Sunday, February 19, 2012

Good old-fashioned New Jersey mudslinging hits the major leagues

I don't care how balmy it gets over the winter. I believe that spring begins when pitchers and catchers report to major league training camps in February. That's happening this week, and it seems it won't be long till we can watch intrasquad play and preseason competition.

I don't know if this ball ever got the mud treatment,
but it's still pretty cool.
No matter where those games are played, they'll all have a little New Jersey in them. Or, more accurately, on the balls the players use. Before each and every major league game, umpires rub a special concoction of Garden State mud into the hides of several dozen baseballs to take the shine off the covering. Reportedly, this makes the ball easier to grip, so it's less likely that a pitcher will lose control and inadvertently hit a batter in the head. Following the beaning death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920, the urgency for finding a solution to this problem became more acute.

What is it about New Jersey mud that makes the difference? Why can't the umpires just use dirt from the infield of the park where the game is being played? In the early days of baseball, the umps did, in fact, often turn to ballpark dirt, shoe polish and even tobacco juice to effectively dull the ball's surface leather. Only problem was, these methods would either discolor or scratch the balls, making them unsuitable for game play.

After listening to an umpire's complaints on the topic, Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburn decided to find a solution. In the late 1930's, he came upon the perfect mud somewhere near Palmyra, allegedly on a tributary of the Delaware River. Using a proprietary method, he screened the mud and then cured it over the winter before distributing it for use. The pudding-like substance roughs up the balls sufficiently for gripping, without causing any real damage. By the 1950s, every major league team was using Blackburn's mud.

I'm just as curious about the origins of that mud as you probably are, but it's a closely-held secret. It's so secret, in fact, that only four men have known its location: Blackburn, his friend John Haas whom he willed the business to, Haas' son-in-law Burns Bintliff, and the current mud collector, Jim Bintliff. (You have to admit -- those are all really baseball-sounding names.) According to a CNN story, the next person to be admitted to the fraternity of baseball mud collectors may be a woman: Jim's daughter Rebecca, and no doubt she won't tell, either.

In a given year, the business doesn't make much money, but I'm sure it gives a heck of a lot of satisfaction. Imagine watching any major league game and knowing you helped make every pitch happen. That's a feeling you can't buy.

2 comments:

  1. Well ... that's a little baseball trivia I will share with my family!
    Play ball! Pitchers and catchers report! It's baseball season!
    Maybe you and I will meet up at Shea ... I mean Citi Field this year!
    R

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  2. Glad you're sharing the news! Let's go Mets!!!

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