Will MLB Say Goodbye to Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud?

Major League Baseball has asked Rawlings to create a baseball with more tack and it could mean the end of a nearly 80-year-old tradition.

Baseballs arrived for games in the Arizona Fall League last November that surprised the young pitchers. They were too white. Baseball fans may think the baseballs they see on the field are bright white, like the ones that come in the package that you buy at the team store, but they aren’t. All MLB game balls have been rubbed down before the game using a special mud from a top-secret location somewhere in New Jersey. This has been true for games played in the American League since 1938 and for most major and minor league games in the U.S. since the 1950s.

Fresh baseballs right out of the box are too slippery. In a league in which every team has at least a few pitchers who throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, you don’t really want them armed with slippery baseballs. To counteract this, Major League Baseball has been using a special rubbing mud from New Jersey to allow pitchers to get a better grip on the ball.

Of course, baseball players are always looking for an edge. For pitchers, any extra grip they can get on a baseball is beneficial. They can put more spin on the ball and get better movement on their breaking balls with a better grip. So they like to push the envelope, whether that be with pine tar or sunscreen and rosin or some other foreign substance.

Technically, pitchers shouldn’t put any foreign substance on the ball, but the rule has been haphazardly enforced over the years. Many pitchers use something to get a better grip on the ball, but few are ever called on it. One recent exception was Michael Pineda of the New York Yankees, who was kicked out of a game against the Red Sox in 2014 because of a patch of pine tar on his neck. He also received a 10-game suspension.

In the above YouTube clip, Yankees announcer Al Leiter, a former pitcher himself, advocates for pitchers, saying he doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t want the pitcher to have a good grip on the ball. He said it’s a matter of safety. You don’t want the ball to slip out of the pitcher’s hand and hit a batter. He also said the substance doesn’t affect the flight of the ball, although Gaylord Perry may disagree. Perry used a variety of substances to affect the flight of the ball during his 22-year career, including Vaseline and K-Y Jelly.

Unlike Pineda in the YouTube clip, Kenny Rogers got away with a big blob of pine tar right on his pitching hand while pitching eight scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the 2006 World Series. He didn’t even try to hide it and the whole world watching on TV could see it. Yet the umpires didn’t eject him from the game because Cardinals manager Tony La Russa never asked them to check Rogers for a foreign substance. The most likely explanation for why La Russa didn’t have the umps check Rogers is that La Russa’s pitchers did the same thing and he didn’t want his guys checked.

Major League Baseball would prefer that pitchers not blatantly cheat, but they also don’t want pitchers throwing slippery balls. For years, the New Jersey mud has been used by umpires to rub down baseballs before every game, but this still hasn’t stopped pitchers from using a foreign substance at times. Rather than enforce the rules, MLB is considering a different idea: using baseballs that allow for a better grip. This is where the bright white baseballs come in.

The bright white baseballs used last fall were an experiment. The official ball manufacturer of Major League Baseball, Rawlings, was asked by the league to produce a baseball with a natural tackiness on the leather. If they find the right substance to give the ball more tack, they could enforce the rule against using a foreign substance. New “better grip” Rawlings balls were used in workouts and during two days of games last fall.

One of the pitchers who used them during a game was Josh Staumont, a hard-throwing pitcher with the Royals whose fastball has been clocked in the triple digits. Per Yahoo, Staumont said of the new balls, “I really didn’t notice a difference. But at the same time, it’s the last thing you’re trying to focus on. Personally, I don’t have much of an issue with it, so long as we’ve got enough time to get introduced to it.”

The biggest issue with Rawlings’ first attempt at an easier-to-grip ball was that the substance sprayed on the leather wore off too quickly. In order to move forward on this project, Rawlings needs to come up with a better ball, which they are working on. Mike Thompson, an executive vice president at Rawlings, said they are testing different methods to make a better ball, including a spray on application and a material that is tanned right into the leather. If they get it right, bright, shiny baseballs wouldn’t be used until 2018 at the very earliest. Considering how difficult it was this offseason for MLB and the MLB Players Association to agree on rule changes, introducing a new ball may not happen for quite some time.

If this should happen, one of the casualties would be the Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud Company. Lena Blackburne played eight years in the major leagues during a career that spanned from 1910 to 1929. It was an odd career. He played 75 games in 1910, then missed the entire 1911 season with a leg injury. He was in the major leagues again in 1914 and 1915, then spent two full seasons in Double-A before getting back to the big leagues for 125 games in 1918 and 103 games in 1919.

The rest of Blackburn’s career was spent in the minor leagues, except for one game in the major leagues in 1927 and another in 1929. He also managed the Chicago White Sox for two years in 1928 and 1929, finishing with a career record of 99-133. Years after his playing career ended, the Sporting News aptly described Blackburne’s playing career with the words: “No matter where baseball gods have sent him, he has hustled.”

Of course, it wasn’t as a player or manager that Blackburne made his name in baseball. He was the third base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1938 when he heard an umpire complaining about the condition of the baseballs. In those days, umpires used whatever substance they had to rub up the baseballs before the game. Sometimes it was just dirt and water. Other times it was a mixture of dirt and tobacco juice. No matter the substance, the balls were often discolored or the cover was too soft after the rubdown.

Blackburne had an idea. He had grown up near the Delaware River and knew a mud hole that he thought would be perfect for rubbing down baseballs. He brought some to the Athletics clubhouse and rubbed some balls with the stuff and it worked better than anything used before. It created the perfect texture and took off the bright white shine without discoloring the ball too much.

Word got around fast and the rest of the American League started using the Delaware mud. Soon enough, the National League would be using it as well. According to the official Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud site, it is now used by Major League Baseball, the minor leagues, most independent leagues and many colleges.

Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud is one of the quaint traditions of Major League Baseball, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. In a sport in which many franchises are worth more than a billion dollars and the highest-paid players make $30 million per year, they still use mud gathered from a secret spot on the Delaware River to prepare the balls before the game. It would be a shame to see that end.

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