Yankees manager Billy Martin ambled onto the field from the dugout across the way, and was engaged in a lengthy conversion with umpire Tim McClelland — both of them looking closely at the bat Brett had just used to go deep off reliever Goose Gossage.
“So we’re just sitting there watching,” Brett recalled Tuesday, “and Frank says, ‘Man, you have a lot of pine tar on there. I remember John Mayberry got called out on one of those when I first came up to the big leagues.’ And I said, ‘If they call me out for using too much pine tar — I’ve never heard of that rule — I’ll run out there and kill one of those SOBs.’
“As soon as I said that,” Brett added with a broad smile, “Tim McClelland turned around and starting looking for me in the dugout.”
The rest of the story is part of baseball lore.
Brett raced from of the dugout, his arms flailing wildly, and jabbed his finger right in McClelland’s face. Fellow umpire Joe Brinkman tried to hold Brett back, eventually putting him in a headlock and spinning him around in a sequence that’s been replayed millions of times.
It happened 30 years ago today.
“It was a positive thing, you know? It wasn’t a groundball that went through my legs or a strikeout. It was something that I did good,” said Brett, who played his entire Hall of Fame career with the Royals and is now serving as their interim hitting coach.
“I hit a home run off one of the toughest relief pitchers in baseball, a Hall of Fame guy, and if I did not use an illegal bat — which I didn’t, it was proven I didn’t — but suspected of using an illegal bat, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Brett said. “It would have been a July 24 game 30 years ago that nobody remembered.”
Instead, just about everybody remembers it.
The attendance that July day was 33,944, even though hundreds of thousands of people claim to have been there. Both teams were in contention — the Royals would finish second in the AL West, the Yankees third in the East — and had developed quite the bitter rivalry.
Throw in the cast of characters — the irascible Martin, Brett and Gossage — and it’s hardly a surprise that an entirely new generation knows every vivid detail.
“It you play for the Kansas City Royals, you know about George and the pine tar,” said Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who wasn’t born until five years later. “He loves it, though.”
He certainly didn’t love it at the time.
“That just shows you his intensity,” said current Royals manager Ned Yost, who was a backup catcher for the Brewers in 1983. “It shows you the type of player he was.”
The Royals immediately appealed McClelland’s decision, and in one of the rare instances in baseball history, it was overturned four days later. American League president Lee MacPhail ordered the game to be finished on Aug. 18, and the Royals won 5-4 with Brett’s homer the difference.
To ensure there were no hard feelings, Brinkman sent Brett a telegram on the day the decision was overturned that read, “Congratulations on the news today. Looking forward to seeing you.”
Brett’s relationship with McClelland has also grown tight. They occasionally see each other at the ballpark, and McCelland still wonders what Brett would have done had he not been held back.
“I always say George wasn’t very smart,” McClelland said, “because he’s running out at me and I’m 6-foot-6 and I weighed 250 pounds and I have protective equipment on and a bat in my hand.”
McClelland fondly recalled the pine tar game during an interview Tuesday night in Houston, shortly before he worked a game between the Astros and Athletics.
“I have young players now come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you were the pine tar umpire. We were just talking about it the other day and they said it was you,’” McClelland said with a laugh. “I’ll have people on the street and people that I know bring it up once in a while. If I go out and give talks, I’m always introduced as the pine tar umpire. It’s fine.”
What became of the bat only adds another rich layer to its history.
Brett was particularly fond of that piece of lumber because it had fewer grains in the wood, and that meant it was a bit harder than most bats. So even after it had become a piece of baseball folklore, Brett continued to use the stick of ash for a few more games,
“Gaylord Perry was on our team and said, ‘George, you’re using a very expensive bat. That bat’s worth a lot of money,’” Brett said. “I remember taking some alcohol and a towel and cleaning it up to 18 inches — I even drew a red line at the 18-inch mark, and used it one or two games — and Gaylord said, ‘You’re crazy to use that bat.’ So that’s when I took it out of play.”
Brett sold it to a collector for $25,000, but quickly realized his mistake. He bought it back for the same price — throwing in a bat he used to hit three homers off Catfish Hunter to seal the deal — and eventually donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It remains there to this day.
“Whenever I go back, I always go and look at it,” Brett said. “It’s pretty cool.”