by Tom Damm
If you were lucky enough to catch one of the record number of home run balls hit in Major League ballparks this year, you may have noticed that the ball didn’t look brand new – that there was some sort of film over it. Mud to be exact.
All baseballs used in the professional leagues are rubbed up before games with mud found only at a secret location along a tributary of the Delaware River. It’s been that way for decades.
After a batter was killed with an errant pitch in 1920, the search was on for a substance to give a fresh baseball a better grip without altering its integrity. Chewing tobacco juice and infield dirt mixed with water were among the remedies tried to no avail. In 1938, Lena Blackburne, a coach for the old Philadelphia Athletics, found mud with just the right composition at a spot off the New Jersey side of the river. And it’s been used ever since.
What makes this mud so special?
“It’s two very simple things,” says Jim Bintliff, who has continued the family mud supply operation his grandfather started with Blackburne. “It’s the geology and the geography. The mineral content of the area is unique and there has to be a certain flow to the waterway that allows for sediment and decomposition (of the organic matter) and all that good stuff.”
As to claims by some pitchers that this year’s World Series balls seem slicker than usual, Bintliff says, “They’re using the same mud they used during the (regular) season.” Bintliff supplied the Dodgers and Astros and the rest of the teams with their mud allotments in March.
Bintliff says that in addition to all the pro baseball teams, he provides mud to “probably half of the NFL teams,” as well as to a posh Philadelphia spa and an assortment of college and recreational leagues. He also uses it as a home remedy for poison ivy and bee stings.
According to Bintliff, the skimmed mud is strained of foreign objects and then cured for about six weeks. A proprietary ingredient is added to the mix to give it the right feel. The texture of the finished product is like thick pudding.
The rubbing mud is an unusual, though representative example of the “ecosystem services” provided by the Delaware Basin. The basin is a focus of cleanup and preservation efforts by two EPA regions, four states and a host of other partners.
So, while the Phillies team didn’t make the playoffs this year, the Philadelphia area was represented in the post-season by a touch of the Delaware on the cover of every baseball. Little solace to fans, but a handy bit of trivia.
About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.