Baseball’s Muddy Business and How It Might End

baseball-mudFor major league pitchers, getting a grip on a baseball can get a bit muddy. That’s because, at least for now (this may well be changing in the next few years), every single baseball used in a major league game is coated with a little bit of actual mud, known as Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud, which comes from a secret location on a tributary of the Delaware River in southern New Jersey.

Why do they rub the balls down in mud? Baseballs fresh out of the box are glossy and slippery as a byproduct of the manufacturing process, reducing the chance that the ball will actually go where the pitcher wants. In a nutshell, the mud in question functions to make the baseball slightly easier to grip.

This now leads us to the question of why exactly do they use this this particular mud?

The story of how Delaware mud’s became an integral part of baseball began on August 16, 1920. In the fifth inning of a game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was at the plate when a fastball thrown by Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays struck him in the head.

A report in The New York Times on August 17, 1920 described the aftermath:

The blow had caused a depressed fracture in Chapman’s head three and a half inches long. Dr. Merrigan removed a piece of skull about an inch and a half square and found the brain had been so severely jarred that blood clots had formed. The shock of the blow had lacerated the brain not only on the left side of the head where the ball struck but also on the right side where the shock of the blow had forced the brain against the skull….

Shortly thereafter, at 4:40am, Chapman died. To this day, Chapman remains the only Major League Baseball player to die as a result of an incident on the field.

Chapman’s beanball death forced MLB officials to find ways to make the game safer. While you might think requiring some form of batting helmet would be item number one on the to-do list here, this was not the case.  Various types of protective head gear had been tried before, but weren’t popular among players, and it wouldn’t be until Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane had his career ended (and nearly died from a skull fracture) in 1937 that things on the batting helmet front would start to pick up a little steam, though it still took about two more decades for batting helmets to become mandatory in Major League Baseball.

Another potential option for Major League Baseball to pursue here would have been more strictly policing the then relatively common practice of “head hunting” by pitchers. This includes Carl Mays himself having been notorious for it before he accidentally killed Chapman, with Mays explaining, “Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble… I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.”

As many pitchers employed this strategy for that same reason, the league instead focused on making the balls less slippery and making sure that both scuffed and dirty balls got thrown out of the game in favor of pristine ones with more predictable flight paths and that were easier to see. Essentially, if the pitchers were going to insist on throwing balls near (or sometimes at) player’s heads to back them off the plate, Major League Baseball wanted to ensure said pitchers could control the ball as well as humanly possible and that, even in the gloaming, hitters could see them coming.

And so it was that in 1921 an official rule was instituted requiring that “the umpire shall inspect the baseballs…. and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.” This rule is still on the books today.

Setting the rule is one thing, figuring out and easy way to accomplish it proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated.  Various methods were used in the early going, the most popular of which being rubbing the balls with infield dirt, sometimes mixed with a bit of water. This worked, but a little too well sometimes, resulting in scuffing up the leather in the process. This could in turn result in a change of the flight path of the ball- a fact many a pitcher has taken advantage of with strategic scuffing of balls when they can get away with it.

Other early substances used to remove the “gloss” included shoe polish and tobacco juice, with even less desirable results. What they really needed was a consistent way to remove the gloss without darkening the ball too much, without scuffing it up, and without getting gunk stuck in the laces (the latter of which would potentially have a huge effect on the movement of the ball).

It was 1938 when Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Russell Aubry “Lena” Blackburne overheard the umpires complaining about that day’s set of balls. A former Chicago White Sox infielder in the 1910s and 1920s, Blackburne was a player himself when Chapman was killed. He was also an avid fisherman who spent his off-seasons fishing in the backwater of the Delaware River near his home in Palmyra, New Jersey. He knew that region of the river like the back of his hand. He also knew that the primary problem with the commonly used infield dirt was that it was much too abrasive.

Putting two and two together, he experimented with the ultra-soft mud at the bottom of the Delaware River and discovered that a tiny bit of mud off the top layer worked phenomenally well at getting the gloss off the balls without staining or damaging them.

And if you’re wondering why, subsequent research has been done on the mud in question to see what properties it has, including by the University of Pennsylvania, who ran a chemical analysis on it. They discovered that it was more than half water and the dirt contained traces of dozens of minerals, including calcium, sodium, potassium, green mica, etc. In other words, it was a smoothie of minerals, though nothing particularly special about it in terms of its contents over a lot of other mud. But what is relatively special about it is its soft “pudding” like consistency, allowing it to work well as an ultra-fine grit buffing agent- just gritty enough to serve its grippy purpose, but not so gritty that it discernibly scuffs the soft leather when rubbed in. Evenly applied, any microscopic scuffing is likewise done evenly, ensuring it doesn’t interfere in an abnormal way with the flight of the ball.

As for why it has this pudding like consistency, this may stem from its exact location via a tributary with finer grain sediment, as opposed to the coarser grain material often found in the main stems of a river. This often makes the mud in such regions smoother, thicker and not full of rocks.

As for Lena Blackburne, he had thus discovered a substance that took the gloss off the ball, didn’t smell or discolor the balls significantly, and was, quite literally, dirt cheap. Soon after his discovery, “Lena Blackburne’s Original Baseball Rubbing Mud” was being sold to every American league team. Why only the American league? At a time when the American and National leagues were bitter rivals, Lena, a long time American League player, refused to sell to the National League. (He would later relent in the 1950s.)

With business booming, Blackburne refined his mud collection process, which ultimately comprised of first carefully scooping the surface layer of the mud into buckets. (Deeper layers ended up resulting in a more gritty and slightly smelly product.) Next, he’d screen off any debris like leaves, sticks or the like. Finally, he’d place the mud in large barrels to age for a minimum of around a month.  The mostly dried product is then placed in containers and sold.

Today, Major League Baseball still uses this same mud.  Although, while the company is named after the ballplayer, it is actually currently run by the descendants of a friend of Blackburne, John Haas. Upon Blackburne’s death, he turned the business over to Haas, who had been helping him run the business. Haas eventually turned it over to his son-in-law Burns Bintliff. Today, one of Burns’ sons, Jim Bintliff, runs the mud business.

The process of how he goes about getting the mud is really pretty much the same as it was in the 1930s. Every year from July to October, Bintliff goes out to the secret spot to gather more than a thousand pounds of mud. He hauls it home, ages and screens it, supposedly adds a hidden “natural” ingredient, cans the dried mud, and then sells it as is to major league teams, college and high school teams, and to whoever else wants their own authentic baseball mud.

It should also be noted that, according to Bintliff, it isn’t just baseball teams who buy the mud anymore – many American football teams rub their balls down with it too. He told the Washington Post that about half of NFL teams use his mud to help their players get a better grip on the balls. Currently, mud is within the allowable rules of the NFL – unlike deflating the football.

As you might imagine given his product is essentially just fine dirt and water, Bintliff’s never solely made a living off the product, in 2009 claiming the mud was bringing in about $20,000 a year profit at that point. This was actually significantly more than it used to make thanks to having opened up the product to sell to anybody via their website a few years before.

This low figure might seem surprising given Major League Baseball alone goes through about 160,000-190,000 mud rubbed balls per regular season (not to mention spring training). However, it turns out each team only needs about two 32 ounce tubs of the mud for spring training and another two for the regular season, all at just $75 a bucket. Doing the math, that’s only about $9,000 per year from Major League teams, and even then only after relatively recently bumping the price from $50 to $75.

Bintliff did note that because every Major League team uses his mud, and given that they need so little, he could jack up the price to those teams significantly, even hundreds of dollars per bucket, and they’d probably pay without giving it a second thought. This would allow him to make a great living off the mud, but he’s much more interested in ensuring the tradition continues than making a lot of money off the whole thing.

As to how the mud is applied to the baseballs and who does it, while formerly coaches, umpires or sometimes even players were given the task, in more modern times, this is usually done by a clubhouse attendant. The general process is to apply a tiny dollop of the mud to the ball with a little water (sometimes using a spray bottle) and then spinning and rubbing the ball in one’s hands.

The key here is not to use so much that the ball turns too dark and not to use too little so that it remains slippery. While this might seem awfully arbitrary (especially given how much is riding on the line of the balls being exactly as the pitchers and hitters expect), given that the same attendant might rub literally tens, if not in some cases hundreds, of thousands of balls over the course of his or her career, the results are actually pretty consistent.

And while you might think this would be a time consuming process given in a typical game around 6-9 dozen balls need prepared, it should be noted that Cleveland Indians’ attendant Jack Efta stated he can apply mud to 72 balls in roughly twenty minutes. Philadelphia Phillies’ Dan O’Rourke also noted he could rub mud on 4 balls at one time in an equally quick process. Red Sox clubhouse attendant Dean Lewis claimed he could rub down about a dozen balls per five minutes, so roughly 25 seconds a ball.

It should also be noted that some individuals – like former Atlanta Braves’ assistant manager Chris Van Zant – used to mix the mud, not with regular water, but with his own saliva. Said Van Zant in 2009 to CNN, “When you see fans fighting for a souvenir ball that goes into the stands, you’re like, ‘Well, that ball has my spit on it.’ There’s a little kid somewhere with a baseball on his nightstand and I spit on that ball.”

In any event, given the cheapness of the product, how little of it is needed, and that its use ensures a certain consistent, relatively predictable grip from season to season and stadium to stadium, there has been virtually no effort put into finding an alternate product to solve the slippery new baseball issue… until recently.

You see, while the mud does provide more grip than the stock balls, a little talked about, but widely known “secret,” in the game is that, despite it being against the rules (and despite pristine HD broadcasts often revealing the fact to those who care to pay attention), pitchers still regularly use various substances to help them get a grip on the ball. As Phillies pitcher Clay Buccholz states, “Everybody does something. It’s a game within the game; you just have to be discreet about it.”

Opposing managers could call out the other team’s pitcher and get the umpires to throw them out of the game, but that would open their own pitchers to similar scrutiny, as no doubt the other manager would retaliate. Further, even the hitters, who in terms of their own numbers for a variety of reasons would benefit from the pitcher not being able to grip the ball well, tend to agree that they’d prefer the pitchers had a good grip before they throw. As Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia noted,

We’re facing some guys who are throwing 98 or 99 [mph]. You’d like them to have some idea of where it’s going. Hitters know what the pitchers are doing. Most of the time we’re fine with it. It’s all part of the game.

So the use of substances to get a better grip on the ball (usually) goes unmentioned and unpenalized, unless a player is being ridiculously blatant about it à la Michael Pineda in 2014.

What does this all have to do with the future of the traditional mud in baseball?  Very recently Major League Baseball asked Rawlings, the official baseball supplier for MLB, to come up with a way to make the balls more tacky right out of the box. The goal here is to help pitchers get a better grip on the ball and, thus, hopefully stop them from having to sneak random substances onto their fingers during the games.

Another solution would be to simply allow pitchers to use something like pine tar- after all, rosin bags are allowed, functioning to help dry off the hand when too sweaty. But changing the rules to allow something like pine tar could potentially be ripe for abuse, and there wouldn’t be any way to make it consistent from pitcher to pitcher. The current system of having it be against the rules, but more or less looking the other way, tends to self regulate in this regard, as pitchers have to be very careful how much they use to keep it from being too obvious or showing up too much on the ball.

While, again, you might think hitters would be adamantly against new extra tacky balls, given the potential effect on spin rate on the ball and how much that might hurt their numbers (more spin potentially meaning more movement or more so-called vertical “rise,” depending on how it’s thrown), so far there has been little outcry on that front. Beyond the aforementioned reasoning that hitters would prefer the ball is not slipping out of the pitcher’s hands, there’s also the added benefit in this case that extra tacky balls are a much brighter white than the mud treated ones, with some players, such as Detroit Tiger’s prospect Grayson Greiner, noting brighter white balls help the hitters pick up the ball better as it streaks towards them.

Others have noted that the brighter white also helps them to see the seams better, helping them to discern what pitch is being thrown, despite the potential boost in spin rate which would normally make it harder to see the seams and type of spin.

As for Rawlings’ progress on this front, Rawlings executive Vice President Mike Thompson has stated “We think we’re close now. We’re just waiting for MLB to give us the go-ahead on when they want it.”

The two primary methods they’ve been experimenting with are a spray-on tacky substance, ensuring even application, with the downside here being it wears off fairy quickly (though given how often balls are switched out in the Major Leagues, this isn’t probably that big of an issue at that level of play) and a more durable substance that is tanned right into the leather.

However, a three day test in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 resulted in less than stellar reviews from Washington National’s prospect Austin Voth, who noted, “It felt like a big league ball not rubbed up and it felt like it was slippery. Every ball I had, I rubbed it up with dirt. And after that, if felt about the same.”

That said, the problem has already been long solved in Japan where the balls in the Nippon Professional Baseball league are manufactured to be quite tacky, completely negating the need for mudding the balls or pitchers sneaking illegal substances on their fingers.  As Cubs pitcher Koji Ueheara notes, “It took me a while to adjust when I came to the majors [from Japan]. Rosin is not enough to get a good grip. [So] I do what everybody else does, but I’d rather not talk about it.”

Given all this, it would seem likely that, with concerted effort, whether the current tacky solutions by Rawlings are accepted or not, eventually they will come up with something that makes everybody happy.  When that happens, it’s just a matter of getting the player’s and owners to agree on the change (not always an easy thing, though not without precedent, such as when MLB switched from horse-hide balls to cow-hide in the 1970s).  Once that happens, presumably over the next few years, there will be little need for the traditional mud (or traditional pitcher cheating), ending about an eight decade baseball tradition on the former, though on the latter… a certain level of cheating in baseball has always been an integral and accepted part of the sport- as long as you’re sneaky enough.

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