Mud on baseballs

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My first newspaper job was nightside sports editor for a small town daily paper. I wasn’t much of a sports fan to start with, and even after I got the hang of it and learned the jargon, I still couldn’t muster much excitement over a baseball box score.

To keep focused, I dug up oddities about sports and wrote about them in between reporting on American Legion baseball games and high school basketball.

One of the most riveting things I unearthed was the practice of lathering baseballs with mud. All baseballs used by professional teams today are thoroughly rubbed with chocolaty mud from the Delaware River.

The practice takes the slippery shine off the ball and gives the pitcher greater control. Before Lena Blackburne, third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics discovered the gooey substance near his home in Palmyra, NJ in 1938, balls were rubbed with tobacco juice or dirt from the ball field. Unfortunately, this tended to damage the ball cover, so when the Delaware mud was introduced, it was hailed as the greatest thing since the curve ball.

When Blackburne retired from baseball and started the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud Company, he was such a diehard American League fan that until the late 1950s he refused to sell his mud to the National League.

Jim Bintliff, who runs the company today, digs up some 1,500 lbs of the stuff every year, sifts it into a fine talcum powder consistency and ships it off to the leagues. Before every game the umpires rub several dozen balls with mud.

Even though his mud company has cornered the market, Bintliff admits it’s only a part-time job. He still works full time for a printing company, but says the mud business pays for a nice vacation every year.

Next week I’ll tell you why the NHL freezes its hockey pucks.


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