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Magic mudhole is game’s big secret

September 14, 2005

By Philip Barbara

DELRAN, New Jersey (Reuters) – Somewhere along the mudflats
of a Delaware River tributary in New Jersey is the spot where
baseball’s “magic mud” is mined, a location known only to a few
and kept secret for decades.

The unique mud is rubbed on every new baseball used by
Major League teams to remove the sheen, soften the seams and
give pitchers a better grip.

“It definitely changes the way the ball feels,” said
Washington Nationals pitcher John Patterson. “If you get a new
baseball, it’s slick, it’s hard to hold on to. If you put some
mud on it, it gives you a better grip.”

Before a game, Nationals ballboy Lamont Poteat “rubs up”
several dozen baseballs by dabbing each one with a
fingertip-full of mud and massaging it with both hands until
its sheen is dulled.

The origins of the mud are swathed in folklore. Asked where
it came from, Patterson said: “From the Mississippi.” Other
players believe it is taken from an Alabama swamp.

In fact, the mud is supplied by a husband-and-wife outfit
in New Jersey but the exact site of their mudhole is a closely
guarded secret.

The few outsiders taken to the mudhole have been
blindfolded and sworn to secrecy.

“You’ll never find it no matter how hard you look,” said
Jim Bintliff, owner of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud.

CHOCOLATE PUDDING

In baseball’s early days, infield dirt and water, shoe
polish or tobacco juice were used to prepare balls but with
uneven results. In 1938, an umpire complained about this to
Russell Aubrey “Lena” Blackburne, a coach for the old
Philadelphia Athletics.

When Blackburne was back home in New Jersey he checked out
the mud in a creek where he used to go fishing. It had a
texture like chocolate pudding but when rubbed on a baseball it
had a slight grit that dried to a fine, powdery dust and
removed the shine without making the cover soggy.

Blackburne was in business. He first sold the mud to
American League teams in 1939 and to the National League in the
1950s. As word of his “magic mud” spread, his clientele grew.
Now every U.S. minor league team and some 25 colleges buy it,
as well as a few teams in the Caribbean winter leagues.

The company was opening up new markets for its mud, selling
it in Asia to the South Korean Stars, and to its first football
team, The San Francisco 49ers, said Bintliff who sells the mud
for $45 for a quart container and expects to ship some 500
containers this year.

Magic Rubbing Mud had become such a tradition that it was
on display at the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New
York, he said.

What might make the mud unique are the “sugar sand” and the
organic materials washed down from the Jersey Pine Barrens
forest into the Rancocas and Pennsauken creeks, two Delaware
River tributaries, said Dale Nixon, an expert on state geology
at the New Jersey State Police Marine Bureau.

Said Bintliff: “You can’t find this mud 100 miles south or
50 miles north. It’s indigenous to the area.”

He screens the mud several times and adds an organic
substance which he will not divulge, then ships it within a day
of receiving an order.

ROSE BUSHES

The company was passed down from Blackburne to a friend who
was Bintliff’s grandfather, and now its secrets — the
mudhole’s location and the additive — are family heirlooms.

When Bintliff needs to replenish his supply and the tides
are right, he drives from his suburban home to the mudhole,
making sure he is not followed. He parks his pickup truck and
hikes to the spot. If someone — a boater or bird watcher, for
instance — chances upon him while he is scooping the mud into
a pail, he tells them it is for his rose bushes.

Bintliff, who also works as a commercial printer, and his
wife Joanne vigorously defend their turf.

There are some 96 km of shoreline on Rancocas and 16 km on
Pennsauken. The creeks cut through public land but also
residential neighbourhoods and police warn that trespassers can
be arrested.

Tidal action replenishes the mud after each visit, so there
will never be a shortage, Bintliff said.

There would be plenty of mud for a competitor, he knows,
though Jersey mud will not make anyone rich.

“There’s not a lot of money in dirt,” said Bintliff, who
nonetheless values his role as mud purveyor.

“It’s more the uniqueness of the business and having
relationships with people in baseball,” he said.




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