Deliver me out of the mire,
and let me not sink:
let me be delivered from them that hate me,
and out of the deep water
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to snag a foul ball or gopher ball in the stands, you would have noticed it’s not flawlessly white, even if it it hadn’t been through the rigors of play. This is because every ball used in major and minor league play is first treated with Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud.
To make myself useful around the Red Sox clubhouse, in case I get a call that they need help or whatnot, I’ve been teaching myself some new skills that may come in handy. One thing I’ve been mastering is the art of rubbing baseballs. But before one acquires the expertise necessary to prepare a ball for play, one must understand who Lena Blackburne is and what makes him famous.
Blackburne started off as a shortstop for the Chicago White Sox in 1910. In the course of his 17-year career the itinerant infielder also played for the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves. After his playing career ceased, he settled in as the third base coach under Connie Mack for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1933 to 1954.
At the time, there was no standard substance with which to de-slick balls. You see, new baseballs are just too shiny and slick for pitchers to grip. Umpires would use everything from tobacco juice to shoe polish, but nothing donned the ball with the right touch. Blackburne took it upon himself to find the alkahest to the pitchers’ baseball woes.
Somewhere ensconced in the anonymous mires of a Delaware River tributary there is a sanctum of incomparable muck. Blackburne chanced upon this champion lode of ooze that was perfectly suited to the task of breaking in balls. It enrobed the ball with its smooth consistency, described as a cross between “chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream.” By 1938, Blackburne supplied the American League with his clandestine conconction. Being a stalwart supporter of the American League, he actually refused to sell the mud to the National League until the 1950s.
I don’t like to turn to our divisional rivals, but in this situation I had to seek the supreme guru of craft. I went Baltimore on a sojourn to mentor with Ernie Tyler, ball man. Mr. Tyler, the real iron man of the Orioles, has worked 3,699 consecutive games as of April 20th. He has been with the team since 1954 and has been the clubhouse attendant since 1960. Mr. Tyler likes to prepare around 80 balls a game, but for Fenway, I would up it to 100. Not only does one ensure a uniform color and texture, but one must also check for defects on the spheres. The omniscient slime exposes blemishes that would otherwise go unnoticed.
It’s odd how, in this case, you must sully something to make it proper.