The Pine Tar Game

Not shocking that I am rules nerd given the topic of my book and this blog. I had the pleasure of reading a book recently about one of the greatest rules controversies in the history of the game.

I am talking about the famous pine tar game:

Filip Bondy’s book The Pine Tar Game (available here on Amazon) dissects this game from every angle. He does a fantastic job of not only describing the game, but taking time to lay out the context of the moment. I learned a ton about the late 70s Royals/Yankees rivalry, front office personnel for the teams, and players.

Given the amount of time I spend in the rule book during the baseball season, it takes a special book for me to dive into rules in the off season. This is one of them.

The thing I learned that surprised me the most was that Brett was not the first player to be called out on this rule. Yankee Thurman Munson was called out for too much pine tar in 1975 (8 years before Brett’s game).

Here is the Baseball Reference page for that game. Notice how the out in the top of the 1st inning for Munson is listed as a fly ball to the catcher. When an out occurs for something goofy, they usually assign the put out to the nearest fielder – in this case the catcher. The description is just using the scoring to parse out the result, but this was not a fly ball. This Hardball Times article has more on the Munson’s game.

From an umpiring perspective there are a few interesting things from the book. My favorite story is how upon resumption of the game Billy Martin’s first course of action was to appeal runners touching their bases. The new umpires produced signed affidavits from the original crew to deny the appeal.

Martin also took out his frustration by making a ton of nonsensical substitutions including pitcher Ron Guidry playing CF (and being pinch hit for in the bottom half of the 9th) and Don Mattingly playing 2nd base. I believe this is one of the last occurrences of a lefty playing the keystone base in a Major League game. The complete box score for the game is located here.

The most interesting thing to umpires is the evolution of the rule book based on this game. Or asked more eloquently – could this happen again? The answer is no.

Here is rule 3.02 (c):

(c) The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance. Any such material or substance that extends past the 18-inch limitation shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.

NOTE: If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above until a time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.

The emphasis added is mine. In case anyone could read this and think an out is still possible, the rules beat the notion with this additional comment:

Rule 3.02(c) Comment: If pine tar extends past the 18-inch limitation, then the umpire, on his own initiative or if alerted by the opposing team, shall order the batter to use a different bat. The batter may use the bat later in the game only if the excess substance is removed. If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 3.02(c) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.

Again the emphasis added is mine. I think it is pretty clear that pine tar cannot cause an out. In 1983 the way the rules were written, the umpires were just in calling an out (by the letter of the law…maybe not from a game management standpoint). The appeal was upheld due to the “spirit of the rules”. This spirit is now the law.

I cannot recommend this book enough if you are a fan of baseball, its history and/or the rules. It is a quick read that will surely teach you something you did not already know about this game. I give it the full 18 inches of allowable pine tar on the handle of the bat.

If you want to learn more about this rule and others in a simple, engaging format, check out our book RuleGraphics. All the details about the rules in one simple place accompanied by illustrations and sample plays.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s