Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the baseball urban legends featured so far.
BASEBALL/MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: American League President Lee MacPhail went against the letter of the law when he overturned the umpire’s decision in the famous “Pine Tar Game.”
It seemed like the entire sports world was shocked on June 2, 2010 when Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga seemed poised to pitch a perfect game (which would have been a record three in one year, following Oakland’s Dallas Braden and Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay). After retiring the previous 26 Cleveland Indians, the 27th man to face Galarraga, rookie shortstop Jason Donald, hit a grounder that was fielded by Tiger first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who threw to Galarraga covering first base. The ball went into Galarraga’s glove a good full step before Donald touched first base, and yet first base umpire Jim Joyce missed the call, calling Donald safe and turning Galarraga’s perfect game into perhaps the most famous one-hitter in baseball history (as Galarraga promptly retired the 28th batter to finish the game).
After the game, many fans and sportswriters wished for Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig to overturn Joyce’s call and rule Galarraga’s game an official perfect game. Whether one agrees with that position or not, I think it’s important to note the misconceptions that exist with the major example cited by most of these fans and sportswriters – American League President Lee MacPhail’s decision in the (im)famous 1983 “Pine Tar Game.”
The Pine Tar Game is the shining beacon that pretty much all sportswriters (or fans) will point to when they wish to make an argument about why a sports league should make a certain decision that, while not necessarily according to the rules of the game, seems to be the “fair” decision. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Pine Tar Game was cited during the 1996-97 Playoffs as well as the 2006-07 Playoffs, when key players of two teams (the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, respectively) were suspended due to a rule stating that players cannot leave their bench during an altercation on the court. The rule is clear on that point, but sportswriters would compare the situation to the Pine Tar Game and ask for the NBA Commissioner David Stern to make the same decision that Lee MacPhail did in 1983, and look past the rule and let the players play (in both instances, Stern chose not to).
But exactly what decision did MacPhail actually make?
The famous New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica described the Pine Tar Game in a June 3, 2010 column about why Selig should overturn Joyce’s call:
Overturning Joyce’s call would not have made the stars fall out of the sky or made the earth stop spinning on its axis. This would have been a proud variation of what Lee MacPhail, then the American League president, did with the Pine Tar Game, Yankees vs. Royals, back in the 80s.
You remember the game. George Brett hit a home run with a bat that had too much pine tar on it. Technically, the umpires were right, going by the letter of the law, to take what turned out to be a game-winning home run from Brett out of the stands.
MacPhail said no.
He invoked the spirit of the law in sports, not the letter of it. He said that the rule about pine tar HADN’T been written to take game-winning home runs out of the stands. The home run stood. You bet it did. The Yankees and Royals came back later on a Monday afternoon and finished the game, which the Royals did end up winning.
Lupica’s take on the game echo many fans and sportswriters. But is that really an accurate description of the Pine Tar Game? I don’t believe it is.
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