Pitching with Pine Tar

Christian Sager

Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

I suppose I should be indignant about New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda using pine tar in a game against my hometown Red Sox last week. But I'm not much of a sports guy and Pineda's already been suspended for 10 games for "possessing a foreign substance." It seems like a genuinely stupid mistake on the guy's part, seeing as he had the stuff smeared all over his neck for anyone with a decent television to see. I am however curious about the actual pine tar... What makes it baseball contraband and where does it come from?

Before researching I assumed I knew what pine tar is, given that pine trees originate in the part of the world I'm from. And the "tar?" My guess was that it's a product made from the tree's sap or pitch. Research confirms this: you can either tap live trees, isolate the tar during a manufacturing process, or extract it from stumps.

From 1648 until the beginning of the 20th century, pine tar was primarily exported by a Swedish company called "NorrlSndska TjSrkompaniet," and their "Stockholm Tar" is still considered some of the highest quality product around. An early Swedish method for making tar was to take the roots of pine trees and burn them at a dale on a slope so the liquid ran downhill into a funnel. Today that's considered a bit too labor intensive when the tar can be obtained through a destructive distillation process while manufacturing wood for other things like charcoal. But you can still buy the old school "peasant tar," it just costs twice the price.

If you've never seen wood tar, it's a viscous, brownish liquid with a burnt, smoky odor like creosote. The tar is full of varieties of oils and resin which constitute different tar types based on their proportion to one another. For instance, that Swedish "peasant tar" has a high resin content, while the distilled "genuine pine tar" is darker and thinned with turpentine to balance its viscosity.

So basically it's a sticky liquid made by burning trees. But what does that have to do with baseball? Well, since Major League Baseball requires players to use wooden bats they're allowed to use up to 18 inches (45.72 centimeters) of pine tar to secure their grip.But according to Rule 8.00, pitchers (ironically) can't use any foreign substance on the ball itself. So pine tar's out. But if you're going to smuggle it into the game and use it, you should know that the art of pitching with tar is called "scuffing." You don't want to do it too often or too much, or like Pineda you'll end up in the dugout. But if you're clever, it's useful. For instance, if you apply a little scuff to the right side of the ball, it'll pitch left when you throw.

Baseball players aren't the only ones using this goo. In the 4th Century, pine resin was used to attach colored stones to buildings. Today it's in soap, shampoo and other beauty products. There's also a major market for pine based chemicals in adhesives, inks, rubber and paper products. But pine tar's major usage was originally for maritime purposes. The tar was used on boats as a protective coating for the various woods in naval construction. It also waterproofed and caulked vessels, while preserving their rigging.

Today, pine tar is also applied as an emulsion on coal to qualify as chemically altered "synthetic fuel." Manufacturers do this so they can earn billions of dollars in federal income tax credits. They're not required to prove that their coal is more efficient. They simply need to modify its composition to qualify. So... maybe baseball pitchers shouldn't be the first ones we scrutinize for their dubious uses of pine tar?