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.

Umpires and history

Fans say umpires are at their best when they are not noticed. Most umpires don’t like to inject themselves into the game. The goal is to let the players decide the outcome.

Washington fans wishes the umpire would have injected himself more into Max Scherzer’s game over the weekend. For people that missed it, Scherzer was perfect through 8 2/3rds. He was one strike away from history when this happened:

Here is the rule that covers this (old format):

6.08 The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when—

(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;

What happens when the umpire rules the batter made no attempt to avoid the ball. The ball is dead, the pitch is called a strike or ball depending on where it is in relation to the strike zone, and then the game is moved on to the next pitch.

Was this the right call? Well, I think it certainly was a tough call. I think this in situation I would have also given the batter first.

A couple of points to consider:

  1. The ball comes at the batter very fast. Most movement is actually just reaction and not attempts to take a pitch. Sure, some guys lean in but I think this is more rare than people think
  2. The elbow does not move laterally. A lot of batters have elbow movement up and down at the plate
  3. The pitcher goofed up. The catcher wanted it low and away. The pitch was a cement mixer that was well inside. The batter (and ball) was no where near the zone when it hit him.

My rule of thumb on this (and I remember I am no where near the quality of a MLB umpire) – unless it is blatant by the batter, he gets the benefit of the doubt and the base. To put a number on it, I would say I am giving the base 97% of the time.

The announcers were quick to ask the question “did the batter attempt to get out of the way?” followed by the statement “well, that never gets called”.

While not calling this is a way for the umpire to not needlessly inject himself into a game, there is some precedent for making this call in significant situations.

Check out this box score from May 31, 1968. In the 9th inning, the Giants had the bases loaded and no outs. The box score shows Dick Dietz flew out to left field. But, this is only part of the story.

Dietz was actually hit with a pitch earlier in the at bat. This would have scored a run, pulled the game closer, and ruined Don Drysdale chance for a 5th straight shutout. None of this happened because Harry Wendelstedt ruled Dietz did not attempt to avoid the pitch. The Giants manager was eventually tossed from the game. The Giants got no runs in the inning and Drysdale went on to set a record for consecutive scoreless innings.

As fate would have it when Orel Hershiser was attempting to break Drysdale’s record, he would benefit from an unique call. On September 23, 1988 the Giants had runners on 1st and 3rd and only 1 out. The next ball was an attempted double play that the Dodgers could not turn. Hershiser’s streak appeared to be over.

But, umpires (and I say umpires because some sources say 2B umpire Bob Engel while others say 3B Paul Runge) called interference. This changed the outcome to a double play with no run scoring. Hershiser would go on to break the record.

What does this all mean? Well, I think it means that umpires while trying to be anonymous on the field realize they have a job to do. If the play warrants a call, they will make the call regardless of the historical implications.

Scherzer (for his part knew he messed up and did not argue the call) still gets his name in the record books with a dazzling no hitter.

Hit by pitch is covered on page 41 of RuleGraphics.