If you think baseball has no grit, think again. Every baseball used in every game in the major and minor leagues is coated with mud before the umpire ever yells, “Play ball!”
That mud isn’t any old mud. It is an almost magical mud that comes from the banks of the Delaware River, scooped as it has been since the 1930s from a secret location in the shallows somewhere north of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, some 20 nautical miles south of the Trenton Thunder’s home field at Arm & Hammer Park.
It’s special mud, according to an analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Two of the largest sporting goods companies in the country tried to duplicate it and failed — so says the purveyor of this mud to professional ballclubs throughout the land.
The mud man is James Bintliff. He is 59, and lives in Delran, in Burlington County, where he harvests Lena Blackburne’s Original Baseball Rubbing Mud. The name says it all. Baseballs are white and pristine when they arrive in homefield clubhouses before each game. But that was found to be a problem back in the day. The leather covering on each baseball comes with a sheen that presents a challenge when a pitcher tries to grip it before offering it up to a batter.
For years, teams prepared baseballs for use in every game by applying spit, mud, tobacco juice, and who knows what else to get the sheen off the ball. In the 1930s most of organized baseball agreed to use Blackburne’s mud. To this day, before each game the umpires, sometimes with the help of clubhouse attendants, use the mud to rub down 8 to 10 dozen new baseballs, with another 6 dozen balls in reserve.
While there are a number of explanations for how he became tagged with “Lena,” his given name was Russell Aubrey Blackburne.
Born in 1886 in the Philadelphia suburb of Clifton Heights, he was a light-hitting infielder mostly for the Chicago White Sox from 1910 to 1919, the latter being the year when he split his time between the Boston Braves and Philadelphia Phillies (and missed the Black Sox World Series betting scandal).
Blackburne, followed his lackluster career as a player with an equally lackluster two-year stint as manager with the White Sox in the late 1920s, and then a coach, almost exclusively with the Philadelphia Athletics, through the 1948 season.
It was necessity that gave birth to Blackburne’s entrepreneurial epiphany — one that drew on his experience along the riverside near his home in Palmyra, New Jersey.
“The pitchers complained that they couldn’t grip the ball,” Bintliff says. “Lena knew about this mud, and he knew how it reacted. He took it into the clubhouse and experimented with it a little bit. That was in the early 1930s. The American league started using it and eventually he sold it to the National League.”
Blackburne put the mud into coffee tins and sent them out to American League teams. Before he died in Riverside in 1968, he passed the baseball mud business to Bintliff’s maternal grandfather, John Haas, who had remained friends with Blackburne since childhood.
“When Lena moved to Palmyra he became friends with my grandfather,” says Bintliff. “They played semipro football together.” His grandfather passed the business on to Bintliff’s parents, and they passed it on to him.
“They were childhood friends and when Lena started collecting the mud my grandfather was the only one who helped him and knew about it,” Bintliff says.
Bintliff — the son of a carpenter for the New Jersey Turnpike and stay-at-home mom of nine children — was a printing press operator in Belmar, Camden County, for 35 years. The Delran resident and his wife, Joanne, have been married 35 years and have three grown daughters and a son.
When the time comes, Bintliff says, he will pass the business on to his youngest daughter, now 22.
“She showed more of an interest,” he says. “Her fiance helps me now. More than anything I know she’s going to stay in the area. She wants to teach in the high school she graduated from. That’s pretty much why my mom chose me. She had nine kids it could have been any one of them. But I stayed in the area. The rest are spread out around the country.
“The first time I ever went out with my grandfather to collect mud with him I was nine years old. As a teenager I went out every fall from the time I was 12 years old. We’re going to keep it going. All the major and minor league teams use it. The independent leagues use it. All the major league teams use it in the Dominican and in winter leagues. (former MLB manager) Bobby Valentine took some to Japan, and they used it in Japan, Canada. We’re expanding it into football. Better than half of the football teams in the NFL are using it, and we have a bunch of colleges,” he says.
So family continuity is in place. What about the rest of the business model?
Bintliff says Blackburne’s Baseball Mud has always operated by verbal deals. “There’s no kind of contract,” he says. “We’re the only place that can get it, and the only place where it doesn’t damage the ball. It’s pretty unique. I’ve seen old telegrams that said, ‘Send us some of your magic mud.’ It’s been 75 years, and it’s all verbal agreements. I remember my parents would be talking to the commissioners of the National League and American League.
“The mud is in the Hall of Fame,” Bintliff says. “The Hall of Fame has been real good to us.” He says the Hall of Fame did a traveling road show a few years back, making a stop at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. “They had me do a demonstration with the mud at the Smithsonian. I showed them how it’s used and what it does and they let the kids play with it.”
The mud is dark and has the consistency of cold cream, Bintliff says. It is applied lightly in a “real thin coat,” he says, “then they let it dry and they rub it and it looks like a new baseball only not as shiny.”
Is there anything stopping someone else from scooping up Delaware River mud, packing it up, and marketing it? According to Bintliff, an analysis conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the mud on the New Jersey side of the river contained high levels of feldspar, which is a mild abrasive. The feldspar content on the Pennsylvania side is different, he says.
It is unlikely that anyone might poach his business, though. For all the history and for all his trouble, he only makes around $20,000 a year from baseball mud sales, he says. A four-pound can of the mud costs $75, but it can last a major league team an entire season. Two of the largest sporting goods companies in the country, Spalding and Rawlings, tried to market their own mud, but gave it up, he says.
A few times a year he heads to his “mud hole” with plastic buckets, a shovel, and a handtruck. He plans to keep going with it.
“The mud? Oh sure, as long as I can hump it through the woods. I go out in the summer into the fall. Really I can go out any time that the ground isn’t frozen.”
He brings the mud back home and packs it up for shipping. “It kind of crowds out the laundry room a bit,” he says, “but it works.”