What Is Pine Tar In Baseball? Unique Types & Uses 2023

Pine tar is known as the sticky substance in baseball. Although we use it widely in baseball, this substance has been used for many other purposes since ancient times. The use of pine tar is legal in baseball. Still, there is controversy because some incidents occurred for illegal use of it. In this article, I will inform you all you can think about pine tar and its use in baseball.

What is pine tar?

Pine tar is a kind of tar that we can produce from the carbonization of pine wood. Scientifically, we can call the destructive process distillation. Pine tar consists of chemical substances such as aromatic hydrocarbons, some acids, and bases.

The type of compounds in the pine tar may vary with the varying temperature and time duration of the distillation process, the type of pine trees used, moisture, and so on. 

Different types of tar

Coal or petroleum tar

Coal tar is the kind of tar that the manufacturers produce from coal or petroleum. Tar that we get from coal is high in benzene. Therefore, petroleum or coal tar is toxic. They even have carcinogenic characteristics due to the presence of toxic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene. This substance has limited use in the production of topical medicine.

Wood tar

When we extract tar from the destructive distillation of wood, then it is wood tar. People usually use two types of woods for the production of tar – pine wood and birch wood. Pinewood is the most common type of wood that people use to produce wood tar among all the woods.

The largest user of wood tar was the British Navy in the 16th to 18th century. They used the tar as a water repellent for the wooden boats. The use of pine tar decreased with the increase of iron and steel boats. However, the birch tar was comparatively more refined than pine tar. People used to apply this on the leather as a protective material.

How is pine tar made?

Pinewood is the raw material of the production of pine tar. We call the production process carbonization of wood in high temperatures. In this process, the manufacturers decompose the pinewood in a closed container by the application of heat and pressure in absence of oxygen. As a result, they get pine tar and charcoal as a by-product.

Uses of pine tar in baseball

Baseball players apply pine tar on the bat to improve their grip. Usually, the grip of the best wooden baseball bat is too slippery. Therefore, the major league allows the players to use pine tar up to 18 inches of the handle of the bat. Tree saps are naturally tacky substances. Thus, pine tar is also a sticky substance that enhances the grip of the baseball bats.

Other than enhancing the grip, it also ensures a relaxed grip that boosts the confidence of the batters. I mean batting gloves say for youths can do much but using tar is never a bad idea. The boosted confidence results in better contact with the ball. However, for those using the best t ball bats, you won’t need it.

The pitchers can illegally use pine tars for two reasons. We will discuss the legality of using pine tar in baseball in the next section. However, the flight of a baseball is predictable if it is not modified. Although the pitchers grip the ball in different ways, batters can predict the flight of the ball. The pitcher can modify the ball by adding foreign substances such as pine tar on the surface of the ball. The flight path of a modified ball is difficult to predict.

Uses of pine tar outside baseball

Historically, people used pine tar as a wood preservative and waterproofing material. People used it as a coating of wood to protect them from water, moisture, and weather. People also applied pine tar to the ropes to protect them from rainwater. Usually, rainwater was the reason for the natural fiber getting decomposed.

People also used pine tar for the production of skin-protecting products such as lotion and soap. It is also used to make veterinary medicine, especially for the treatment of wounds.

Is pine tar Illegal in baseball?

Using pine tar in baseball can be both legal and illegal. It is quite legal to use it on the handle of the bat. There is a specific guideline on that in Major League Baseball official rules. You have to apply pine tars in a specific way up to a certain limit of the bat. I will discuss the process in the later section of this article.

Applying pine tar on the ball is illegal. It can modify the ball resulting in unpredictable flight and trajectory of the ball. It also creates extra backspin that creates difficulties for the batters. Therefore, the pitcher can not use pine tar on the ball to get an illegal advantage. They have to make do with hiding their pitch behind their best baseball gloves. In fact, if you have flared the glove beforehand, you will have a much easier time.

The MLB rule for the batters

According to rule number 1.02 (c), you can cover the bat handle up to 18 inches from the end or apply any substance within the limit to improve the grip. If a substance or pine tar extends past 18 inches from the end of the bat, then the bat will be removed from the game.

If a batter breaks the 18-inch rule, then the umpire by his own or by the objection of the opposing team shall order to replace the bat with a different one. No action of the batter will be in question or be nullified prior to an objection raised by the opposing team due to the batter’s illegal use of the bat.

The MLB rule for the pitchers

Rule 3.01 and 8.02 (b) cover the instructions for the pitchers regarding using foreign substances on the ball. 3.01 says that a player can not damage or discolor the ball intentionally by the use of a foreign substance such as pine tar or by rubbing the ball with soil, sandpaper, or any other material.

Rule 8.02 (b) says that a pitcher can not attach any foreign substance, such as pine tar, to his hand, finger, or wrist. He can not pitch the ball with such foreign attachment.

How to apply pine tar on a bat

While applying on your bat, you can either use a pine tar stick or use a jar of liquid pine tar. If you are using a stick, then follow the following steps.

  1. Take a clean towel. Wipe away the dirt and debris from the handle of the bat. Otherwise, the application of pine tar will create a less sticky coating.
  2. Uncap the stick and expose the tar. If the tar is wrapped with a paper or plastic wrapper, unwrap it before using it.
  3. Now apply the pine tar to the handle of the bat. Do not forget the rule of 18-inch. You can apply the desired amount of tar within the limited area of the handle of your bat.
pine tar inforgraph
pine tar infographic

You can use a jar of liquid pine tar instead of pine tar sticks in case of unavailability. Below are the instructions to follow while applying these to your bat.

  1. Take the towel and wipe away the dirt from the handle as before.
  2. Scoop the desired amount of pine tar off the jar and apply them on a clean towel.
  3. Now roll the handle of the bat inside the soaked towel. Make sure you do not apply the tar breaking the 18-inch rule.
  4. After you have properly applied the tar, wait for 24 hours. If you need, then re-apply some additional amount of tar by repeating the above steps.

The controversial pine tar incident

The pine tar baseball incident or the pine tar game was a controversial incident that happened in 1983 between the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees during an American League Baseball match. At a point in time, the Royals were trailing 4-3, and their third baseman George Brett managed to hit a two-run home run and brought a 5-4 lead for his team.

After Brett crossed the plate, the manager of the Yankee requested the home plate umpire to examine his bat. The manager stated that he noticed an excess amount of pine tar on Brett’s bat before starting the game. He kept himself silent to take strategic advantage when it was necessary.

However, the home plate umpire, along with the other umpires, examined the bat and measured it with the home plate that had a width of approximately 18 inches. They found that the use of pine tar exceeded the 18 inches bar. It was proved that Brett violated the rule, and the umpires called him out. They disallowed his home run as well. Thus, the Yankees won the match 4-3.

After that incident, the Royals protested the decision. Four days later, the president of the American League, Mr. Lee, intervened in the decision. He restored Brett’s home run and ordered the game to resume. The president also ejected Brett from the game for his misbehavior.

25 days after the incident, the game resumed. The Royals won the game 5-4. After the incident, a new rule was introduced. Any objection regarding the bat should be raised before the bat’s use. Otherwise, the action made by the bat will not be nullified.

Pine Tar Incidents
Pine Tar Incidents

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

Why is only pine tar used in baseball for better grip?

Pine tar is not the only substance that the batters use for a better grip. In recent times, there have been a number of synthetic grip enhancers in the market. In fact, they sometimes work better than pine tar. They are clean and are less messy. Pine tar alternatives are safe to use, and most of them will not stain.

Why do the players wear tar or put it in the helmet?

You may see that the players are wearing tar or putting it on the helmet. The reason is that they think that washing them away will cause them bad luck. Some players put tar on their faces or neck because of superstition. However, they are not meant to wear tar on them. The batters often put an excess amount of tar on the helmet because they can use them on the grip in between the gameplay. Therefore, the players often have sticky and stained helmets and hands during the game.

What are the products that are produced from pine tar?

Pine tar is a raw material for the production of skin conditioning medicines. Although the use of this substance is restricted in some countries due to its carcinogenic nature due to the presence of some toxic aromatic hydrocarbons. It is also an additive that the manufacturers use in the production of a special kind of solid soap and body lotion.

How does pine tar change the trajectory of baseball?

To understand the change of trajectory of the baseball by the application of pine tar or a foreign substance, we need to check the physics in sticky situations. When the pitcher throws a ball, different kinds of forces are responsible for the flight path of the ball, such as gravity force and lift force. The lift force is responsible for the ball to change its direction. We call it the Magnus effect. It is the reason for the spin of the ball in other games as well, such as soccer, tennis, and so on.

The angular velocity of the ball is responsible for the Magnus effect. While the ball is in the air, there is contact between the ball and the air molecules. Air molecules and the face of the ball create a boundary layer between them. The Magnus effect, thus the spin of the ball, is determined by the contact between the surface of the ball and the air. The boundary layer changes as the ball moves. It provides a net upward or downward force depending on the status of the face of the ball and thus creates spin.

Increased angular velocity provides more spin for the pitchers. For better angular velocity, the pitchers need a firm grip. Therefore, they tend to use foreign substances such as pine tar and resins. When the pitchers slide the ball during the release of the ball by their finger, a foreign substance boosts the sliding with an increased spin.

Bottom line

Although a mere grip aid, pine tar has a significant presence and impact in baseball. The batters have been using it for years as a grip enhancer. On the other hand, the pitchers are using it to produce a better spin. Even though the official MBL does not allow the pitchers to use foreign substances, the opponent teams usually do not raise any objection because they also use pine tar. It is a kind of ‘I won’t call you out if you don’t call me out’ kind of strategy. Apart from all of these, there are superstitions in baseball. Many of them are stem from or related to the use of pine tar.

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