MIKE KEELER: Play Ball! (And Pass The Mud . . .)

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As snow melts in the Northeast, baseball fans’ thoughts turn south, toward spring training. Hopes for the new season are high. But what most fans don’t know is that, no matter what happens this summer, every team, every game and in fact every single play will be influenced by…New Jersey?

Yes, New Jersey. And it all goes back to August 16, 1920. On that day, in a game at the Polo Grounds, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians named Ray Chapman was batting against Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman may have been crowding the plate. Mays might have been throwing a dirty ball with a scuff in it. But for whatever reason, Mays’ pitch struck Chapman in the head, and tragically killed him. It was the first – and to this day the only – game fatality in Major League history.

The infamous moment led to the eventual mandating of batting helmets several decades later. But in the near term, the tragedy led to an investigation into the condition of game balls. Before that time, pitchers had been allowed to use pretty much anything to take the shine off a new ball. Field dirt, sweat, spit, tobacco juice, tar resin, shoe polish, you name it. And this created a situation where all the game balls were very different and very dirty. With the death of Chapman, the league started looking for a better, more consistent way to prepare and regulate game balls.

In 1938, a third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics named Lena Blackburne – who was also an avid fisherman – provided a solution. He had found some mud at one of his fishing holes that, when rubbed on a ball, provided a nice dry texture and dependable grip. Even better, it was odorless and almost colorless, so no one minded it and the batters could still see the ball. The Athletics started prepping all their game balls with it, and soon telegrams poured in from other teams requesting some of the “magic mud.” In no time the entire American League was using it exclusively, and the National League followed suit in the 1950’s. And thus was born Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which has been the standard ever since.

Today, most baseball leagues at all levels use Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. A number of NFL and NCAA football teams use it too. The stuff is harvested a half-dozen times a year. It undergoes a proprietary process to ensure consistency (it is described as a cross between cold cream and chocolate pudding). It is then packaged into 32-ounce containers that sell for $100.

And where exactly does it come from? Well, Mr. Blackburne died in 1968. Before he did, he willed his business to his partner. He passed it along to his son-in-law, who in turn willed it to his son. Today, that guy is pretty much the only person who knows the secret source of the mud. And he’s not talking.

All we know is that it comes from somewhere in Burlington County, in a tidal pool along the east shore of the Delaware River.

And that this coming season, every heater, splitter, knuckler, backdoor slider, pea, tater, dying quail, flare, liner, triple-bagger and moon shot will have a little bit of Jersey on it.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler