Why is Pine Tar Illegal in Baseball?

Pine tar has a long and controversial history in America’s favorite pastime, baseball. The sticky substance made from pine wood has helped pitchers get a better grip on the ball for over a century, but its use has also sparked some of the sport’s most infamous on-field incidents. The seeming innocuous practice of applying pine tar to a baseball bat became so controversial that it led to one of baseball’s most absurd spectacles – a game finishing with protest twenty-five days after it began.

Though pine tar improves grip, its reputation as an unfair advantage has made it subject to strict regulation and penalties. The decades-long debate over pine tar shows how even a bit of sticky pine-scented glue can divide players, umpires, and fans when baseball’s unwritten rules get tested.

What is Pine Tar?

What is Pine Tar in Baseball

Pine tar is a thick, sticky liquid substance derived from pine wood through a process called destructive distillation. The wood is heated in an oxygen-free environment, which decomposes the components and produces the byproduct pine tar.

Pine tar has a long history of medicinal and therapeutic use by humans. It has mild antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe skin ailments when applied topically. Pine tar’s thick, viscous texture helps it adhere to skin, hair, and other surfaces. It has a distinctive pine scent from its natural source. Pine tar appears dark brown to black in color and can stain surfaces.

History of Pine Tar in Baseball

Pine tar has had a long history of being used in baseball. According to the source, pine tar started becoming popular in baseball during the 1950s to improve batters’ grip and control. It provided batters, especially in colder weather, with better traction on the bat handle to prevent losing control of their swing. Some of the earliest known uses of pine tar in Major League Baseball were by stars like Stan Musial in the 1950s and 1960s.

The use of pine tar grew more widespread over the next few decades. Pitchers would often complain that too much pine tar altered the flight of the ball on batted balls. This led MLB to create a rule in 1983 that restricted the amount of pine tar on a bat to no further than 18 inches from the base of the handle. Even with the rule in place, pine tar remains a routine sight in baseball today. Nearly every batter uses it to some degree during colder weather games or for optimal grip throughout the season.

Some catchers will even ask umpires to check amounts of pine tar on bats before at-bats. So while controversial at times, pine tar has had a place in MLB games for over 70 years now.

Benefits of Using Pine Tar

Pine Tar in Baseball

Pine tar improves grip and tackiness of the bat, especially in cold weather when bats can become slick. The sticky, tacky texture of pine tar lets hitters “relax” their grip on the bat, allowing for better bat control and contact with the ball. The primary reason hitters apply pine tar is for grip, not necessarily for more power or pop off the bat.

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Pine tar provides grip and tackiness without making the bat overly sticky like glue. It helps hitters maintain control of the bat through the entire swing. This improved grip is especially beneficial in cold weather when wood bats can become slick with moisture or frost. The tacky pine tar allows for solid contact with the ball, even in frigid temperatures.

Controversial Moments with Pine Tar

One of the most famous pine tar controversies occurred during a July 24, 1983 game between the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees (Wikipedia). In the top of the 9th inning, Royals third baseman George Brett hit a 2-run home run to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin came out to home plate to discuss the bat Brett used with the umpires. They determined Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it, which was against the rules. The home run was nullified, Brett was called out, and the game ended with a 4-3 Yankees win.

This controversial call inspired much debate about the pine tar rule. Brett and the Royals protested the game, and their protest was eventually upheld by American League president Lee MacPhail. The game resumed from the point after Brett’s home run on August 18, 1983. The Royals held on to win 5-4, with Brett’s home run allowed to stand. This infamous “Pine Tar Game” incident demonstrated the ongoing controversies surrounding baseball’s pine tar rules.

Why Pine Tar Was Banned

Pine tar was banned in baseball primarily because it was seen as providing an unfair competitive advantage.

Some key concerns around the use of pine tar include:

  • Pine tar allows batters to grip the bat better, generating more power and bat control. This was seen as disruptive to competitive balance.

  • There were concerns that batters could put large amounts of pine tar on bats to dramatically boost power. Michael Wilbon from the Washington Post explained, “Pine tar in those quantities would allow cheap home run power”.

  • Pitchers raised concerns that pine tar-laden bats gave batters an unfair ability to adjust to pitches, diminishing the value of pitching skill.

  • Ultimately, pine tar was seen as against the spirit of fair play in baseball. Allowing players to alter equipment was considered disruptive to the competitive balance of the game.

The controversy around pine tar centered on debates around what constituted a fair playing field versus unfair advantages. Restricting pine tar was viewed as necessary to maintain integrity in the sport.

Debates Around the Rule

Notable Cycles in Baseball

The use of pine tar in baseball has sparked much debate over the years. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of whether pine tar should be allowed or banned.

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Those in favor of allowing pine tar cite the benefits it provides pitchers in getting a better grip on the ball. Pine tar helps counteract the slickness of baseballs, especially in cold or wet weather. Supporters argue that using pine tar does not dramatically alter pitches, it just helps pitchers avoid losing control of the ball unintentionally. They believe batters face more risk if pitchers struggle to grip the ball properly. Some also contend that banning pine tar encourages pitchers to use other “gray area” substances that might provide even more spin or movement to pitches.

On the other side, opponents argue that pine tar undermines the spirit of fair play in baseball. Allowing pine tar but no other grip aids gives pitchers an advantage not intended by the rules. Critics believe pitchers should learn to grip a clean, dry baseball properly as a fundamental skill.

Some also worry that permitting pine tar starts baseball down a slippery slope that allows pitchers to use other substances to enhance their pitches. Opponents feel banning pine tar helps ensure a level playing field between pitchers and hitters. However, others counter that hitters have already benefited from playing in the “steroid era.”

The pine tar debate continues to stir controversy and disagreement. While strong cases exist on both sides, for now MLB prohibits pine tar use except for the bat handle grip area. But the calls to reexamine this rule are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Enforcing the Pine Tar Rule

Umpires have had a difficult time consistently enforcing the rule against pine tar use by pitchers over the years. While the rule clearly states that pine tar cannot extend past the 18-inch limit on the bat handle, umpires often let violations slide unless the opposing team makes an issue of it. This inconsistent enforcement has led to confusion and controversy.

One challenge with enforcement is that small amounts of pine tar are hard to detect during gameplay. Umpires cannot halt the game after every pitch to inspect for pine tar. They rely on opposing teams to bring violations to their attention. However, teams don’t always monitor their opponents closely enough to catch pine tar use. When they do bring violations to the umpire’s notice, it is often seen as unsportsmanlike.

Another issue is that the 18-inch limit is seen by many as arbitrary. Some argue a small amount of pine tar beyond 18 inches does not significantly alter the ball’s movement. This makes the enforcement seem petty at times. However, the rule leaves no leeway for umpires to decide what amount of pine tar is acceptable. Any presence of pine tar beyond the specified limit is technically illegal.

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The difficulties with consistent enforcement have led to calls for revising or eliminating the rule against pine tar for pitchers. But as long as it remains an official rule, umpires are obligated to enforce it even if violations are rarely called. This presents an ongoing challenge for umpires pressured to both uphold the rules and avoid nitpicking players during games.

Calls to Change the Rule

Where Do Umpires Stand In Baseball?

The longstanding MLB rule banning pine tar more than 18 inches up the barrel of a bat has stirred debate for decades. While the rule aims to prevent batters from getting an unfair advantage with extra grip, some argue that allowing controlled pine tar use could improve safety and playability.

Proponents for amending the rule contend that batters should be allowed to apply a reasonable amount of pine tar to improve their grip and prevent the bat from slipping out of their hands. This could reduce the risk of batters losing control of their swing, preventing errant release of the bat that might injure a catcher or umpire.

Controlled use of pine tar halfway up the barrel may offer enough grip assistance without significantly aiding ball propulsion. Advocates argue this would maintain fairness while better enabling batters to perform at their highest level.

Opponents counter that any use of pine tar beyond the current 18-inch limit provides batters with an unfair hitting advantage. However, pro-change voices contend modern bat coating technology nullifies this concern, as legal lubricants and tacky bat tape offer similar grip enhancement. With debate ongoing, momentum seems to be gathering for at least reconsidering if the decades-old blanket pine tar prohibition makes sense in today’s game.

Conclusion

Pine tar has had a long and controversial history in baseball. While it can help improve batters’ grip, especially in cold or wet conditions, the substance has also been at the center of infamous incidents when batters have applied too much pine tar to their bats. This ultimately led to a complete ban on pine tar above 18 inches up the handle in MLB rules.

The pine tar ban seeks to uphold the spirit of fair play and prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage. However, some argue that the rule should be amended to allow more flexibility given the potential safety benefits of pine tar. For now, the rule remains in place, though it is seldom enforced. Umpires tend to only get involved if a manager or opponent makes an issue of excess pine tar on a specific bat.

Going forward, we may continue to see periodic controversies around pine tar use in baseball. However, most players understand where the boundaries lie. As long as batters apply pine tar in moderation and don’t blatantly overdo it, they are unlikely to run afoul of the rules. While views on the matter differ, the pine tar debate exemplifies how even small equipment modifications can dramatically impact professional sports.

Adrian Cook
Adrian Cook

Hello, I'm Adrian Cook, and I am the author of BaseballMatchDay.com. I have a deep-rooted connection to baseball as I was once an avid player of the sport. Baseball has always held a special place in my heart, and my personal experiences as a player have shaped my understanding and love for the game. Having been on the field, I intimately understand the intricacies, challenges, and joys that come with playing baseball. It is this firsthand experience that allows me to bring a unique perspective to the content I create.

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