Someone complained in 1938 and soon thereafter, selling mud became a lucrative business. Lena Blackburne, third base coach for the then Philadelphia Athletics, listened to one of the umpires complain about the mud mixture the American League used to prep the baseballs for the games. The stuff– a combination of water and dirt from the ballpark– did too much to soften the leather cover of the ball and left them more susceptible to tampering.
Major League Baseball needed a muddy solution. Lena Blackburne happened upon it in his back yard.
Burlington County, New Jersey provided the solution– literally. Lena walked along the tributaries of the Delaware River in his back yard and realized the mud’s potential. Seeing the mud as a solution to the baseball problem, Lena took a batch to the Athletics’ field house and, according to the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud website, “rubbed some balls with the stuff. It worked like a charm! What’s more, it had no odor and didn’t turn the balls black. The umpires were happy, and Lena Blackburne was in the mud supply business.”
By the end of the 1950s that special Delaware mud was being used throughout Major League Baseball and most of the Minor Leagues.
Today, the muddying ritual is alive and well in Major League Baseball. Umpires, before every MLB game, knead the balls with a few fingerfuls of Lena Blackburne’s mud, taking the shine off the ball and giving them just enough stick for all those nasty breaking balls.
It started with a simple complaint, and the cover of the baseball has been different ever since. Or not the cover, rather, but the thin-film of mud that dulls the white of the ball, that famous leather made playable by a far-less famous mud.
Cheers to you, Lena Blackburne, for making mud cool.