From The Law vs Ethics Files: The July 24, 1983 Pine Tar Incident, When Baseball Chose Ethics Over Law, And Was 100% Wrong

I have written on this topic before, but this is the famous incident’s anniversary, and I have come to believe that the lesson learned from  the pine tar incident is increasingly the wrong one, and the consequences of this extend well beyond baseball.

On July 24, 1983, the Kansas City Royals were battling the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. With  two outs and a runner on first in the top of the ninth inning,  Royals third baseman George Brett hit a two-run home run off  Yankee closer  Goose Gossage to give his team a 5-4 lead.  Yankee manager Billy Martin, however, had been waiting like a spider for this moment.

Long ago, he had noticed that perennial batting champ Brett used a bat that had pine tar (used to allow a batter to grip the bat better) on the handle beyond what the rules allowed. MLB Rule 1.10(c) stated: “The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.” At the time, such a hit was defined in the rules as an illegally batted ball, and the penalty for hitting “an illegally batted ball” was that the batter was to be declared out, under the explicit terms of the then-existing provisions of Rule 6.06.

That made Brett’s bat illegal, and any hit made using the bat an out. But Billy Martin didn’t want the bat to cause just any out. He had waited for a hit that would make the difference between victory or defeat for his team, and finally, at long last, this was it. Martin came out of the dugout carrying a rule book, and arguing that the home run shouldn’t count.  After examining the rules and the bat, home-plate umpire Tim McLelland ruled that Brett used indeed used excessive pine tar and called him out, overturning the home run and ending the game.

Brett’s resulting charge from the dugout (above) is video for the ages.

The Royals appealed the play and the game. American League President Larry MacPhail ruled that contrary to what the rules said, the home run should count. The game was restarted nearly a month later, on Aug. 18, with the Royals now leading 5-4. KC Closer Dan Quisenberry retired the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth to save the win for Kansas City.

In explaining his decision, MacPhail argued that the “spirit of the restriction” on pine tar on bats was based not on the bat providing an unfair advantage to its user, but financial prudence; any ball coming in contact with the pine tar would be discolored, and require that it be discarded and replaced, thus increasing the home team’s ball budget. MacPhail ruled that Brett had not violated the spirit of the rules nor deliberately “altered [the bat] to improve the distance factor.”

This made no sense, of course. Teams encourage players to throw balls into the stands. They spend gazillions of dollars, often foolishly. The discoloration of a ball now and then warranted this draconian rule? If so, then MacPhail was making a lame “it’s a stupid rule” argument, the equivalent of jury nullification, which will get a judge, which was his role here, kicked off the bench. Nor can an executive, which he also was,  ignore rules that he didn’t put in place. It would be as if, say, a President decided that sending illegal immigrants back where they came from was based on a mean law, and just ignored it.

There was a  precedent for MacPhail’s ruling. In a 1975  game played between the Royals and the California Angels, KC’s John Mayberry hit a homer with an overly-tarred bat.  In that one, the umpire crew had declined to enforce the rule and void the run. MacPhail also heard this protest, and upheld the umpires’ decision.

He was wrong. The bat was an illegal one in both cases. The rules said, unequivocally, what the result should be when an illegal bat was used. An out. There was no ambiguity. If the spirit of the rule was to stop batters from using too much pine tar, declaring such bats illegal was entirely in the spirit of the rule. MacPhail was attempting to temper the harshness of a law with ethics, which in itself unethical because it undermines the integrity of any system of laws and rules. The “spirit of the rules”  dodge can be used, and is, to allow  genuine law breakers to escape accountability because “those laws weren’t meant for people like you.” Indeed, this exact argument was attempted in another thread today to make the case that Pete Rose, who gambled on baseball, knew that what he was doing was forbidden and knew that it would result in a lifetime ban from the game, shouldn’t be banned for like as he is and as the rule explicitly requires, because he was such a great player.  All the “it’s not in the spirit of the rule (or law) to enforce it means  is “enforcing the rule (or law) will make too many people angry.” This may also have been the reason James Comey decided to let Hillary Clinton off the hook. Surely the laws against mishandling classified information wheren’t intended to affect Presidential elections; it would voilate the spirit of the law.

Because George Brett, whom most fans and writers admired and loved, would be the victim of enforcement, Bill Martin, whom most baseball fans detested (with good reason) was robbed of his just reward for paying attention and knowing how to use the rule to his advantage.

Let’s all think of other laws and rules, and how “the spirit” dodge can be used to let violators escape accountability from violating them at the whim of the authorities, or allow the government to avoid a result it won’t like because that result “isn’t in the spirit of the law?

Is this a new rationalization for the list, or just a version of “The King’s Pass”? I’m beginning to think it may need its own entry.


25 thoughts on “From The Law vs Ethics Files: The July 24, 1983 Pine Tar Incident, When Baseball Chose Ethics Over Law, And Was 100% Wrong

  1. I dunno if this needs a new entry. There’s a fair amount of overlap in the unethical rationalizations list. In addition to The Kings Pass and Prospective Repeal that you pointed out, I see a fair amount of Miscreants Mulligan, a dollop of Saint’s Excuse, a pinch of The Trivial Trap, and a good bit of Management Shrug. Add some Ethical Vigilantism and bake for three and a half decades, and I think you’ve got this one pretty well covered.

    • The 50s: THE decade of the Yankees and the Broadway musical; it was a pairing made in Heaven . . . or was it Applegate’s doing? 1958 was the movie version of the 1955 stage hit; it was one of the few that used almost all the original theater cast: Tab Hunter was the ringer, but whatever Lola (Verdon) wanted, Lola was still getting. The title confuses people, since the story centers on the (then) Washington Senators (I wonder if the writers first had the Red Sox in mind — after all, that was/is one of the best known and longest running rivalries in sports — but decided they liked their heads on forwards instead). For the baseball ‘n Broadway ignorant: only Jack can explain.

      Unfortunately, I am now reminded of the movie I do not want to see, the “new version” coming out who-knows-when from Warner “Bugs Bunny” Bros. written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel career specialists in B-comedies (latest one, and showing off their baseball expertise, the short run “A League of Their Own”); and starring those great never-done-a-musical-before talents: Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhal.

  2. I think there’s some sort of waiver or estoppel argument that may justify the result. Were the umps even aware of the rule? Why weren’t all bats in the bat racks inspected before the first pitch for illegal pine tar? Why didn’t the umps check each bat with an eighteen inch ruler before each at bat began? If George was allowed to use the bat without the ump objecting to it, wasn’t it too late after he’d hit the dinger?

    And what about the sense of fair play? Baseball is still a game, as I recall. Is gamesmanship something that’s good for a sport? I think it’s the worst thing in sports. And isn’t the commissioner entitled to make rulings as he alone sees fit “in the best interests of baseball?”

    I know, I know. “Life’s not fair.” But sometimes it can be.

    • What razor determines what rules MUST be enforced and what rules can be gamed to an advantage?

      Surely it’s against the rules for a batter to clock the 1st baseman with a bat as he runs by, and not something the umpires can say “oh that’s fine, the opposing team doesn’t object”…

      • That one is called “interference” and the ump calls it at his discretion. It is also “assault and battery’ and could be prosecuted. But your larger point is valid. Despie a very complex rulebook, a lot of this stuff evolves as tradition and precedent.

    • If the rule doesn’t require immediate reporting, then no. There are legal parallels to this as well. A lawyer can wait until after a statute of limitations runs, for example, to raise the fact that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction, even if the lawyer knew all along.The most common use of this tactic is when the batting order of an opponent doesn’t match what is one the official score card. A manager will wait until a key hit or run to flag it.

    • “Is there not something slightly unethical about not reporting a rule violation at the first instance of noticing its violation?”

      Reminds me of the following joke.

      Two men in a business transaction.
      Says one to the other, “The money you just gave, is 100 dollar short.”
      Says the other, “Yeah, well, last week I paid 100 dollar too much. You didn’t point that out.”
      Says the first person, “You know, anybody can make a mistake, but if you make a mistake for the second time, I guess it is reasonable to point that out.”

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