KANSAS CITY, Mo. — These days, one of the most famous bats in the history of baseball sits on display inside the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
But just how the “Pine-Tar Bat” ended up in Cooperstown is a tale in itself.
The journey began, of course, on July 24, 1983, the day Brett used the bat at Yankee Stadium to homer off Rich Gossage.
We all know what transpired after the homer.
The Yankees protested that the homer should be disallowed because Brett had exceeded the legal limit for pine-tar use on the bat. Home-plate umpire Tim McClelland agreed and ruled Brett out.
Brett exploded from the dugout, an argument for the ages ensued, the Royals lost, the Royals appealed, the Yankees’ protest was reversed, the homer was reinstated, the game was resumed a month later from the point of Brett’s homer and the Royals won.
But the bat itself resembled a piece of taffy that day, wrestled and tugged and yanked in every direction by numerous people.
It all started when Brett dropped the bat near home plate after his homer. The visiting clubhouse batboy that day, a 17-year-old named Merritt Riley, was supposed to pick up all Royals bats as quickly as possible after a Royals hitter had put the ball in play, and return them to the bat rack inside the dugout. That’s what all batboys are trained to do.
But for some reason, Riley froze that day after Brett’s homer. He said years later that he simply got caught up in the moment and watched Brett circle the bases. By the time Riley got to the bat, Brett already had reached home plate. Riley waited there for him and actually high-fived Brett.
As Brett headed to the dugout, Yankees catcher Rick Cerone, instructed by Yankees manager Billy Martin to inspect the bat, grabbed the bat out of Riley’s hands. Cerone assumed he was looking for evidence of cork in the bat.
When Cerone found no cork, he handed the bat back to Riley. But Martin then arrived on the scene and screamed at McClelland to inspect the bat for excessive pine tar. McClelland then took the bat from Riley, setting the stage for all hell to break loose.
To this day, Riley, now a New York City policeman, believes he could have prevented the “Pine-Tar Incident.”
If Riley had just gotten the bat right away and returned it to the rack of other bats, there would have been no case for the Yankees or McClelland. After all, how would they know which of Brett’s bats he used?
“I really believe the Pine-Tar Game never would have happened if I hadn’t done what I did,” he once told The Wall Street Journal.
After McClelland’s ruling and the subsequent meltdown by Brett, Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry, a known collector, grabbed the bat and headed back to the dugout with it.
“Perry wrestled the bat away from McClelland and started running toward the dugout,” Brett said. “He handed it off to (teammate) Steve Renko, who said, ‘What the hell am I doing with this?’ Then Renko handed it off to someone else, who was running with it through the dugout, then up the runway to the clubhouse.
“It was hilarious, I guess. Security people were running after him. They yelled into their radios, ‘Don’t let that bat out of your sight!’ The policeman who guarded the visiting clubhouse wouldn’t open the door for the guy who was carrying the bat.
“I think eventually the umpires confiscated the bat, and, by courier, sent it to American League president Lee MacPhail’s office.”
After the MacPhail reversal, Brett eventually got the bat back during a road trip in Detroit and began using it again for a couple of games.
“Hey, that was the best bat I ever had,” Brett said. “It was this unvarnished Louisville Slugger — I always used unvarnished bats because I just like the feel. But I loved that bat. It had seven grains instead of 10 or 11, so it was really hard.”
Perry, though, again interceded.
“Gaylord told me, ‘Hey, if you use it, you might break it, and then it’s worthless. It’s a historic bat,'” Brett said. “That made sense.”
For a while, Brett displayed the bat at a restaurant he owned at the time called C.J. Brett’s in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
But then Brett decided to sell it to famed collector Barry Halper, who also was a minority stakeholder in the Yankees. Brett got $25,000 for the bat.
But in 1986, Brett decided the bat really belonged in Cooperstown, and he bought it back from Halper for the same price. Brett threw in a sweetener to the deal — he gave Halper the bat he used to hit three homers in a 1978 playoff game off Catfish Hunter.
Finally, that same year, the bat made its way to Cooperstown.
“It’s nice to see it on display,” Brett said. “I see it every time I go there. It’s great that everyone can see it.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at email@example.com.