Slinging Mud

*The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 51⁄4 ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 91⁄4 inches in circumference. *

*–– 2016 MLB Official Baseball Rules *

Every professional baseball you’ve ever seen slammed across the diamond or fall into the hands of a desperate fan has been coated in a thin layer of mud from a small waterway in southern New Jersey. Each July, armed with seven 35 gallon trash cans, one Jersey family makes their way to the secret stretch of water and harvests the next year’s supply of baseball mud. And each new season, baseball umpires meticulously **rub **their balls in it before every game. The reason for this peculiar cultural ritual dates back to a seemingly obvious idea which only struck American baseball in 1920 –– that a baseball loses play value over time, that it gradually becomes worse at its job. 

At least, this was the logic which led Major League Baseball to bring a period, later called the “Dead Ball Era,” to a close. From about 1900 until 1920, American baseball was a wildly different sport ––the teams reused their balls. A ball was usable until it began to disintegrate; at times this could amount to a lifespan of several hundred pitches. With more play, the balls became malleable, and this softness had a major impact on the game. Balls were hard to pitch, and even harder to hit for distance. Home-runs were scarce and scores were low. To win games, players relied on strategy, rather than power. They stole bases or became experts at “the inside game,” an offensive strategy to keep the ball in the in field, which included moves like the “Baltimore chop”–– a hard downward swing that sent the ball just in front of the plate. Runs were a rarity: in 1908, the season averaged 3.4 runs per game, its lowest average in history; in 2013, the average was 8.33. 

The logic behind recycling was cost-related. Teams were so strapped for cash that fans had to throw balls back on the rare occasions they made it to the stands. Over the summer of 1920, American League1 president Ban Johnson, a squat, bespectacled man whose swatch of hair behaved much like the head of an overused toothbrush, got wind that his umpires were throwing out more balls than they could easily afford. Johnson insisted in a league-wide notice that the umps “keep the balls in the games as much as possible, except those which were dangerous.” 

Only a month later, on August 16, 1920 in the middle of game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, Yankee’s pitcher Carl Mays sent a ball straight into the head of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman. Chapman never moved to dodge the ball. Commentators assumed he hadn’t seen it, but they never had the chance to ask. Chapman died the next morning. 

Mays, a sour and widely-disliked man, whose pitching motion Baseball Magazine once described as “a cross between an octopus and a bowler,” later explained that the ball had been a “sailer.” Mays had a reputation for unusual delivery2, but this time, his aim had been skewed (sending the ball “sailing”) by a damaged spot on the leather surface. That year, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a tight-lipped Andrew Jackson look-alike and the first ever Commissioner of Baseball3, instituted a rule that balls be thrown out at the first sign of wear, heralding an era of newness in baseball paraphernalia. Unused balls would have smooth, sail-resistant surfaces and bright white leather, so they would stay visible even at top-speed. 

But novelty wasn’t all Mountain Landis hoped it would be –– the dawning of the “Live Ball Era”came with its own problems. Baseball teams quickly discovered that the factory-issue balls came with a slippery gloss, making it hard for pitchers to grip them as they threw. All the experts call it that ––a “gloss,” sometimes a “slick”–– which conjures the image of a vaseline-like sheen, a layer of some substance coating the balls and making them hard to hold. But it wasn’t that. The players couldn’t wipe the gloss off, just as the factories couldn’t stop making it. The gloss was just the sheer fact of the balls’ newness, the slick of something never worn in. So almost as soon as leagues discarded their old balls, they began intentionally aging their new ones. 

For a while, the purposeful “wearing-in” process was carried out with a coat of tobacco juice or shoe polish or just regular dirt –– anything to break the balls in and make them easier to hold. But each of these cures came with its own problems. Overly grainy dirts could distress the leather, recreating the old-ball effect; tobacco juice discolored the balls beyond usability; and in the heat, shoe-polished balls quickly acquired an overpowering stench.

Enter Lena “Slats” Blackburne, a retired player for the Chicago White Sox, who was coaching the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1930’s, where he overheard umpires complaining about this gloss. Blackburne had grown up on the South Jersey waterfront, home to a mud of particular consistency. He had plopped through the sticky mire as a kid, when he went fishing and swimming. And so it was to this old watering hole that the retired in elder returned, decades later, to harvest a handful of South Jersey mud. Blackburne brought a sample back to the Philadelphia Athletics Clubhouse, started experimenting, and soon found that he could remove the gloss from the baseball, without damaging or discoloring it. 

Jim Bintliff, a South Jersey family man with a gruff, kind voice who now runs Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, the distribution business Blackburne started almost eighty years ago, describes the mudding process as something like the movement which precedes a pitch. 

“You would dab your finger in the mud and just get a little bit on your finger, put it in your palm and rub your palms together, to spread it out. Take a drop of water and make it a little more liquid and then you just massage the ball,” says Bintliff. “You know like when the pitcher gets a new ball from the Umpire, how he rubs it around in his hand? That’s what it is. It’s that exact motion.” 

The mud, which the company’s website describes as “a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream,” took off. By 1938, Blackburne was dealing to the entire American League. 

He was not, notably, selling to the National League –– the other major league in the nation, against whom American League teams played in every World Series. According to Bintliff, tensions between American and National Leaguers ran deep in the 1930’s and Blackburne was an American League loyalist who refused to sell to the other side. 

“At the time, they were mortal enemies. I mean, there was no love lost between the American and National League. They were completely separate,” Bintliff explains.“If you played for one, you didn’t hang around with guys from the other. The World Series was like a battle.” 

This particular rivalry may have been speci c to Blackburne, as many other players had inter-league friendships. Still, without Blackburne’s consent, rubbing mud was off limits to the National League –– he had never shared his harvest spot (even today, according to Bintliff, the location is known to only a small handful of family members). So for over a decade, the two Leagues played with wholly different balls: the National League with glossy, factory-issued ones (perhaps mucked with some amateur substitute); the American League with balls aged by hand using Blackburne brand mud4. 

Tensions eased in 1950, however, when Blackburne took a new job as a third-base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, a National League Team. With one job transition, the entire game changed for the National League. Blackburne’s rivalry subsided and his brand became the gold standard of American baseball rubbing mud. Today, Bintliff says, the company sells to the entire MLB and their minor league affiliates, to all the independent leagues, to several colleges (including Harvard) and high schools, and even to a few teams in the NFL. It is now written into the MLB rule book (Rule 3.01c) that before every game the umpire has to rub down six dozen balls to get the gloss off. Nearly everyone in baseball coats their equipment in Blackburne’s mud –– they aren’t required to use his specifically, but for over half a century most teams have. 

When baseball season starts back up on April 2nd, umpires across the U.S. will crack open canisters of South Jersey shore mud. One would think, in a culture with its eyes fixed on the next new thing, someone would have gured out a short cut, a way to manufacture new balls, already worn in. But no other treatment, mechanical or manual, does the aging job as well as Bintliff’s mud. The contemporary american baseball is both manufactured and mudded down before every game, and so occupies a kind of liminal age –– just past too new, but not yet overused. It’s a subtle timeframe. According to Bintliff, if rubbed right, you can’t see that a ball’s been aged at all. 

“The umpires rub them, they put them in the box. They get through a dozen, then they go back and rub back over them after they dry to make sure there’s no dust or no cake build up on them.”Bintliff says. “And if it’s done right, you can’t tell that it’s done, if it’s done right. The only way you can tell is in the difference in the grip.” 

1 An association of teams which includes, among others, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Chicago White Sox.

2 Mays was known as something of a “submariner,” or a pitcher who elects to throw side-armed and very low to the ground, rather than the conventional, overhead motion.
3 The Commissioner of Baseball had been created earlier in 1920, to serve as the chief executive of Major League Baseball. The position had been determined necessary after the “Black Sox Scandal” –– when it came out that the Chicago White Sox had been paid off to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. 

4 Notably, but perhaps incidentally, during these years the American League outperformed the National League in both World Series and All Star Game results.