Lena Blackburne rubbing mud a secret of the game
Turns out, baseball has its own unsolvable puzzle: The source location of baseball’s “magic mud.”
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When he passed away in 1968 at the age of 81, with the knowledge that every baseball put into play from March to October is rubbed down with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, the first paragraph of his New York Times obituary referenced his late-in-life role in the game: “… originated the idea of rubbing mud on new baseballs to remove their slippery finish …”
After taking loads of the New Jersey mud home, usually between fall and spring, Blackburne would filter it, then add a special something that would make it non-staining and smooth as cold cream. The concoction seemed to contain a superfine grit that could scuff a baseball’s cover evenly with the mud nearly invisibly.
Bill Kinnamon, an American League umpire during the 1960s, once said: “There’s something about this mud. I don’t know how to explain it. It takes the shine off without getting the ball excessively dark.”
According to Blackburne, working the mud through a sieve “takes out any stones. They would wreck a ball. Of course, umps never let any of this mud get into the stitches of a ball. The balance would be ruined, and pitchers would make the ball perform the aerobatics of a horsefly under a lampshade.”
After Blackburne passed away, his mud business, along with all its secrets, was willed to childhood friend John Haas, who had helped out with Blackburne’s affairs.
“Mr. Blackburne made me promise that I would never give away to outsiders the secret of the source of the mud,” Haas said. “He also made me promise that, since he had no children of his own, I would see to it that the business was handed down through the family.”
In relatively short order, Haas passed it down to his son-in-law, Burns Bintliff.
“He (Haas) picked me because I was his son-on-law and also because he knew I’d played semipro baseball as a young man on the Burlington County team and had remained a committed baseball bug,” said Burns Bintliff. “It’s better than tobacco juice and far superior to everyday mud. Mud from the Delaware River tributary contains an ultra-fine abrasive that strips off the factory gloss but doesn’t damage the cover, and it doesn’t discolor the ball.”
Burns Bintliff would later admit the source of the baseball’s dirtiest secret was somewhere in the south of New Jersey.
“Everybody has their own idea where it comes from. Everybody thinks it’s the Delaware River, but it isn’t,” he said. “I’ll tell you this: Where it comes from is covered at high tide and uncovered at low tide. Other than that, it’s none of your business. That’s my standard response.”
In 1982, a scientific analysis of the rubbing mud conducted at The New York Times’ request found that more than 90 percent of it was finely ground quartz, probably crushed by ice that covered New Jersey during the Pleistocene Epoch more than 10,000 years ago.
“The surprise is that there is very little clay in it, so it would be terrible for a potter to use,” said Dr. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, professor of geology at Princeton University. “The overwhelming mineral in there is quartz, just like sand only finer. It is more than 90 percent quartz in a range of sizes with sharp edges.”
Burns Bintliff would ship his topnotch mud in coffee cans his friends and neighbors would leave on his porch. A one-pound coffee can could hold three pounds of mud and last a whole season.
“I don’t make much money from this,” Burns Bintliff said. “But my raw material costs me nothing and the supply will last forever.
“I wish I could raise my prices in proportion to what the ballplayers get in salaries. But the traffic wouldn’t bear it. I’m in this for the thrill,” he added. “I watch baseball on TV. Can you imagine how I feel knowing I’ve had something to do with every pitch at every single ballpark?”
What money the Bintliff’s did receive from their mud business went toward an annual getaway.
“It gives us enough to pay for the family vacation every year – and it’s always the same vacation,” said Burns Bintliff. “My wife, Betty, who’s the executive vice president and accountant of the business – she handles all the paperwork – and I go up to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
A can of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1968 and was part of the Museum’s Evolution of Equipment exhibit for many years.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum