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In a week dominated by headlines related to a hurricane and a financial meltdown, New York faces an event many orders of magnitude less important and less tragic, but sad nevertheless. On Sunday, Yankee Stadium will host its last baseball game and hopes for one last World Series there have gone down the drain. Preceding the game, the last dozens of baseballs will have been rubbed in mud in The House that Ruth Built.
Which brings us to New Jersey. For the past few weeks, my wife and I have enjoyed Jersey tomatoes from our local weekly farmer’s market. New Jersey’s designation as The Garden State is fully justified, if only for its unsurpassed tomatoes. Obviously, we have the right conditions for growing tomatoes and other produce and I assume that good dirt is one of those conditions. We certainly have good mud.
Of course, I’m talking about Lena Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud, the subject of a very short item by Jeremy Berlin under the somewhat surprising heading "Culture" in the October National Geographic. I was reasonably sure that I have written about this mud before but, on searching the StocksandNews archives for Blackburne, I found only one mention in editor Brian Trumbore’s Bar Chat column of 11/22/1999. I’ve found more on the mud, the background to its introduction and on Blackburne himself. Back in 1920, a batter was killed by a wild pitch and the search was on for a substance that could be used to take the shine off a new baseball and make the surface tacky enough for the pitcher to get a firm grip and better control of the pitch. Shoe polish, tobacco juice and a mix of water and dirt were materials were used over the years but none were satisfactory.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the introduction of the solution to the problem by player, manager and coach Russell Aubrey "Lena" Blackburne in 1938. In response to an umpire’s complaint about the quality of the American League’s baseballs, Blackburne set out to find a better rubbing material. He found a spot in a tributary of the Delaware River in southern New Jersey that contained this special mud which, according to the Geographic item, is rich in feldspar. Feldspar is any of several crystalline minerals containing aluminum silicates with sodium, potassium or calcium. The minerals are usually glassy and moderately hard. I imagine the feldspar provides enough of an abrasive quality to lightly roughen the cover of the baseball. According to Berlin, the mud is harvested six times a year and a "magic" ingredient is added, following which the mud is aged for six weeks before shipping to the baseball teams in three-pound vats.
I must point out that in the Bar Chat column, an analysis of the mud by a Princeton professor apparently indicated the mud to be 90 percent finely ground quartz, which is silicon dioxide, not feldspar. Take your pick - the mud still has its secrets. Whatever its composition and magic ingredients, if any, the mud does a wonderful job of taking the shine off a baseball and every major league game is preceded by rubbing down the baseballs with Blackburne’s mud.
While writing this column yesterday, I was taken by a statement by Berlin that in 1968 the mud "made the Hall of Fame." This led me to visit the Web site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and other sites including the Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud Company’s Web site, Wikipedia and a baseball-fever.com site. In the process, I got caught up in Balckburne’s career, especially when I found that in 1938, when he introduced his magic mud to the teams of the American League, he was the third base coach of the Philadelphia Athletics under manager Connie Mack. He coached there from 1933 to 1954.
As a kid who loved the then last place A’s, I had made the train trip from Mechanicsburg to Philadelphia a number of times in the late 30s and early 40s. I now realize that instead of directing my youthful adulation towards my favorite baseball player, Indian Bob Johnson of the A’s, I should have paid attention to that third base coach, a man whose legacy to baseball still endures. Although Rule 301c specifies that prior to a game the baseballs should be rubbed down, there is no specification as to with what they should be rubbed. Yet we know that since 1938, the major leagues have used exclusively Blackburne’s mud. Well that’s not true. It seems that Blackburne was such an American League fan that he refused to give his mud to the National League until the mid-1950s!
I was surprised to find on the Rubbing Mud company’s Web site that Blackburne died in the late 50s. Yet the Wikipedia entry on Blackburne says he died at 81 on February 29, 1968, which I expect was a leap year. I’m assuming a typo on the company’s site. Blackburne had quite a varied career, playing the infield for four teams, managing the White Sox and coaching and scouting for the A’s. Actually, it’s good that he "invented" the mud as his statistics weren’t too impressive - an anemic batting average of 0.214 and only four home runs in 550 games played.
How did the mud make the Hall of Fame? Back in the 1960s, the company started a tradition of donating mud to the Hall of Fame for the annual baseball game held in Cooperstown and a can of the mud is included in the Hall of Fame Museum’s exhibit on the evolution of equipment in baseball. Therefore the Mud company can truly boast that its mud is indeed in the Hall of Fame.
When Blackburne died, he willed his company to John Haas, who then left the company in the hands of his son-in-law Burns Bitliff. Burns in turn left the business to his son-in-law Jim and his family. According to the company site, every July the family goes out to the secret mud hole, scoops up hundreds of pounds of mud, which is placed in barrels to rest until time to pack it up and ship it out to each major league team. Bitliff refuses to tell if a secret ingredient is added. Whatever, the muck does its job.
Finally, I just went back to search the StocksandNews archives and for some reason this time found that I had indeed mentioned the mud in my column of 11/06/2001! Incidentally, should you have some baseballs you want to rub, I found that the company does sell cans for individual use. As for myself, my baseball days are long past - I’ll stick to golf.
For those expecting science in today’s column, I apologize. At least there was a bit of chemistry in the silicate-silica discussion. Next week I’ll probably discuss more serious dirt. Stay tuned.
Allen F. Bortrum