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Mud a mainstay in America's pastime

Paul Schofield
| Sunday, July 17, 2005

John Bucci doesn't mind being called the mud man.

As a Pirates clubhouse assistant to equipment manager Roger Wilson, one of Bucci's main jobs is serving as the umpire's room attendant.

But the one job he least likes is one of the most important for the safety of the players. Bucci prepares the baseballs for the upcoming games. He doesn't just open up the plastic wrap and place them in a ball bag. It's just not that simple. Bucci actually rubs mud on the baseballs before play begins.

"That's why I do it first," Bucci said. "It's not one of my favorite jobs. That's why I get it over as quickly as possible."

Approximately seven hours prior to every home game, Bucci will spend an hour or so rubbing mud on baseballs to remove the shine so pitchers can grip it better. He will rub up to 12 dozen boxes of baseballs for a game, and more for batting practice.

Bucci said the Pirates usually go through at least 120 baseballs per game.

The official baseball rule book says that before a game begins the umpires should receive a supply of baseballs from the home team, sealed in a box and certified by the league president. The umpires will open the package and remove a ball and inspect it, and then remove its shiny gloss.

But forget the rule book. Teams have designated clubhouse attendants to rub up the balls with mud. They all use the only legal substance allowed on a baseball: "Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud."

The mud is named after Russell "Lena" Blackburne, a former player and third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics. And, for more than 65 years, this muck has been rubbed on baseballs.

Bucci said he doesn't know where they get the mud, and said he really doesn't care. All he knows is that it's a dirty, tedious job.

Bucci puts on batting gloves carefully, unwraps each baseball, and rubs it down. After he's done, he places it in a bag.

According to Bucci, it doesn't take much mud to do the trick. A little dab of mud and water, and he's on his way.

Players, especially pitchers, are able to grip the ball better.

"You can feel the difference," Pirates pitcher Sean Burnett said. "A brand new baseball is slick as a cue ball. You can control the ball better (after the mud rubdown). It helps the grip."

In 1938, Blackburne, while fishing in a New Jersey stream that runs into the Delaware River in Burlington County, across the river from Philadelphia, discovered the goo.

Prior to Blackburne's discovery, umpires used different methods to take the sheen off the balls. They used juice from chewing tobacco, shoe polish, and mud made of water and dirt from the playing field.

These methods were used after the death of Ray Chapman, who suffered a fractured skull after being hit with an errant pitch in 1920. But umpires complained about the smell and condition of the baseballs, so Blackburne searched and found the special mud in a location that still remains a secret.

Now, the rubbing mud is used by every professional (major, minor and independent) league, and many college and some high school teams.

Jim Bintliff, 47, of Delran, N.J., runs the company with his wife, Joanne. It was passed down to him through his family.

After Blackburne died in 1968, John Haas, a longtime friend of Blackburne, took over. Haas let his son-in-law, Burns Bintliff, know where the secret location of the mudhole was, and Burns Bintliff passed it on to Jim.

"I started helping my grandfather when I was 9," Jim Bintliff said. "We would use a boat at first. Now I trudge through the woods to the location. I use a shovel and a couple pickle buckets. It takes about an hour to dig it out."

Bintliff said the location of the hole is close to the original spot where Blackburne found it. Bintliff now has two locations where he harvests the "magic mud." Bintliff goes six times a year to the location.

He places the mud into three, 40-gallon trash cans. He then cleans, or screens it, with clear water to get rid of rocks and other foreign debris. He then adds his own ingredients to the mud and then lets it settle for six to eight weeks before he packs it into a 32-ounce container and ships it to clubs.

Each major-league team gets at least two containers per season. The cost is $45 per container. This will last them through spring training and the season.

"Some of my mud goes with the players to the winter leagues," said Bintliff, who runs a printing press. "The demand is seasonal. Most of the mud is sold in the spring."

Bintliff will harvest mud this month during low tide.

"The geography is important," he said. "It has to be the right time of the year and the mineral content of the area has to be just right."

Contacting Bintliff this time of the year also can be difficult. Between watching his two daughters play softball and harvesting mud, Bintliff keeps himself busy.

"The business has changed a little bit," Bintliff said. "We're growing. The biggest change has been the containers."

Burnett was surprised when he heard the mud, which is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., was from New Jersey.

"I saw a story on the Discovery Channel. I thought they said it was from Kentucky," Burnett said.

Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said he has no idea where they get the mud, and he probably didn't even want to know where they get it.

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