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In Baseball, Crime Sometimes Does Pay
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Well, that was a short World Series, wasn't it. But it might have been even shorter -- or at least many people are saying it might have been -- if Detroit's Kenny Rogers hadn't illicitly smeared a bit of pine tar on his pitching hand to help his Tigers to their only series victory against the now World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in game two.

It figures that the dark smear discovered on the thumb of Rogers' pitching hand was indeed what baseball's rules deem an illegal "foreign substance." It's long been used by some pitchers to make the ball twist and turn in baffling ways as it heads toward the batter.

Not surprisingly, Rogers, like most rule-benders before him, got off easy. He was merely ordered to wash the stuff off his thumb. He did and, of course, went on to win the game.

Casey Stengel, remember him, one of the greatest baseball managers of all time, whose New York Yankee teams won all those World Series? Well, old Casey, he was a leading, albeit secretive, aficionado of pine tar long before Kenny Rogers came along. Stengel, in fact, played a key role in the events that first brought pine tar to the attention of serious baseball fans - and to the notice of not a few serious baseball pitchers.

It was during a game way back in 1948, when Stengel was managing the Oakland Oaks in the old Pacific Coast League against their arch cross bay rivals, the San Francisco Seals, managed by former Major League star Lefty O'Doul.

Like every other manager in the league, O'Doul was certain that Stengel's star relief pitcher, Ralph Buxton -- aka "The Cheater" -- was doctoring the ball with pine tar, but unsure of where he was hiding it.

Finally, O'Doul hit on it. "Look at his glove! The glove!" O'Doul shouted to the plate umpire. And sure enough, there was the goop smeared all across the heel.

O'Doul demanded that Buxton be tossed from the game, but the umpire tossed out only the gooey glove, ordering Stengel to "get a new one for your pitcher."

O'Doul took his protest all the way to the league president, demanding a forfeit of the game the Seals ended up losing 4-3 and touching off heated controversy on West Coast sports pages. But all the league did was suspend Buxton for 10 days, and order a replay of the ninth inning, that being when the pine tar was discovered. The Seals didn't score in the replayed inning and, by winning, the Oaks' clinched the league pennant.

Buxton admitted that he used pine tar whenever he pitched. But, he said, "three of Lefty's pitchers use it, too."

Stengel brought Buxton with him when he took over the next season as manager of the Yankees. Years later, Buxton disclosed that by the end of that 1949 season, "the whole Yankee staff was using my pine tar" - and helping win the first of Stengel's 10 Yankee pennants.

Could it be, do you think, that little smears on Kenny Rogers thumb had anything to do with Detroit winning the American League pennant over the Yankees this year?

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister