Why a New Jersey Mudhole Contains Baseball's Dirtiest Secret

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iStock

In 1938, the Philadelphia Athletics third-base coach Russell "Lena" Blackburne waded into a tidal tributary in the Delaware River and realized he was soaking in a solution for one of baseball's biggest problems.

Back in the 1930s, baseball was a much more dangerous sport than it is today. Newly made balls were slick, and pitchers had a hard time controlling their tosses to home plate. Teams tried to improve each ball's grip by scuffing the hide with bleacher dirt, tobacco juice, shoe polish, or even licorice. This was less than ideal. Umpires complained that these applications made the ball easier to tamper with—indeed, these alterations are illegal today because they can alter the physics of a ball's movement—and players moaned that the applications were inconsistent.

Those inconsistencies had consequences. Over the course of a game, scuffed-up balls often got much dirtier and softer—making them not only more difficult to control, but also more difficult to see. With the invention of batting helmets still decades away, ballplayers were taking a risk with their life each time they stepped into the batter's box. In fact, a Cleveland Indians shortstop named Ray Chapman was killed in 1920 after he was beamed in the head by an errant pitch.

So when Coach Blackburne came across a slick patch of mud near his hometown swimming hole, his mind went straight to the playing field. The goop was gritty, but it resembled a mixture of "chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream." He toted some of the gunk back home and found that, sure enough, it smudged the ball perfectly, enhancing the grip without damaging the leather. When Blackburne showed the result to American League umpires, they gave the application a thumbs-up. By the 1950s, every major league team was using it.

Now before every major and minor league game (as well as many college games), an umpire or clubhouse attendant wipes a light coat of Blackburne's magic mud on each ball used. In fact, it's a rule in the major leagues. According to MLB Rule 3.01, all regulation baseballs much be "properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed" [PDF].

The mud even has fans outside of baseball. According to The Washington Post, "half of NFL teams buy Lena Blackburne mud to help their players grip the ball."

Though it's rumored to be located somewhere on the banks of the Delaware River near Palmyra, New Jersey, the mud hole's exact location remains a closely guarded secret. Only one person, Jim Bintliff, the mud's solitary farmer, knows exactly where to find it—and he refuses to give clues as to its location. "Does Jim Bintliff wave a magic wand over the mud during the winter, or add some mysterious ingredients to it?" the mud's website asks. "That too is a dark secret. He'll never tell."

Tennis: The Sport that Loves to Kill Royalty

 Rischgitz, Getty Images
Rischgitz, Getty Images

During medieval times, Roger Federer's killer backhand might have been considered, well, actually killer. The elegant and graceful game of tennis was responsible for so many royal deaths that it could make an executioner jealous.

Start with Louis X of France. One of the 14th century's most avid players of jeu de paume (an early, racquet-less form of tennis that involved hitting the ball with the palm of the hands), Louis famously constructed the world's first modern indoor tennis courts, allowing him to play his beloved sport year-round. In June 1316, Louis played a heated game and reportedly became extremely dehydrated. To cool down, the panting king glugged a giant urn of chilled wine … and promptly died.

The cause of Louis X's death—whether from alcohol poisoning, overheating, or some preexisting condition—is unknown. We do know, however, that the 26-year-old monarch left no male heirs (besides a posthumous infant son who died within the week), and when his brothers likewise failed to have boys, the Capetian dynasty ended, creating conditions that eventually led to the Hundred Years' War.

The next tennis-related fatality struck in 1437. Known for having a physique of "excessive corpulence," King James I of Scotland supposedly played the game to keep his bloating belly in check. Problem was, he kept losing tennis balls to a pesky sewer drain. (As a contemporary put it, "[T]he balls that he played with oft ran in at that fowle hole.") To fix the problem, James had the sewer sealed.

Three days later, a group of assassins crept into King James I's lodgings. Hearing them approach, James lifted a floorboard and plunged into the sewer, hoping to make his exit by crawling out the exterior pipes. Unfortunately, the escape was the same pipe he had sealed. James was trapped and thusly murdered.

Half a century later, the deadly sport struck again when an overexcited King Charles VIII of France met his maker after rushing through a poorly maintained castle in an effort to see a highly anticipated game of tennis. According to The Memoirs of Philip de Commines:

"[He] took his queen … by the hand, and led her out of her chamber to a place where she had never been before, to see them play at tennis in the castle-ditch … It was the nastiest place about the castle, broken down at the entrance, and everybody committed a nuisance [that is, peed] in it that would. The king was not a tall man, yet he knocked his head as he went in."

Hours later, the 27-year-old king collapsed and died.

The list of tennis-related demises goes on. In 1751, King George II's son Frederick, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, died of a reported lung abscess. (Doctors at the time blamed a tennis or cricket ball that had earlier struck his chest.) And Queen Anne Boleyn was watching a tennis match in 1536 when she received orders to present herself to the Privy Council, which informed her of her ensuing execution.

As Boleyn was being beheaded, her husband, King Henry VIII, attended to other duties. As one version of the events goes, he was busy playing a leisurely game ... of tennis.

Dream Job Alert: Get Paid $25 an Hour Just to Watch Sports

iStock/mastermilmar
iStock/mastermilmar

Sports lovers, it’s time to monetize your game day routine. The streaming industry website Streaming Observer is hiring a “Sports Junkie” to watch games at home for $25 an hour, according to Thrillist.

The dream gig involves getting paid to do what you're probably already doing: Watch sports and evaluate your experiences using different streaming services. According to the listing, you’ll be “testing the best of the best streaming services and devices to find what works best for fans.”

What that means is you’ll be assigned to watch sports online for about 10 hours a week, taking a few notes and capturing some photos and videos of your streaming experience along the way.

Streaming Observer will provide the access to the streaming services they want you to test, so you don’t have to worry if you don’t have a subscription to every single platform.

All you need is an internet connection, a basic handle on email etiquette, and access to a TV, smartphone, and computer. You’ll also need to be a U.S. resident over the age of 18.

For sports obsessives, this probably sounds much better than HowtoWatch.com’s recent professional binge-watching job, which entailed watching a total of 100 hours of streaming TV in one month.

Think you’d be great for the job? Shoot an email with the subject line “Sports Junkie” to jobs@streamingobserver.com and include an explanation about why you'd be the perfect person for the gig. Read more about the position here.

[h/t Thrillist]

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