If you love watching major league baseball, you might wonder why some players have a sticky, brown substance on their helmets, hats, and hands. The substance is pine tar, an adhesive material used to improve grip on bats.
Baseball players wear tar to improve their grip while batting. MLB regulations state that players can spread up to eighteen inches of tar on their bat to improve grip. An old MLB superstition stops players from washing their helmets, which often results in pine tar stains on hats, helmets, and hands.
Pine tar is a unique part of baseball history, and the historical Pine Tar Incident (discussed later in this article) reveals the decades-long tradition of wearing tar in major league baseball.
Why Baseball Players Wear Tar
Baseball players wear tar on their hands, helmets, and hats because pine tar is sticky and improves grip when batting:
- Pine tar typically comes in liquid form, and players rub the sticky liquid on the handles of their bats. Baseball bats are notoriously smooth and slippery, and using pine tar helps reduce slippage when swinging. Some players also add rosin or dirt to their pine tar.
- With pine tar on their hands, gloves, and bat handle, a player can also have a more relaxed grip. This relaxed grip allows batters to make better contact with the ball, making it more likely for them to hit a home run.
- Some baseball players wear pine tar on their helmets during gameplay. When players wear tar on their helmets, they can add more tar to their bat handles between swings; this means that players often have sticky, stained helmets, and hands from using tar during the game.
- Baseball players often wear tar even when they aren’t batting because it’s considered bad luck to wash your helmet. This tradition stems from players Craig Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero, who wore an excessive amount of pine tar on their helmets. It is a long-running baseball superstition that Biggio and Guerrero’s helmets set them apart from other batters, which is why they never washed them.
Historically, baseball players don’t mean to wear tar—it is just a repercussion of using pine tar on the handles of their bats. However, some players intentionally wear more pine tar on their helmets and hats than others as a nod to the old baseball superstition.
What is Pine Tar?
Pine tar hasn’t always been manufactured for baseball. It was originally designed to seal wooden ships. Pine tar is made by distilling pinewood until it turns into a sticky, dark brown liquid.
Sailors around the world traditionally used pine tar, turpentine, rosin, and pitch to seal their boats for shipping. The sticky substances coated the wood and made them resistant to the elements. Over time, however, pine tar and similar products became less popular. Manufacturers designed wood sealants, and pine tar was used primarily as an ingredient in materials like soap and shampoo instead.
Now pine tar is used by baseball players to enhance their grip on smooth pine bats. Pine tar is available in both liquid and stick form. The liquid is usually spread on a leather mat and then applied to the bat, while the stick resembles chalk and can be spread directly on the bat handle.
MLB Regulations on Pine Tar
Major League Baseball (MLB) has put a restriction on the use of pine tar in baseball games. This is meant to reduce cheating during gameplay.
While players can use pine tar to improve their grip while batting, a player cannot apply pine tar to more than eighteen inches of the bat handle. If the bat is covered in more than eighteen inches of pine tar, it can be removed from gameplay by the umpire.
There is a workaround for this rule, however. If a player has already used a bat during the game, and the bat is covered in more than eighteen inches of pine tar, the umpire cannot remove the bat from gameplay. Bats can only be disqualified before a player uses them.
Though the MLB permits pine tar on bats, it is strictly forbidden for use on balls. Pitchers who use pine tar, rosin, or any similar substance can be disqualified from the game immediately.
What Was the Pine Tar Incident?
The Pine Tar Game or Pine Tar Incident happened during a contentious game between the Royals and the Yankees in 1983. The incident involved the excessive use of pine tar by George Brett, who hit a two-run home run using a bat that should have been disqualified. As a result of the incident, there was a legal battle between the Yankees and Royals, and the game resumed three weeks later.
The incident occurred on July 24, 1983. There were two outs in the ninth inning, and the Yankees were up 4-3. Royals player George Brett hit a two-run home run, putting the Royals in the lead. But the Yankees manager, Billy Martin, was suspicious of Brett’s bat. He asked umpires to inspect it, and they found Brett had more than eighteen inches of tar on his bat handle. His home run was nullified, and he was declared out, leading to a win for the Yankees.
The Royals were upset by this outcome and petitioned the American League president Lee McPhail. McPhail sided with the Royals and decided the game would resume with the same score, innings, and outs from before the pine tar incident. The game resumed on August 18, 1983, and the Royals won that game 5-4.
How to Use Pine Tar in Baseball
To effectively apply pine tar to a bat, a player must clean the handle of all debris with a soft cloth or water. Tar can then be applied to the handle of the bat directly using a pine tar stick or pine tar liquid and a leather mat. The video below provides a tutorial on applying pine tar to your bat.
Removing Pine Tar from Bats
Most players choose to remove pine tar from their bats after gameplay. Leaving tar on your bat can cause damage to the wood and stop the bat from working properly. To remove pine tar from your bat, simply follow these steps:
- Warm up the tar. Heat a washcloth with hot water and rub it on the bat handle. You should only rub the bat in one direction, from the tip of the bat to the bottom.
- Apply rubbing alcohol. Apply rubbing alcohol to a cloth and rub the bat handle. Use the same technique as before, rubbing in one direction from top to bottom. The alcohol will eventually dissolve the tar.
- Dry your bat. After you have cleaned off the tar, dry your bat using a dry rag to avoid damaging your bat.
So why do baseball players cover themselves in pine tar? Players wear tar for two reasons: to help grip the bat and because of baseball tradition.
While players use tar to help them make better contact with the ball when batting, they often use more tar than necessary or cover their helmets in tar as a nod to the superstitions of great batters from decades past.
Whether a player washes their helmet or not, pine tar plays a vital role in baseball technique and history. The tool once used by sailors to protect their boats from salt is now a vital part of the contemporary game we know and love.