Strange, what you take away from a baseball game. I watched the Tampa Bay/Boston contest into Saturday night (Sunday morning on the East Coast). It was a five-hour, 27-minute, 11-inning heart-clutching duel. The Rays won 9-8 to tie the American League Championship Series. The lead changed six times. There were seven home runs and 433 pitches thrown by 14 pitchers. The end came at 1:35 a.m. local time, which is a true measure of the love Major League Baseball has for your kid.
My clearest memory was something one of the Chip, Ron, or Buck announcers said, to wit: there are usually 12 cases of baseballs on hand for every game. Umpires or club flunkies rub up seven dozen. Saturday’s game was running so long, a call went out to rub up more baseballs.
What is this rub up a baseball?
Rubbing up a baseball means removing the plastic wrapping and holding a pristine baseball next to your heart like a Christmas present. Well, perhaps not that part, but the next part — applying a secret potion to the surface of the ball — is true. New baseballs are slick, and that slickness interferes with a pitcher’s intention. What to do?
Using tobacco juice or spit as a rubbing compound has slipped into disfavor, but don’t let that worry you. Rub a dab of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud on that shiny orb. Be careful to avoid rubbing it on the ball’s seams. One touch of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud on a baseball’s seam, and that 15-million-dollar, 96-mph fastball becomes unreliable. The idea is to apply just a smidgen of secret potion, just enough to take the shine off a new ball and give the pitcher something to grip.
Fact 1: Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud is used by every major and minor league baseball club in America and Canada. A bona fide monopoly. The mud is firm/gooey and has the appearance of yummy chocolate pudding.
Fact 2: Russell Aubrey “Lena” Blackburne began selling his mud in the mid 1930s.
Fact 3: Blackburne arrived on the planet in October of 1886. He played pro ball, mostly as an infielder, for 17 years (Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies). Afterward, he worked as an interim manager, coach, and scout, wound up with the Phillies from 1933 to 1954. A baseball lifer.
Now we enter into the world of myth, unicorns, and fairy dust. Sometime and somewhere in the 1930s, the exact date is buried deep in the hive’s memory, Blackburne found his incomparable mud on a tributary of the Delaware River.
The manner and date of his find is unknown. He kept the location a secret for the rest of his life and a secret it remains today.
What we do know is that he took his mud back to the Philadelphia Athletics’ clubhouse and that this odorless rubbing mud was an instant sensation. By the close of the 1930s, every American League team was using his product. (Blackburne was a good American League man and refused to sell his product to the National League.)
Well, sir, things kept going along just fine. Every year, Blackburne would sneak out to his secret mudflats and load up on his secret elixir and soon minor leagues and colleges were clamoring for the stuff. He even started selling it to the National League in the 1950s.
Blackburne died in 1968 and bequeathed his business, secret place, and secret preparations to a friend, John Hass. Little is known about the whys and wherefores of that. It is known that Hass passed the secret spot and secret prep to his son-in-law, Burns Bintliff, who passed it on to his son, Jim Bintliff, who is reigning votary and sole proprietor of a new secret spot reported to be adjacent to Pennsauken Creek.
According to an interview Bintliff gave to the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, every July he makes his way to the “ole mud hole” to harvest 1000 pounds of magic potion. “I used to go only by boat for about 20 years, but I found a way to do it by going through the woods. I use my truck now; it’s a 100-yard walk to get to the spot.
“It’s good therapy out there. It’s a sanctuary. It’s just myself, the water, and the mud. I do a lot of soul-searching in that time. I think about how Mr. Blackburne and my grandfather used to do it. It brings back great memories.”
A Field of Dreams, people. Just Bintliff and the ghost of Russell Blackburne stealing mud and taking a moment together to watch the sun rise over the banks of Pennsauken Creek, which, according to Google Maps, runs for ten miles through the shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and light industrial facilities of Eastern New Jersey.