July 24, 2008
By Tyler Kepner
Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the “Pine Tar Game” at Yankee Stadium, an episode that George Brett still can’t believe is his most famous moment in baseball.
“I never thought it would be that big of a deal,” Brett said on a conference call from Kansas City on Wednesday. “If it happened in Cleveland, it’s not that big of a deal.”
But it happened in the Bronx, of course, with a cast of characters including at least three Hall of Famers: Brett, Goose Gossage and, of all people, Gaylord Perry.
In 1983, Perry was 44 years old, making the final stop on an eight-team odyssey as baseball’s ultimate trickster (or cheater, depending on your perspective). He was playing for the Royals when Brett smashed his disputed home run off Gossage, and swiped the bat from umpire Tim McClelland during the melee after Brett was called out.
“Gaylord Perry, being the man of foreign substance that he is, got the bat and twisted it out of my hands,” McClelland said Wednesday at the Stadium.
The bat passed through several other hands before ballpark security personnel confiscated it, preventing the Royals from stashing it in their clubhouse. Eventually, the bat found its way back in Brett’s hands on a road trip in Detroit, and he planned to use it. Brett drew a red line 18 inches from the knob of the bat — the legal limit, he had learned, for pine tar.
But Perry, ever the wily one, interceded.
“Gaylord Perry said, ‘What are you doing using that bat? That’s a historic bat. You break that, it’s not worth anything,’” Brett recalled. “I said, ‘You know, you’re probably right.’ So I put it in the bat bag, and now it’s in the Hall of Fame.”
It did not get to Cooperstown directly. Brett first sold the bat to collector Barry Halper for $25,000. Realizing it should go to the Hall instead, Brett got it back from Halper six months later for the same $25,000 price. In thanks, he gave Halper the bat he used to hit three homers in a 1978 playoff game.
This weekend, when Brett visits Cooperstown for Gossage’s induction ceremony, he said he might doctor his famous bat. When he got it back, Brett had wiped off the pine tar so it conformed to the 18-inch rule. That just won’t do, he said Wednesday. So don’t be surprised if Brett brings a tube of pine tar with him this weekend.
“The one thing I should do is return the bat to its original state,” Brett said. “Go up there and put the pine tar back up.”