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On July 24, 1983, in a game between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees, George Brett hit a home run. This was not an especially unusual event. Over the course of his 21 year career with the Royals, Brett hit 317 home runs.
Highlights From Bill's Conversation With Filip Bondy
BL: All right. Let’s get to the pine tar incident itself. George Brett hit a homerun to beat the Yankees. Yankees manager Billy Martin claimed the homerun should be disallowed because Brett’s bat had too much pine tar too far up the bat. When did the Yankees actually begin preparing to make a claim like that?
FB: Original credit goes to Greg Nettles.
BL: Yankees third baseman.
FB: You know, he was an instigator and a student of the game in the sort of most mischievous way. He noticed that the pine tar was up high on Brett's bat and he also remembered that Thurman Munson had been called out for something just like this when he had hit an RBI single a few years earlier. So he told Billy Martin about it saying, 'You know, let's wait for the right moment."
But it was Don Zimmer, a bench coach, who told Billy, "Go out there. This is the moment." And Billy was only too happy to do so.
BL: George Brett did not calmy accept the umpire's decision to void his homerun...Now I presume that the Yankees, including Billy Martin, found Brett's outrage marvelously entertaining.
FB: That they did. It's kind of funny because it's the world's greatest sports tantrum and yet it only involves one team. You know this melee was only the Royals and the umpires. The Yankees were kind of hanging back laughing about it. Billy Martin was just in his absolute glory. Goose Gossage, who threw the pitch, you know, he meant to bury it in Brett's neck. And it sailed out a little bit and Brett tomahawked it out. Afterwards, Gossage, in the clubhouse, went to Martin and he said, "I don't know what happened on that pitch." And Martin said, "What pitch?"
You know it didn't exist, the Yankees had fooled the world. This was Martin's great, great moment. And then it was stolen from him.
BL: The Royals appealed to the American League. The home run was allowed, that appeal was successful. And so the game had to be replayed from the point of Brett's homerun. Tell us a little about the day upon which that happened.
FB: Billy Martin, well he just tried to make it into an utter farce. He put Don Mattingly, his first baseman, at second base. He put Ron Guidrey, his star ace, he put him in center field. And then Billy Martin went out and told George Frazier, the pitcher, to appeal at first and second base to claim that George Brett, almost a month earlier, had not touched first or second base. This was so smart. Martin figured that this was a different umpiring crew. And that there was no way that they could attest to the fact that George Brett had touched first or second base. But what he didn't figure on was there was this little genius in the American League office named Bob Fishel. What he did was plant an affidavit in the pocket of one of the new umpires, Dave Phillips, who pulled this affidavit out from the previous umpiring crew and it attested to the fact that in fact George Brett had touched first and second base. That was it. Check, check mate. Billy Martin went back into the managers office and watched a rerun of Barney Miller.
BL: I understand that at one stop on your book tour George Brett himself showed up. What did he make of the book?
FB: He said he loved the book, that's what shocked me. Because there's a lot in there that he could've taken personally-- his rocky relationship with his father for example. And mention of the many errors that he committed in the playoff series. The only thing he took issue with was he insisted he did not know that it was illegal that he had too much pine tar on his bat. But the public relations director for the Royals at the time told me, "This is something I'd remember more than George would, but in the series before the Yankees, in Toronto, we were standing by the batting cage, and George turned to me and said, 'I don't know how much longer I can get away with this bat.'" So I gotta go with that quote.
It might be argued that a book-length revisiting of a goofy baseball controversy that happened in 1983 is not worth the effort.
I might have argued that if I hadn’t read "The Pine Tar Game." But it’s never a bad time for good story-telling, and good stories bear retelling, at least if the person doing the telling is good at his or her job.
Filip Bondy is good at his.
The incident at the center of his book is the foolishness that transpired after George Brett of the Kansas City Royals hit a homerun with a bat loaded with pine tar. The pine tar had no impact on the hit, but portions of the bat that should have been free of pine tar weren’t. This provided New York Yankees Manager Bill Martin with the opportunity to protest the homerun.
"The Pine Tar Game" could have been a pamphlet, but Bondy successfully explores the personalities of those involved in the adventure and its aftermath…a cast that included not only Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, but the notorious Roy Cohen, previously known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy, a fellow so loathsome that he’d have stood out in that regard even in today’s congress.
Filip Bondy’s contention that Brett’s most famous homerun and the controversy it inspired served as a turning point of sorts in baseball’s history may be a stretch, but the book is entertaining.
This segment aired on October 3, 2015.
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