Baseball’s Muddy Business and How It Might End

For 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.

100 thoughts on “Baseball’s Muddy Business and How It Might End

  1. Now for the real question: If you want to remove the gloss from one's balls without darkening them, does that become racist, or does it just mean you want to avoid medical complications?

  2. Man, I had no idea there was so much superstition behind what kind of substance to use when throwing a ball. Maybe it's not superstition, but there are players that seem to think being able to see the stitches of the ball helps them know which way the ball is being thrown, which is just simply wrong. You cannot particularly see the ball when it's being thrown, at least not enough to judge the stitches, not even through a sort of "automatic reaction." Studies have been conducted that conclude if a hitter is going to swing at a fastball, he has to be swinging before the ball even leaves the pitcher's hand.
    I'm not saying they can't see the stitches of the ball, but I think it's safe to conclude that no matter the look of the ball, they won't have enough time to change the way they swing based on the stitches. It's complete superstition.

  3. the 9 to 10 minute segment makes it seem New England's R. Kraft should have gone to a MLB facility instead of a spa…

  4. I grew up in the town the mud comes from… there’s an exhibit about Blackburne in the local museum. Weird to think about that one.

  5. Finally a job for my ex, and apparently she would be rather good at it… I wouldn't know though, since she only practiced on half the town and never on me, before she left me for my best friend…

  6. No, I DON'T particularly wonder why that particular mud is rubbed on the ball. Instead, I wonder why they can't make the ball in the production process a little rougher and easier to grip, so that rubbing it with mud is unnecessary?

  7. As a former player, all I can say is the mud rubbed baseballs are still the best. Why fix what isn't broken?

  8. One thing I find very strange is the fact that Americans named their biggest baseball event the "world series". This is odd because, despite the name, the only teams permitted to play in the so-called "world series" are American ones. That is not a "world series", that is an American series. Maybe the name could be forgiven if baseball were only popular in America like American football is. However, unlike American football, baseball is popular in a lot of other countries too. For example, baseball enjoys a great deal of popularity in Japan where it has a very large following, arguably even more so than America in some areas. Yet Japan, as with every other non-American country, is not permitted to compete in the "world series". Just a suggestion but I'd like to see a future video explaining how this odd situation came to be. the only theories I can come up with are that either Americans really are arrogant enough to think their country qualifies as "the world" or they just want to keep teams from other countries out to ensure that an American team will win every time.

  9. It's called stretching the envelope.
    Adapt and overcome
    Oh, my emory stick? Just trying to keep my nails clean. Looking good for the crowd.
    The 60 grit sand paper in my pocket? Just touching up my bat, musta forgotten to put it up.
    Of course, when big gobs of vaseline get slung at the batter, the pump has to do something.
    It is a time honored thing
    Thanks for posting
    Now when the bat shatters and cork comes flying, well, must be a new found sustainably harvested wood source

  10. I play in a hand bell choir, I really do, I normally play some of the lower bass notes. Yes, I get the comments about , my what big ones.
    Yes, nothing constructive to add to the discussion.
    I'll see myself out

  11. Ya when I played baseball I didn’t need any dirt or anything like it. It’s called form control to throw the ball. If your pitching which I’ve also done. You use the threads to get a grip and do all your fancy spins and such. Let me put it simply this way. Never seen a slipper baseball 1994 on for sure.

  12. I was so proud of myself for not once laughing that the rubbing balls sayings until the "Many American Football teams rub their balls down with it too." that sent me off. Still it's quite fascinating to know.

  13. Just let them use pine tar, if it’s allowed on the bats then it should be allowed for the pitchers

  14. They should just get rid of pitchers. Let these boys play T-ball and let's see how far they can hit a none moving object. I bet there would even less home runs. But at least you won't have to deal with bean balls anymore. hehe

  15. this video proves that the baseball league are a buntch of idiots. if there is no rule for using the mud for a better grip but there is a rule ageins substances put on the ball aftherward. wy dafuc are there so many that break the rule cant you simply ask the guy to use a bit more mud for a better grip problem solved. or as it is a wel known fact that alot of players break the rule and that is wy they are not pointed oute of fear that their own player wil be taken shorly afther too then it makes no sense for the rule to be there.

    if someone actualy cared for their game they wil go together or not to find a substance that dosent discolor the ball and have the same efect as the mud. this way you can use as mutch as you want to get the grip you want no rules broken.

    this is the reaso that i now belive most peopele in this sport are idiots that have a nonsensical rule and a way around it but nobody cares so they go the ilegal rute instead of a legal risk free rute as to me it sounds like if you get some realy fine sandand a thick fluid you wil get about the same thing but withoute the smell and discoloring.(i am not a scientist so sont quote me on my most likely wrong resepie for a replacement)

  16. Fun fact, Simon rubs his head with the same river mud. This is how he keeps his head smooth without the ugly shine all bald men have.

  17. This is a video about rubbing balls in mud from a secretive muddy bottom, allowing baseball players to get a better grip on their balls. The ball mudding business was passed from businessman to businessman. Men running balls quickly, or multiple at once, or spitting on the balls is mentioned.

    Not one innuendo was made. Impressive.

  18. To be a little more accurate, Chapman was killed during what is known as the Dead Ball Era. It wasn't so much that baseballs got dirty during the regular course of play, but players on both sides actively made them dirty by rubbing soil on them, spitting tobacco juice on them, just about anything to make the ball harder for the batter to see, the logic being that if he couldn't see the ball he couldn't hit the ball. And often the same ball was used for an entire game, with fouls and home run balls thrown back from the stands. Chapman's death changed all that, ending the Dead Ball Era (the name of which refers to the balls not travelling anywhere near as far as post-DBE balls, with home runs and such being pretty rare, forcing players to play what we now call "small ball," getting men on base and bunting, stealing and sac-flying to score runs).

  19. Secret location? South Jersey? I'm northwest one of the locations for extraction is literally less than a five minute walk from my doorstep.

  20. He was a headhunter. Quotes him saying he was not a headhunter. This is how you give people TDS when applied to politics.

  21. today i found out….a man with a British accent has done more research about the most American sport since Lacrosse then several of my friends that definitely have moms that know which shoe box their little league photos are in.

  22. im from cleveland, this guy has a really cool memorial in one of the big cemetarys. i didnt know his death was the reason for this.

  23. All this talk of sweat, rubbing down slippery balls, saliva all over those balls, and the like, coming from the other room gets me "excited", (even though I'm in out here the kitchen cooking…)

  24. At about the 9:45 mark I checked the date to see if it was posted april 1st. How was this not posted april 1st?

  25. There has been little effort in finding a replacement because IT IS NOT NEEDED!!!. Go ahead, MLB, keep killing off tradition and you're going to find yourselves in the same boat as Nascar.

    DH for the NL my ass. American League is Bush League

  26. Kinda reminds me of the Australian who died playing professional cricket, it was a complete freak accident.

  27. A pass-time is not a sport… Thus baseball is NOT a sport. It's something for people to watch while they're bored off their gourds!

  28. There is no such thing as "vertical rise" in a baseball pitch. Gravity operates on the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher's hand. There may be a slight parabolic race, but there is no rise…

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