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Hall of Famer George Brett on Pine Tar Game, 40 years later

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett is his jovial self, laughing and smiling while reflecting on his rage 40 years ago today in the infamous yet celebrated Pine Tar Game against the New York Yankees.

On July 24, 1983, with two outs in the ninth inning and his visiting Kansas City Royals trailing, Brett hit a two-run home run off fellow future Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage, vaulting the Royals into a 5-4 lead. New York manager Billy Martin immediately challenged the homer on the grounds that the pine tar on Brett’s bat covered more than the allowable 18 inches.

After the umpires huddled and measured the bat’s pine tar against the 17-inch width of home plate, rookie ump Tim McClelland invalidated Brett’s blast, pointed the bat at the Royals’ dugout and called Brett out, unleashing the ire of the Royals’ third baseman, who stormed back onto the field. The chaotic scene, vivid for the ages, painted a new perception of Brett and altered the annals of baseball.

Security confiscated the bat from the Royals after K.C. pitcher Gaylord Perry had taken it from McClelland. It was delivered to the office of American League president Lee MacPhail. Four days after Brett had circled the bases, MacPhail upheld Kansas City’s protest, overturned the on-field decision, reinstated the homer, negated the Yankees’ 4-3 win and ordered the game replayed from the moment of the controversy. MacPhail said that although the umpires’ interpretation of Rule 1.10 (b) was “technically defensible,” it was “not in accord with the intent or spirit of the rules.” The rulebook provision was meant to avoid dirtying too many baseballs, not to affect the outcome of a play or game.

On Aug. 18 in the Bronx, it took 12 minutes for the Royals and Yankees to replay the end of the game from the moment of controversy, in front of about 1,200 fans (nearly 34,000 had attended July 24). The Royals won 5-4 without Brett, as MacPhail had retroactively ejected Brett for his outburst. That offseason, Major League Baseball changed the rule, memorializing the explosive events as a unique chapter in the sport’s history.

Brett, who played for the Royals during his entire MLB career from 1973 to 1993, is the only man to win batting titles in three decades. He was an All-Star for 13 consecutive seasons, won the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 1980 and was a World Series champion and Gold Glove winner in 1985. The lefty’s .390 batting average in 1988 remains the second highest (behind Tony Gwynn’s .394 in 1994) since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Now in his 31st season as the Royals’ vice president of baseball operations, Brett was a first-ballot Hall of Fame electee in 1999.

Brett, 70, in Cooperstown for the annual induction weekend, spoke Friday about the pine tar episode, his unforgettable tirade and how the bat ended up in the museum here that displays his and Gossage’s Hall of Fame plaques. Here are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

How would you complete a sentence that starts with ‘July 24, 1983?’

July 24, 1983, I remember distinctly I was in the Bronx and it was a Sunday day game. We were playing the team that I despise the most, the New York Yankees, and they despise me. And I’m forever known as the “pine tar guy.” Goose and I have had a lot of laughs over that ever since he got in the Hall of Fame. I never said one word to Goose Gossage playing against him, playing with him and All-Star Games — never said one word. And then we met on a golf course and played golf, and now we’re best buds. I love him.

What were you known for before that day?

Nineteen-eighty was the summer that I almost hit .400 and obviously a lot of stress, and we finally beat the Yankees in the ’80 playoffs. All of a sudden, after beating the Yankees, I didn’t feel good. I felt a really bad pain inside me, basically, and it turned out I had internal and external hemorrhoids. And it seemed like everywhere I went after that, getting loose before your at-bat, all the idiots that would be sitting by the on-deck circle would make jokes. You never turn around. I just ignored it. But then, July 24, 1983, came around and then I was the pine tar guy. Seriously, what would you rather be remembered for? Hitting a home run off Goose Gossage in the ninth inning to win a ballgame, or being the guy with hemorrhoids in the World Series?

How many times have you seen the video of that day and what do you take from it when you do see it?

I see it quite a bit. I don’t pull it up on YouTube, I don’t do that. I’m not one of those guys who’ll watch it over and over again, but just by chance, watching TV and seeing clips of it, I’ve probably seen it 100 times. Showed it to my kids a whole bunch of times when they were young. I wanted to see the look on their faces when I got mad, and I told them you better never make me this mad, and they never did.

When you watch that video, what regretful memories do you have?

The one thing I regret is I wish I wouldn’t have waved my hands that much when I was running out. It’s funny, some of the Royals’ minor league affiliates will do a bobble head and draw fans in, and they had George Brett bobblehead night one day in Lexington, Kentucky — one of our A-League teams back in the days — and instead of the bobble head moving around, the arms went up and down. I thought that was kind of good. But no, I have no regrets at all. None whatsoever. I mean, I played to win. I would do whatever it took to win a ballgame, and then when you do something as heroic as what I did, two outs in the ninth inning, hit a home run off Goose Gossage, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and you think you’ve won the game and all of a sudden they say you cheated — obviously, I didn’t cheat. Didn’t feel like I had to cheat, I thought I was a pretty good player. But for them to take that away was frustrating. Ironically, a teammate of mine, [Hall of Famer] Gaylord Perry, who liked memorabilia, thought it’d be cool to steal the bat from the umpire, so he steals it.

What do you think of where the bat is now?

It’s right where it belongs, it belongs in the Hall of Fame. At one time, I did sell it. I was getting all these offers from people to buy it. Barry Halper, collector, part owner of the New York Yankees, I sold it to him for $25,000. About two weeks later, I came to my senses and I said, “No, Barry, I can’t do that. Here’s your $25,000 back.” I got the bat back and I gave it to the Hall of Fame. It’s a piece of baseball history and it’s gonna stay in here the rest of its life. One thing I do regret is I used that bat again. I cleaned it all up. The bat was a really good bat. It was an eight- or nine-grainer, the least amount of grain on the bat is usually where the heart of the wood is. And I’d used that bat for probably a month. Lee MacPhail shipped it back to us, we were in Detroit when I got the bat back, playing the Tigers. And the first thing I did is I got some rubbing alcohol and I cleaned off the bat to 18 inches and drew a red line around the bat. I used it for two or three days again and Gaylord comes up to me and says, “George, you can’t use that bat, it’s too valuable. If you break it, it’s not worth anything.” So I took it out of play and that’s when I got rid of it. But I wish I would have kept the bat in its original state. I think it would be better for everybody to see what it was. I think the rule is 18 inches and my pine tar, I think, was 23. So it’s 5 inches over the limit. But here’s the kicker, I used a bat that was unfinished, it was raw ash — a lot of people put enamel finish on it or some type of shellac or something. I just used raw wood. And so the pine tar itself, I don’t think was up that high. It just kind of grew in the grain because there was no protection, there was no varnish on the bat or anything like that. So it was black going up there, up to the end of the bat. But it really wasn’t pine tar, it was just kind of growing into the wood.

Let’s go back to the game itself. What do you remember about the situation and your emotions when you hit the home run, right up until the home run was — at least for the moment — nullified?

They had a guy come in, [Dale] Murray, who had a good sinker, threw a really heavy ball. And he was cruising along, pitched three innings, did a great job. And then U.L. Washington got a base hit off him and they brought Goose in to face me. And I would rather face a guy that threw like Goose. I had a lot of at bats off Goose. I don’t think he ever threw me a slider. I don’t think he ever threw a changeup in his life. And when he faced Hal McRae, Amos Otis and those guys, he would throw sliders, but he always threw me fastballs. And I just said, “Hey, you know, you got to just look fastball.” And so I looked fastball and the next thing you know, hit a home run. I was excited, ran around the bases, gave us the lead in the top of the ninth inning, there was two outs. And the next thing you know, I’m crossing home plate and I saw Billy Martin out there, and I’m going, “What the hell’s he doing out there?” By the time I get to the dugout, I’m sitting there next to Vida Blue, I think, and Frank White was sitting close to me. And Frank said, “You know, they might call you out for using too much pine tar.” And I said, “I’ve never heard of that before. Too much pine tar. What do you mean?” He said, “Well, they called John Mayberry out on that.” (Editor’s note: In a 1975 game, Mayberry’s bat was inspected for excess pine tar after he hit two home runs for the Royals, but the umpires didn’t penalize him and an Angels protest was denied by MacPhail.) And I go, “Well, if they call me out for using too much pine tar, I’ll run out and kill one of those SOBs.” And sure enough, as soon as I said that, Tim McClelland walks over and points at me and says, “You’re out.” I mean, obviously, I wasn’t gonna hit him. I looked like a madman coming out. I think everything kind of got a little more dramatic than it should have. Because [umpire] Joe Brinkman got behind me and started pulling me back, and I was trying to get away and he had a chokehold on me and just pulling me backwards and backwards and I was just trying to get free from him. I wasn’t going after Tim McClelland. I mean, as Timmy would always say, “George, what were you gonna do to me? I’m 6’5″ [he was listed at 6’6″], I’ve got shin guards on, I’ve got a bat in one hand, a mask in the other. What are you gonna do to me?” I said, “Timmy, I was just going to come out and yell at you, I wasn’t going to hit you. You would’ve kicked my ass.” But it’s something that we all joke about. I remember getting telegrams from back in the day, 1983. I got a telegram from Joe Brinkman, the day that Lee MacPhail overruled it. He said, “Congratulations on your home run, can’t wait to see you again.” And ironically enough, Tim McClelland was umpiring behind home plate in Detroit when I got my bat back. And Tim says, “Hey, you want me to check your bat?” And I said, “Timmy, let’s just let this pass, OK?” But yeah, it was great. It was a good moment. Baseball players are always remembered for something, you know. And if I’m going to be remembered for hitting a home run and showing my emotions and my desire to win, that’s good, that’s a good thing.

What did you learn about how the Yankees even thought to do that [challenge the home run]?

Well, two weeks prior to that we were playing the Yankees in Kansas City. I was using the same bat. And [Yankees third baseman] Graig Nettles always tells the story that we (the Yankees) knew it was illegal two weeks ago, but he (Brett) never got a hit in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning to change the outcome of the game. You might get a base hit with two outs and nobody on in the first inning or base hit with nobody on in the fifth inning. They’re not going to challenge that. So they waited for the right time, and the right time was in New York in Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning when I did something dramatic — and that’s when they called me out on it.

Royals general manager John Schuerholz decided to appeal. What do you know about the process and decision?

Obviously, I love the decision when Schuerholz and Dean Taylor, our assistant GM, protested the call by the umpire. Lee MacPhail ruled in the Royals’ favor. I don’t know what was in the letter, but John’s a pretty bright guy, and they got it overturned. We had to go back on an off day. I was kicked out of the game. I was still gonna go to the game, but the manager then, Dick Howser, said don’t even go the stadium, it’ll be a circus. So me and the son of [famed actor] Don Ameche, Larry — he was a TWA rep, we always chartered TWA jets back then — we went to some restaurant in New Jersey, an Italian restaurant, and watched the game on a little 10-inch TV. And went back to the airport, the guys had to go there after finishing the game, and next thing you know we were flying to Baltimore.

What do you think this anniversary should mean?

I don’t know. Ironically enough, the Royals are in Yankee Stadium [over the weekend], which I think is great. I think every July 24th, they should play there. What does it mean? I don’t know. Put it this way, if I didn’t have the pine tar on my bat, we wouldn’t be doing this interview right now. I’d be on the golf course and maybe still sleeping, who knows. If it happened in Cleveland back then, if it happened in Oakland back then, would we be doing this? But it’s New York City, you know, and that’s the whole deal. New York’s a big deal. I seemed to always play well in New York. It was just something that I’m proud of. Sometimes you gotta remind the younger generation that I was the guy that did that, but it’s cool.

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