Major League Baseball, more than any other big-time U.S. sport, has its history passed from old to young, from grandparent to child. It’s a veritable story time in the bleachers and clubhouses, where players with plenty of prep time tell tales shared by those who came before.
It’s strange, then, that so few big-league ballplayers know about Lena Blackburne and his super-secret mud hole, which has been helping pitchers to grip baseballs for almost 75 years.
“I just grab the ball and throw it,” said New York Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett, ignorant of the fact that without the efforts of a Phillies fan working a second job somewhere in the muck and mire of the Delaware River, his grabbing the baseball, especially in the October chill, wouldn’t be so easy.
Ask any pitcher about the mud that clubhouse attendants rub on baseballs prior to games and all of them will give you an opinion on how much is the right amount. For Phil Hughes of the Yankees, for instance, the philosophy is like that old tag line for Brylcreem: a little dab’ll do ya.
“I prefer them without as much mud,” said Hughes, who, like Burnett, didn’t know anything more about the mud’s origins.
Texas Rangers President Nolan Ryan, a hall-of-fame pitcher whose fastball sported a vapor trail, liked his game-day baseballs darker than most. The more mud the merrier.
“Oh, how I’d like to talk with Nolan Ryan,” says 53-year-old Jim Bintliff, the man behind the mud since his 19th birthday. “Every ball they touch has a piece of me on it.”
That’s some sentiment. And Bintliff is big on sentimentality.
New Jersey Muckraker
You should’ve heard a giddy Bintliff, who lives in Delran, New Jersey, about 18 miles from Philadelphia, talking about Roy Halladay of the Phillies becoming the first pitcher since Don Larsen in 1956 to throw a no-hitter in the postseason. To think he played a tiny part in that. What Bintliff really covets is a conversation with Jamie Moyer, who at the age of 47 is still pitching for the Phillies.
“He probably bought mud from my grandfather,” Bintliff joked.
Grandpa was friends with Blackburne, a third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics who in 1938 took it upon himself to find a solution when an umpire complained about the condition of the baseballs used by the American League.
To make a long story short, Blackburne passed along the business to Bintliff’s grandfather. It has been in the family since.
Bintliff’s first memory of harvesting mud came as a 10-year-old, when he climbed into his grandfather’s ‘65 Chevy Impala, drove to the secret spot in New Jersey and put the mud into a metal kettle. Today, fewer than 15 people know the location of the mud hole.
“And most of them are family,” says Bintliff, a father of four whose wife, Joanne, is in charge of the administration side of the business, taking orders, shipping and billing.
Bintliff harvests mud six or seven times a year. He adds secret ingredients and lets it age in 35-gallon trash cans.
“It’s very peaceful,” he said. “I’d enjoy doing it even if I wasn’t making money.”
Ah, the money. Just because baseball is a multibillion-dollar enterprise doesn’t mean there’s much dough in dirt. Common misconception, says Bintliff, whose day job, so to speak, has him working the night shift as a printing press operator.
“A $10 million a year pitcher has no control without my mud,” Bintliff says. “I can’t even afford to buy season tickets with the money I make.”
Eye on Pitchers
So, like most fans, Bintliff watches on television. He focuses intently on the pitcher’s reaction when he receives a new baseball from the umpire. Too much mud, perhaps. Not enough?
There have been plenty of changes in baseball throughout the years. Only one of any significance in the mud business. In the early ‘80s, Bintliff switched to plastic containers instead of coffee cans, which would rust and adversely affect the color of the mud.
According to Bintliff, about 10 years ago Rawlings Sporting Goods, a unit of Jarden Corp., tried to reproduce his mud. It didn’t work. Good story.
Bintliff is full of stories. Like his first baseball memory -- a bus ride to Shibe Park. Or the time he met former Phillies pitcher Mitch Williams, who at the time was a coach with the Atlantic City Surf.
Bintliff got a signed baseball. Williams got a signed bucket of mud, which, like the sport’s history, is passed from one generation to the next.
You have to think that Moyer would enjoy chatting about that.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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