what happened to that precious relic. My wife probably threw it out, as she does many other things, which is her only bad habit. At the time, I was the beat writer for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, and about to accept a job with the New York Daily News sports department for more money to support a young family. This was a big career transition for me, and when researching this book it became a bit of an inconvenience. To read my coverage of the game, and my take on Lee MacPhail’s surprising decision to replay the final inning, I went through a reel of microfiche in Hackensack’s Johnson Library for old Record articles. But to retrieve my stories on the court proceedings and the actual replay that followed, I needed to pester helpful Daily News library researchers for copies of the yellowed clippings.

Those articles told of a very different era, of course. The relationship between the media and the baseball teams in New York was just beginning to turn adversarial. I recall being on the road with the Yankees in 1983, having a beer with Mike McAlary of the New York Post and Bill “Killer” Kane, traveling secretary for the club. Kane was lamenting how we all used to be partners in this business, and how the reporters had changed that with their intrusive, negative coverage. There was no going back, however. The Yankee Stadium press box then was the center of the sports universe—the communications nexus between George Steinbrenner and the public that he so desperately wished to convince about one ridiculous matter or another. Reporters like Murray Chass and Joe Durso of the New York Times, McAlary and Henry Hecht of the New York Post, Bill Madden and Phil Pepe of the Daily News, and Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger would spend great lengths of time in the locker room named after longtime equipment manager Pete Sheehy. They would chat with players and listen to Billy Martin ...

Revue de presse :

“In The Pine Tar Game Filip Bondy conjures a seminal moment in baseball history when what passed for controversy was more keystone cops than congressional investigation and illicit substances were sticky rather than addictive. The book is a delightful romp guaranteed to make a baseball lover pine for a more innocent time full of bluster and pique.”
Jane Leavy, New York Times bestselling author of Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy

The Pine Tar Game does exactly what writing is supposed to do: It takes a moment in time, one of the craziest in all of baseball history, and makes you understand that you didn't know nearly as much about it as you thought you did. All this time later, it makes you realize that the moment was even crazier than you remembered. This story could never possibly have been told better than Filip Bondy tells it.”
Mike Lupica, columnist for the New York Daily News and commentator at ESPN

·“Transforms a minor albeit amusing baseball play into an artful narrative, replete with a great cast of characters.”
—The Daily Beast

“Bondy successfully explores the personalities of those involved in the adventure and its aftermath…entertaining.”
—Bill Littlefield, NPR

“The teenage Yankee fan inside of me is still angry at Lee MacPhail for upholding Kansas City’s protest and wiping out perhaps the most bizarre ruling in baseball history. None of us who watched live will ever forget the sight of George Brett making like Jack Nicholson in The Shining as he charged from the dugout, and none of you who read this book will ever forget how the great Filip Bondy, the perfect chronicler of this imperfect moment, brought a wild and crazy Yankee Stadium day back to life.”
Ian O’Connor, New York Times bestselling authorof The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter

“An improbably rich and entertaining tale…this one could find a lot of readers.”
—Booklist

“As only Rumpelstiltskin could take straw and turn it into gold, Filip Bondy has turned pine tar into fun, frenzy and foolishness. I had a ball reading about a bat.”
—Frank Deford, Senior Contributing Writer, Sports Illustrated

“Masterfully offers context and a history of the Yankees-Royals’ complicated sports rivalry…[the book] is worthy for devoted professional baseball fans and for its artfulness in creating a narrative focused primarily on just one pitch.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“If you thought you knew the full, sticky story of the most bizarre game in the annals of baseball, you thought wrong. The great Filip Bondy proves it on every page of this fresh and richly reported book, going way beyond the goop on George Brett's bat to weave a story that is rollicking and revelatory from beginning to end.”
—Wayne Coffey, New York Times bestselling author of The Boys of Winter and coauthor of Mariano Rivera's The Closer

“In his smart, whimsical New York Daily News columns, Filip Bondy has long projected a big-city voice along with a healthy appreciation and sympathy for small-market challengers. He does it again in The Pine Tar Game, with a richly reported and written account of the Yankees-Royals rivalry that gave us memorable characters and zany circumstances. Bondy was there. With his book, you will be, too.”
Harvey Araton, author of Driving Mr. Yogi

“A sticky moment milked for all its nutty, head-shaking glory.” Sports Illustrated

“Filip Bondy craftily tells the story behind the notorious Pine Tar Game…a clever look into the characters that made up the short-lived but angry rivalry between the revived Yankees of the late '70s and early '80s and the burgeoning Kansas City Royals of that same period.” Providence Journal

“A rollicking account of a clutch home run, a marvelous temper tantrum, and an inning that took almost a month to complete…Even those who know [the ins and outs of the story] find something new in The Pine Tar Game…Depict[s] the odd purgatory into which the game itself was plunged, and the sense that just about anyone might become involved in the saga.”
—The Kansas City Star

“[Bondy] writes with a keen eye for character, giving us masterful sketches of Brett, Martin, team owners Ewing Kauffman and George Steinbrenner, and others.”
Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Bondy’s book fills in all the details I missed, ignored or forgot in all the retellings…[He] weaves together the Yankees’ tradition, swagger and dysfunction with tales of Charlie Finley, Rush Limbaugh, Gaylord Perry, and David Cone to thoroughly document the conditions that led Brett to make his infamous sprint to home.”
—Wichita Eagle

“Long before pro football’s Deflategate controversy over the inflation level of game balls, baseball had an equally mole hill-turned-mountain brouhaha. . . . Filip Bondy witnessed it all as a young sports writer, and now uses this bizarre episode to examine the larger narrative of shifting values in baseball and to rewind the rivalry between the mighty pinstripers and the small-town Royals.”
Christian Science Monitor

“A study in contrasts between the small-market Kansas City team and the Yankees with their huge New York market. . . . Deserve[s] high marks.”
—Washington Times

“A must-own for any Royals fan.”
—RoyalsReview.com

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