An Insider Recalls the Pine Tar Game
Former KC Royal, Greg Pryor, looks back at the infamous episode
It’s 40 years since George Brett of the Kansas City Royals swung his pine tar-coated bat in Yankee Stadium, sparking one of the most bizarre episodes in baseball history.
“I was in the bullpen helping Don Hood warm up when George hit the home run,” recalls Greg Pryor in conversation with Sports History Weekly.
Pryor remembers feeling relieved when the game was over, but for a different reason. He no longer needed to squat down at the receiving end of Hood’s left-handed practice throws.
It was the first time that Pryor, a 3rd baseman and short stop, worked the bullpen. Both catchers were being used in the game and Royals GM, Dick Howser, asked his infielder to help out.
Armed with just a face mask and a catcher’s mitt, but with no body protection, Hood’s wild dirt balls were leaving him unsettled.
Pryor was a member of the Chicago White Sox from 1978 to 1981 and the Kansas City Royals from 1982 to 1986, including the team that won the 1985 World Series.
He is the only MLB veteran who played both the Disco Demolition (1979) and Pine Tar (1983) games, among two of baseball’s strangest stories.
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In 2020, Pryor released ‘The Day The Yankees Made Me Shave’, an anecdotal self-published book about his time in professional baseball. With a Forward by Tony La Russa, it makes for a quick and entertaining read, including a chapter devoted to the Pine Tar game.
That day, on July 24, 1983, the Royals were trailing the Yankees 4-3 with 2 outs at the top of the 9th inning when Brett stepped up to the plate to confront relief hurler, Goose Gossage.
After fouling the first pitch, and with U L Washington on 1st base, he smacked a 2-run homer into right field, putting the Royals ahead 5-4.
It was déjà vu for Brett and the team, since 3 years earlier he knocked a homer off Gossage to win the AL pennant and send the Royals to the World Series for the first time.
But when Brett crossed home plate after rounding the bases, Yankees GM, Billy Martin, came out to complain that Brett’s bat was covered with pine tar above the legal limit.
Inspecting the bat closely, home plate umpire Tim McClelland and his crew agreed that excess tar was applied above the allowable 18 inches from the tip of the handle.
Evoking the MLB rule book, McLelland called Brett out for using an “illegal” bat and the Yankees were subsequently granted a walk-off victory.
At that point, Brett stormed out of the dugout to challenge McClelland and in a melee situation, had to be restrained by the umpires and his own teammates.
“Many players used some kind of an agent to improve their grip and George used lots of it,” says Pryor.
“In his case, he would use the same bat 7 or 8 times at games but he didn’t wipe the stains completely after each use.”
Following the game, the visiting team’s locker room was mobbed by reporters trying to get Brett’s comment on the incident.
“I couldn’t get to my locker because there were 30 reporters in there. My locker was next to George…he was number 5 and I was 4.”
After the room cleared, Pryor went in to change and saw Brett sitting with his head down and noticeably dejected.
“I tried to cheer him up by joking that there’s a pine tar company that will approach him for a commercial and make him a lot of money.”
The Royals appealed the umpires’ decision and four days later, the protest made the desk of AL President, Lee MacPhail.
MacPhail reversed the field decision on the basis that the purpose of the code around pine tar application was to avoid discoloring the balls while in play. The gripping agent in itself is not an artificial aid for hitting home runs and therefore, Brett’s successful swing was legitimate.
MacPhail ordered the game resumed for another day, though he ejected Brett, Howser, and Rocky Colavito (coach) for their outbursts against McClelland.
Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry was dismissed as well, since he helped hide the bat in the clubhouse away from officials before stadium security had it recovered.
25 days later on August 18, 1983, Kansas City made the trip back to the Bronx. The two teams picked up where they left off at the top of 9th inning with 2 outs and the Royals leading 5-4.
“We flew to Newark on an off-day, got on the bus, drove to Yankee Stadium, changed into our uniforms, and played for less than 15 minutes.”
Hal McRae, who followed Brett in the lineup, was first at the plate and he struck out to end the top of the 9th inning.
The Royals took the field and Pryor assumed Brett’s position at 3rd base, since the slugger wasn’t permitted to finish the game.
Reliever Dan Quisenberry got 3 quick outs to shut down the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th and win the game 5-4.
Pryor had no plays on 3rd base for that brief half-inning, but he recalls a surreal moment looking out at an empty stadium. “There was nobody there.”
On July 24th, they played in front of almost 34,000 fans. This time, it was a workday and there were only 1,245 spectators in the stands.
The team got dressed and boarded the bus back to Newark for a flight to Baltimore where they would face the Orioles the next day in a double-header.
Brett was waiting on the plane and when Pryor spotted him, he was handling a wad of cash with a smirk on his face.
“I asked him, what’s that?” Pryor remembers Brett responding, “That’s the money I got for my Pine Tar bat. I sold it to a collector.”
While the team was playing in the Bronx, Brett was having dinner at a restaurant in New Jersey with Barry Halper, part owner of the Yankees and a renowned memorabilia collector. Halper ended up buying the Pine Tar bat for $25,000 in cash.
Later on, recognizing its historic importance, Brett re-purchased the swinging instrument from Halper for the same $25,000, in addition to giving him the bat he used to hit 3 home runs against Catfish Hunter in the 1978 playoffs.
Today, the infamous Pine Tar artefact resides at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
That year, neither the Royals, nor the Yankees made the playoffs and the game would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the way the Pine Tar incident developed.
Says Pryor, “In retrospect, McLelland should have allowed the home run and let the Yankees protest, which would have saved us a trip back.”
For the past 30 years, Greg Pryor has run Life Priority, a private-label health and nutrition company. The products are available exclusively on-line at www.LifePriority.com
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