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Saturday, August 18, 2007
Baseball, Pine Tar, and the Law
Today (8/18) marks the 24th anniversary of the ending to what has become known amongst baseball fans as the Pine Tar Game -- a game legendary not only amongst baseball historians, but also amongst legal scholars.
Playing at New York's Yankee Stadium on July 24, 1983, with the Kansas City Royals trailing 4-3 and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett hit a pitch from Yankee reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage for a two-run home run, seemingly giving the Royals a 5-4 lead. As Brett crossed home plate, Yankees manager Billy Martin approached umpire Tim McClelland and requested that Brett's bat be examined for an illegal amount of pine tar. With Brett watching from the dugout, McClelland measured the bat against the width of home plate and determined the amount of pine tar on Brett's bat exceeded the amount allowed by Rule 1.10(b) of the Major League Baseball rule book. The umpire crew called Brett out, and an irate Brett ran onto the field where he was ejected. The game was declared over.
After the game, Royals management appealed the umpire crew's ruling to American League president Lee MacPhail, who overturned the umpire's decision and ordered the remainder of the game replayed, with Brett's home run allowed. In allowing Brett's home run, MacPhail ruled that the amount of pine tar on Brett's bat did not affect the distance of the home run, and that any challenge to the amount of pine tar on Brett's bat should have been brought, if at all, prior to Gossage throwing his first pitch.
Although Lee MacPhail is no Judge Cardozo, his ruling is almost as widely used in law school classrooms. In his heralded civil procedure course, Michigan law professor Richard Friedman often analogizes Billy Martin's decision to challenge Brett's excessive pine tar only after he hit his home run to an attorney that would argue for a court to dismiss a case for lack of personal jurisdiction, or improper venue, only after an answer to a complaint had been filed. Many other law professors use the Pine Tar case to introduce the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law.
As a sports enthusiast (albeit a New Yorker), I look back at Lee MacPhail's ruling and believe he made the right call. In some respects, however, MacPhail's ruling may not have gone far enough. In the original game, umpire Tim McClelland ejected George Brett for arguing about the original pine tar ruling. Given that the game was replayed from the point in time of Brett's home run, and arguably from before Brett was ejected, Brett's subsequent ejection should have been erased from the game record, along with his being called out. Nevertheless, when the Pine Tar game was continued on 8/18, Brett was deemed ineligible to play, and the rarely used Royals backup Greg Pryor replaced Brett at third base. (As a side note, the Yankees resumed the game with first baseman Don Mattingly playing second base, and pitcher Ron Guidry in center field).
As a final point of note, when the Pine Tar game resumed, Yankees manager Billy Martin again challenged Brett's home run on the grounds that Brett had not touched all the bases, maintaining that there was no way for the current umpires (who were a different crew from those who worked the earlier part of this game) to resolve his contention. The new umpire crew, however, was prepared for Martin's challenge, as umpire Davey Phillips produced a legal affidavit signed by the July 24 umpires, which stated that Brett had indeed touched all of the bases.
Ultimately, the Royals went on to win the Pine Tar game 5-to-4, thanks to Brett's controversial home run. And, as for sports lawyers, the outcome was indoctrinated in our own unique world of case law.