Longport, NJ – A 45-gallon rubber drum sits in a crowded garage along the Jersey Shore, high-waisted filled with what looks like the world’s least delicious chocolate pudding. It is nothing more than a lousy, sticky, sticky, gelatinous clay.
Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are made of.
Carried by one man in buckets from a secret spot along the bank of the New Jersey River, this particular clay is unique in its ability to cut through the slippery sheen of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for a bowler who flings it at life-threatening speed toward another human standing 60 feet six inches away.
Vats of the substance are found at every major league stadium. They are contacted on each of the 144 to 180 balls used in each of the 2,430 Major League matches played in a season, as well as those played in the post-season. “Pearl” clay—a pure ball straight out of the box—has been the norm of baseball for much of the last century, since a travel pioneer named Lena Blackburne introduced clay as a substitute for tobacco spit and dirt infused, which tends to turn the ball into an overripe plum.
Consider what this means: that Major League Baseball — a multibillion-dollar organization that applies science and analysis to nearly every aspect of the game — ultimately relies on some geographically defined dirt collected by a retiree with a gray ponytail, fuzzy arm tattoos and a shovel. flat.
“For the past six weeks, I’ve been shipping to Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Blue Jays,” Mudman Jim Bentliffe said recently, while standing by his garage barrel of stickiness.
But MLB executives are completely unimpressed by the eccentric tradition of the so-called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they say is often inconsistently applied. In their quest to make the balls more uniform – and the game fairer – they tried to devise an alternative, even hiring chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the desired feel.
Result so far:
Lena Blackburn: 1
Major League Baseball: 0
MLB spokesman Glenn Caplin said that “pre-interference baseballs” continue to be tested in the minor leagues. But reviews were mixed.
“If you change one characteristic in baseball, you sacrifice something,” Caplin said. “The sound of the bat was different. The ball felt soft. The bar for changing the ball is very high.”
However, he said, “It’s an ongoing project.”
Bintliff knows the game isn’t over yet. He said baseball’s apparent efforts to dislodge him and his mud were disrupting his sleep. Now, he said, it became more philosophical.
“If they stopped ordering, I would be sadder by the end of tradition, not the bottom line,” he said, standing in his garage in red shorts and high-top white Chuck Taylor sneakers. “If they don’t want mud, they don’t have to buy it.”
The tradition began with Russell Blackburn, aka Lena, a feisty, low-hitting player who excelled at the major leagues in the 2000s before settling down as a major league coach and manager. Hyatt, appears in black and white photos alongside the likes of Ty Cobb and Connie Mack.
More great stories you can’t help but read to the end.
While training third base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938, he heard a referee complain about the difficulty of preparing entirely new balls for use. Blackburn tried clay from a tributary of the Delaware River, not far from his home in New Jersey, and found that it removed the ball’s luster while keeping it mostly white.
He now has a side job. After a while, every major and minor league team would use what has sometimes come to be called “Mississippi mud”—although the “mud” would have been more appropriate than Mississippi State.
Before Blackburn died at the age of 81 in 1968, he left the secret location of an old friend he had joined in mud harvesting: Bentlief’s grandfather, who left it to his father and mother, who moved it to Bentlief in 2000.
Bentlev, 65, served in the Navy and worked for decades as a printmaker, but the mysterious clay has remained a constant in his life. Yet, he sees himself as he was in 1965, a little boy with buckets of freshly collected mud in the back of his grandfather’s Chevy Impala.
Over the years, Bentliffe and his wife Joan, who handles administrative work, have tinkered with the business model. For example, he harvested clay once or twice a year. But expanding their market to school and professional football teams — including more than a few in the National Football League — requires riverside monthly returns.
However, the basic work remains the same, with the timing depending on the tides.
Bintliff will drive his Chevy Silverado Pickup 70 miles or so to the secret spot and walk 50 yards through the woods. Besides the shovel and buckets, he will have a scythe for any overgrowth and a few fibers for any inquisitors. He might say that clay works wonders for his garden.
Then he returned to his home on the Jersey Shore. The journey takes longer than the harvest.
Over the next four weeks, Bintliff will filter the mud into the rubber barrel, skim river water that rises to the top, use plenty of tap water to get rid of the smell, and apply a “special treatment” that he refuses to describe — and let things settle.
“It’s aging like good wine,” he said.
When the clay reaches its best appearance, fill in Distinguished organizations – $100 for the 2.5-pound professional size, $65 for the 1.5-pound institutional size, and $25 for the 8-ounce personal size – and heads to the post office to ship some plastic clay containers.
Bentlev said his profit is modest. For example, he said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to send 10 pounds of Lena Blackburn clay to each of the 30 major league teams. If the team needs more during the season, it deals with it directly.
He said he’s not so much motivated by money as by admiration from everything. Imagine: This clay, which has a very special mineral composition, is used to bless every major league baseball. And if the Wonders were to slip away from Major League Baseball, Bentliffe said, “So be it.”
The question of where Lena Blackburne’s clay fits in today’s game comes as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred presides over the drive for consistency. But in a sport of countless variables, this pursuit can sometimes seem fanciful.
First of all, baseballs resemble snowflakes; Although each one is handmade and stitched together with 108 red stitches, no two are alike. What’s more, they behave differently depending on the local environment—a challenge that MLB has attempted to meet by requiring every football field to store baseballs in a humidor at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 57 percent relative humidity (the Colorado Rockies humidifier has been set for feet at 65 percent relative humidity for high altitude adjustment.).
Hydration boxes are a reflection of the true value of just a baseball game. Less than three inches in diameter and about five ounces in weight, it’s the sun the game revolves around – though the sun circles, bounces, bends and dodges.
To ensure replenishment of baseball supplies, MLB has become a part-owner of Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, which manufactures major league balls at a factory in Costa Rica. This move is also supposed to give MLB some say in the final product.
To protect the honor of baseball, MLB has taken several steps, including cracking down on rigging balls with a gorilla-glue-like material that allows the pitcher to increase turn rate and nearly achieve a Wiffle ball movement.
However, there is still a mess of mud.
According to Caplin, an MLB spokesperson, the game’s front office began receiving complaints that some game balls lacked the desired grip and were “chalky to the touch,” possibly from slugging too long in the bottom of the ball bags. The MLB launched an investigation that included requiring each of the 30 teams to send videos of their club’s employees “disturbing” balls for use on match day.
“What I found were 30 different ways of how to apply the clay,” Caplin said. “Some guys just used the towel, while others really rubbed it in, leaving it ingrained in the skin.”
MLB executives responded by sending a memo last month to each team with updated regulations for “storage and handling of baseballs.” Instructions for how to muddy a baseball are Talmudic.
“All baseballs expected to be used in a particular game must be disturbed within 3 hours of all other baseballs being used in that game, and must be muddied on the same day they will be used… Baseballs must not be outside the humidor for more than 2 hours in Any time before the first pitch…Red clay should be applied to each baseball for at least 30 seconds to ensure that the clay is completely and consistently rubbing into the entire leather surface of the ball…”
The memo instructed the team’s staff to refer to the “Mudiness Application Criteria” poster, displayed at each club, to ensure that the color of the muddy ball is neither too dark nor too light, but just right.
Three major league teams — the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals — refused to allow a reporter to watch a club employee engage in the seemingly innocuous but seemingly delicate task of rubbing mud in baseball. Fortunately, the MLB also sent all teams a 50-second educational video showing the cult-like care expected in properly muddying the pearls.
Pour a splash of water into a Lena Blackburne clay jar. An anonymous club’s hands gently dip three fingertips into the mud, then choose a virgin ball from a box of twelve. For the next 36 seconds, hands rub, roll and massage, working the slime into the grain and along the seams before the now white ball drops back into the box.
Surprisingly the simple act is solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime depended on the company between a ball made in Costa Rica and mud shoveled from the Jersey River.
But Jim Bentliffe, Mud Harvest, knows better than most that the tides are forever changing. All he can do for now is continue honoring a ritual initiated by a mostly forgotten player from the set-ball era who lives with every pitch.
That day, Bentlief threw his flat-edged shovel into his pickup truck and drove back to the secret location. He’s back with 20 buckets of Foolishly Beautiful Traditions.
sound produced by Barin Behrouz.