In the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, N.Y., treasures such as Joe DiMaggio's locker and Bobby Thomson's bat have been joined by a decidedly unusual artifact: a coffee can filled with mud. This foot soldier among generals is Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which has been used for 44 years by umpires for the essential, if modest, purpose of scuffing new baseballs to remove the gloss and make them easier to grip.
Although Blackburne mud has earned its fair share of the historical spotlight, the stuff still seems better suited to a Hall of Obscurity. Most fans and players don't realize it exists, and even the umpires who use it know little about it. During last year's World Series, former Umpire Ron Luciano, guessing wildly, commented to a national television audience that baseball was paying $100 a can for the mud. Columnist Peter Coutros of the New York Daily News compounded this error by lambasting baseball for coughing up so much money for"...plain old dirt that has turned squishy from being wet so long."
To set the record straight, in case another World Series telecast includes more misinformation on the stuff, here's the lowdown on Blackburne mud.
The first fact to grasp is that shiny, new baseballs have always come from the factory too slick to be handled well. In the sport's earliest years balls were usually roughed up with tobacco juice, a substance easily obtained in ball parks, or with a mixture of water and dirt. But both methods either scarred balls or made them easier to scar, and gave pitchers the unfair advantage of throwing balls that moved as erratically as butterflies.
The problem was solved in 1938 by Russell (Lena) Blackburne, a coach for the Philadelphia Athletics. Blackburne dug up some mud from a river near his home in southern New Jersey, doctored it in a mysterious manner and gave it to an umpire. The mud proved ideal. It was odorless and greaseless, and although it appeared as smooth as chocolate mousse, it contained a superfine grit that scuffed a ball's cover evenly and almost invisibly, without changing the natural flight of the ball.
Eventually both major leagues were using Blackburne mud exclusively. Blackburne died in 1968, but his friend John Haas carried on with the dirty business. A couple of seasons later, Haas passed the job along to his daughter, Catherine, and her husband, Burns Bintliff, a carpenter with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Where the mud comes from and how it's altered have been deep dark secrets from the beginning. When Lena Blackburne was asked where he dug the mud up, he impishly donned a clam digger's outfit and led reporters and photographers on a wild-goose chase. Today Burns Bintliff swears that "the formula hasn't changed one bit," but, he adds, "I won't say what's in it and what's not."
The Bintliffs' clandestine production line begins each fall when Burns pulls on his Phillies cap, recruits a couple of his five sons and heads out to a tributary of the Delaware River in the family motorboat. At the mother lode they wait for the outgoing tide to lower the boat onto the mud. Then Burns valiantly jumps into the waist-deep ooze and passes pailfuls up to be dumped into large garbage cans. During eight backbreaking hours, the little crew is able to collect about 400 pounds.
Back in the garage at home they strain out some 100 pounds of stones, sticks and water. Later the mud is treated—who knows how?—in the laundry room and packed in one-pound coffee cans donated by neighbors. In February and March the cans of mud are shipped to teams in the major leagues and in the International League, the Pacific Coast League and the American Association.
This modest enterprise is hardly a bonanza. Because just the tiniest dab is needed to scuff a ball, two cans of mud take care of a team's needs from spring training through the playoffs. The Bintliffs charge about $20 a can plus shipping costs, and clear barely enough to pay for one family vacation.