Filip Bondy’s new book “The Pine Tar Game” looks back at the Yankees infamous loss on July 24, 1983 to George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. With the Yankees one out away from winning, Brett hit a two-run homer off Goose Gossage to put the Royals up 5-4, but Brett was called out after the Yankees claimed that he used an illegal bat with pine tar too far up the handle leading to an iconic moment when Brett had to be restrained from going after home plate umpire Tim McClelland.
The regular season game might be the most famous between the Yankees and Royals even though they met in the ALCS four times between 1976 and 1980.
“The Pine Tar game is obviously the focus but a big part people forget is the intensity of the rivalry,” Bondy said. “The fun thing is they could meet again this year. It’s been a long time. I think it may be the best postseason rivalry in sports history. There’s a whole generation that doesn’t think about Kansas City and New York anymore. Without the rivalry, what happened wouldn’t have happened. Brett against the Twins, I don’t think he would’ve reacted the way he did and the whole thing would’ve been forgotten.”
George Brett had already hit his share of big homers at Yankee Stadium. In Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS, Brett hit a game-tying three-run blast in the eighth only to see the Yankees win on Chris Chambliss’ walk-off homer an inning later. Brett hit three home runs off Catfish Hunter in Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS but the Yankees won the game and the series.
The third baseman’s biggest home run came off Gossage in Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. With the Yankees facing elimination, Brett hit a three-run homer to give Kansas City the lead for good. Yankees manager Dick Howser was fired after the season, only to be hired by Kansas City in 1981. Because they were not World Series games, some of those great battles have been forgotten.
“In New York those games are easier to forget because they were on the way to something else. For Kansas City that’s where the season ended,” said Bondy, a writer for the New York Daily News. He covered the Pine Tar Game for the Bergen Record. “It was big-market, small-market. If the Yankees played the same series against the Red Sox with the same intensity, the geography would have added passion and fury to the whole thing.”
Bondy called Brett the best hitter he’s ever seen, but noted that his glove was not as good as his bat. “A lot of people forget that Brett committed five errors in 10 games in the first two ALCS meetings. You could make the argument that he cost them a series with his throwing.”
The Royals protested the pine tar game, and American League President Lee MacPhail upheld Kansas City’s protest. The game resumed on August 18 in front of about 1,200 fans. As a form of protest, Yankees manager Billy Martin put Don Mattingly at second base and Ron Guidry in centerfield. Martin did have one more trick up his sleeve.
“There was a wonderful moment when Martin appealed to the umpires saying that Brett didn’t touch all the bases,” Bondy said. “There were new umps. Out of the pockets of one of the umps came a deposition from one of the original umpires saying that Brett touched all the bases. It was check and checkmate against Billy Martin.”
According to Bondy, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner quietly ordered his staff to research Lee MacPhail’s past failings. That was not the only thing Bondy learned while working on the book.
“I didn’t know Rush Limbaugh was the promotions director for the Royals. That was the biggest stunner for me.”
Both teams would miss the playoffs in 1983, although the Royals would win the AL West in 1984 and 1985, winning the World Series in the latter season. The Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1995.
Brett was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and Gossage followed in 2008.
Bondy suggested that Brett was not unaware of his illegal bat. “The PR guy from that era explained that during the series before, Brett turned to him and said he didn’t know how long he could get away with it.”
Many fans have the image of Brett freaking out at Yankee Stadium in their minds but Bondy writes of another side. “The most fun surprise to learn was Royals owner Ewing Kauffman’s daughter saying that Brett came to the hotel they were staying at 3 AM after the Chambliss home run. He had a horse-drawn carriage from Central Park and took them around the park. He had a charming side.”