Q: What’s the deal with the pine tar rule? I’ve always heard that pine tar past a certain point on the bat is illegal, but why? It doesn’t seem like any advantage would be given to a batter for having a sticky substance contact the ball?
A: According to MLB Official Baseball Rules, 1.10(c):
The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance that extends past the 18-inch limitation shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.
The most famous (or infamous) incident involving rule 1.10(c) occurred on July 24th, 1983 in a game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals. With the Royals trailing 4-3 in the top of the ninth, George Brett hit a two-run home run, putting the Royals ahead 5-4. Once Brett had crossed home plate, Yankees Manager Billy Martin requested that home plate umpire Tim McClelland inspect Brett’s bat. Martin noted the excessive amount of pine tar Brett used previously in the season, but chose not to mention the infraction until a time proved beneficial.
McClelland measured the bat against the 17″ home plate, confirmed that the pine tar marks were past the 18″ allowance, and nullified Brett’s home run, calling him out for hitting an illegally batted ball. The decision to rule Brett out for the infraction resulted in the third out of the inning and a victory for the Yankees.
The ruling was protested by the Royals and eventually reversed by American League President Lee MacPhail who overruled McClelland’s decision and restored Brett’s homerun. Twenty-five days after the incident, the game resumed in the top of the ninth inning with the score set at 5-4. Brett’s homerun counted but wasn’t present for the end of the game- he had been ejected from the July 24th game after rushing the field, incensed by McClelland’s ruling.
MacPhail explained his reversal by noting that Brett’s infraction was not based on fear of unfair advantage but rather on a rule enacted for economic purposes. According to MacPhail, the logic behind the pine tar rule was that any contact with such a substance would render the ball unsuitable for play. As such, it would become necessary to replace the tainted ball; therefore increasing the home team’s cost of supplying game balls.
In response to the aptly dubbed, “Pine Tar Incident,” MLB Rule 1.10(c) has since been amended to ensure that any challenges to the rule must be voiced prior to an incident:
NOTE to Rule 1.10(c): If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above until a time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.
Rule 1.10(c) Comment: If pine tar extends past the 18-inch limitation, then the umpire, on his own initiative or if alerted by the opposing team, shall order the batter to use a different bat. The batter may use the bat later in the game only if the excess substance is removed. If no objections are raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 1.10(c) on that play does not nullify any action or play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.