Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud

I went to Citizens Bank Park yesterday and didn’t snag a single ball. That’s because the Phillies were in Chicago. I was invited to the stadium by Dan O’Rourke, the Phillies’ equipment manager, for a demonstration on how he rubs mud on the baseballs. (For those who don’t know, every game-used ball gets rubbed with a special type of mud in order to reduce the slickness and glare.) Here’s what a container of the mud looks like:

1_mud_container.jpg

Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. That’s what it’s called. It’s THE only mud that professional teams use. I’d never even seen a photograph of it, so it was pretty cool to be seeing it in person.

Now…do you see that lovely carpeting in photo up above? That was the floor of the umpire lounge, which is where the rubbing demo took place. Here’s Dan rubbing up a ball:

2_dan_rubbing_ball.jpg

In the photo above, you can see the open container of mud on the floor, along with a cup of (muddy) water that Dan dips his fingers into every so often.

See those red bags? That’s where the rubbed balls go:

3_game_ball_bag.jpg

Did you notice the cardboard boxes?

Here’s a look at those:

4_cardboard_boxes.jpg

Each box is called a “case” and it holds six dozen balls.

I should mention that the purpose of my trip to Philly — the reason why Dan graciously allowed me to enter his world for 90 minutes — was to do research for my next book. That book, as I’ve mentioned before, is all about The Baseball Itself, and it’s scheduled to be published in March 2011. I should also mention that Dan gave me permission to share these photos on my blog. He was unbelievably accommodating. I’d called a bunch of other teams, and there was only one other equipment manager who even talked to me.

But let’s go back to the balls…

After Dan had rubbed enough of them to fill both red bags, he started filling up one of the boxes:

5_rubbed_balls_in_box.jpg

As you can see, some balls are darker than others. That just happens.

Dan told me that the balls in one of the red bags would be used on Tuesday the 18th against the Diamondbacks, the balls in the other red bag would be used on Wednesday, and that he’d probably have enough left over to combine them with the balls in the cardboard box for Thursday’s game.

The thing that really surprised me when I touched the freshly rubbed baseballs was that there was a dirty/powdery residue that came off on my hands. There’s never been that type of residue on any of the game-used balls I’ve snagged over the years, and that makes sense. Think about how hard the bat hits the ball, or how hard the ball hits the catcher’s mitt. There’s no way that the residue would last long enough for a fan to feel it.

By the time Dan was down to his last few dozen balls, I made a comment about how the rubbing process looks like hard work. His hands were filthy, and he’d been rubbing the balls so vigorously that he actually took off part of the logo several times. He mentioned that his wrists were hurting, so I half-jokingly offered to help him out by rubbing a few.

“You want to rub?” he asked.

Hell YEAH I wanted to rub, but I tried to play it cool.

Dan then talked me through the whole process, which was helpful even though I’d just been watching him do it for 20 minutes…and before I knew it, I was actually rubbing mud on baseballs that were going to be used in a major league game! Here’s a screen shot of this bless’d moment from a video that I filmed by placing my camera on a nearby table:

zack_and_dan_rubbing.jpg

I was worried that I’d mess up the balls — you know, make them too dark or too light or too wet, but Dan eased my fears by telling me that if I screwed one up, he’d fix it, and if he couldn’t fix it, he’d leave it to the umpires to toss it out of play. Having worked for both the Astros and the Phillies for the past 19 years, he had SO many cool stories about baseballs, involving players and umpires, the cost of balls, the number of balls, the amount of mud that gets used. He told me what happens to old balls. He told me about the blem balls that were used in the 1990s and the practice balls that’ve been floating around ever since, and of course he told me about Houston’s famous H-balls. Spring Training balls? Batting cage balls? Minor League balls? You name it. We covered it all, and I’ll be sharing this stuff in the book.

By the time we finished rubbing the remaining baseballs, there was mud embedded in every single pore and crease on my hands:

7_zacks_dirty_hand.jpg

The umpire lounge, in case you’re wondering, has three different areas:

1) The main room where we rubbed the baseballs. There were shelves with LOTS of different snacks (chips, cookies, gum, sunflower seeds, etc.) and there was a deli-type drink cooler — the kind with the sliding glass door with dozens of bottles of water and juice and soda. There was a TV mounted high on the wall, a couch, a small table, chairs, and a kitchenette.

2) The locker room. There were six lockers (which in the baseball world are really just big open stalls) with several different umpires’ names on top. That room was carpeted, too. It was probably 300 square feet, and there wasn’t anything else in it.

3)The bathroom. Also big. There was one urinal, several toilets, and a few shower stalls. There was a long counter with sinks and a big mirror. On top of the counter, laid out nice-n-neat, was a gigantic assortment of toiletries: toothpaste, deodorant, shaving cream, etc. It was impressive, and Dan is responsible for all of it because he’s both the equipment manager AND umpires’ attendant.

I took photos of videos of everything, but I can’t share it here. Dan asked me not to show anything other than the baseballs, so I have to respect that.

…BUT…

There’s one other ball-related photo I can share. Dan took me into the Phillies’ “storage room” which is basically a mini-warehouse for ALL the equipment. There were industrial-type metal shelves from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling was high — probably about 13 feet. There were boxes and plastic containers everywhere. There was a whole wall of spikes (including Ryan Howards’ size 15) and uniform pants. There were dozens of jerseys hanging in various places, both overhead and at eye level. There were huge equipment bags stuffed with helmets, dangling from a horizontal pole 10 feet high. There was also a locked area behind a chain link fence. Here’s a photo from inside that area:

8_wall_of_balls.jpg

See all those boxes? Those are cases of balls. Wow.

See that ledge on the upper left with all the red bags? That’s where all the bats are stored. That ledge was like 15 feet long. There were bats all over the place, poking out of rectangular cardboard boxes. Wow again. The whole experience was mind-numbing.

Oh, and I got to park in the players’ lot.

It’s too bad that Rawlings won’t let me visit their baseball factory in Costa Rica. I tried. They said no. So I’m trying to think of other ball-related adventures worth pursuing. Any suggestions? Since I’m already planning to visit Coors Field later this month, I’m going to call the Rockies next week and try to talk them into letting me see the humidor. They weren’t particularly accommodating last year when I was trying to unravel the Denver-based mystery of Barry Bonds’ 762nd home run ball, so I’m expecting the answer to be “NO!!!” but it’s worth a shot.

I’ll leave you with one more photo. I can’t resist. It shows a double-typo on the label of the mud container:

9_mud_container_typo.jpg

Double typo = double facepalm.

40 Comments

Wow, lots of great info on here. It’s also a great teaser for your book, which I will definitely be purchasing.
I went on the standard tour of Citizens Bank Park in 2005 and peeked into that large storage room. I only wondered how much cool stuff was in there lol.
That double-typo is hilarious and frightening at the same time.

Very, very, very AWESOME. I remember one time a few years ago when I had to go to a re-hire orientation. They had it in the team weight room. This was during a February. From the weightroom, there was a flight of stairs that led down into the clubhouse area and to the dugout area. Naturally, I went down there (nobody was looking) and behind the dugout there is a small batting cage. There were a ton of balls just sitting on the floor and in a basket. This was at Fenway, of course, and it was cool to be able to see that type of behind the scene thing, but your ball-rubbing demonstration takes the cake.

Greg
Red Sox Ramblings: http://thevendahhh.mlblogs.com

Nice Zack that is really cool!!! I am 100 % buying your book!

Im trying to think of suggestions. Hmmm…. Can’t think of any at the moment but I thought I share this with you:

My step-mom works for a company ( Shouldn’t Say ) But a couple of weeks ago she and her co-workers got a tour of Fenway Park! They went to batting practice and got to go on the field! She got a badge saying she was aloud to be on the field. The outfielders were throwing balls to them and she got to keep one!

She got a ball and a VERY nice Red Sox glove and gave it to me!

Now I’m proud to say I have an official Fenway Park ball.

Now my next game ( as of now ) is the Yankees one. I believe it is the 28th. We are going the 3 hours before the game! My dads friend who also sat where we are going to ( he got us the tickets) said you walk into a buffet. After that everything (but beer) is FREE

Awesome right?

Thats awsome! I can’t wait to buy your book. You should add me to your list, lol. I can’t think of any other ball related adventures, but maybe i’ll think of one eventually. I toured Coors field one time and they wouldn’t let us into the humidor, but they let us see the locker rooms and i know what you mean by the outrageously organized toiletries and everything. I hope that they will let you into the humidor though because i want to read about it in you book. I’ll see you in 10 days,
Noah

How did you get invited to go there? Did you apply for it, pay for it, or did a friend know a guy who knew a guy and etc.

That is AWESOME, Zack. There was actually a Dirty Jobs episode about the guy who GETS THE MUD FROM THE SWAMP, so you should totally see that one. It’s so you.
Kylie — http://kylie.mlblogs.com

When I went to W

Zack! I just found out that Russell Aubrey “Lena” Blackburne was a REAL player. He was named after the mud!

Here is the link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lena_Blackburne

Also maybe you could out that in your book! Here is what is says about the mud:

Blackburne made an unusual and valuable contribution to baseball when he discovered a special use for the clay from the Delaware River to take the shine off of baseballs before each game. At the time, the mid-1930s, baseball teams used a variety of substances to rub baseballs: tobacco juice, shoe polish, dirt from the baseball field or a combination, but nothing they tried gave the balls the right look or feel. Blackburne searched for the perfect rubbing compound until one day, according to legend, he found mud he liked in a secret tributary of the Delaware River, near Palmyra, New Jersey where he lived most of his life. He marketed his idea, and by 1938, he was supplying the mud to all American League teams; because Blackburne was a die-hard American League fan, he refused to sell the mud to National League teams until the mid-1950s. Since then, every major and minor league team has used only his product. One container, a little more than 16 ounces, will usually last a season. The process of creating the mud was featured in a pilot episode of the television show Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. Blackburne’s contribution to the game has earned him a mention in the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

SO? Maybe you could put that in there! P.S. I’m going to Barnes and Noble soon to see if they have Watching Baseball Smarter.

Hi, Zack. What a cool entry.
I just watched This Week In Baseball on FOX and they had a great interview with Heath Bell. It showcased his personality and how he loves to interact with fans. Just thought you’d like to know.
~Matt
http://bloggingboutbaseball.mlblogs.com/

Cool entry Zack, put me on the list to be notified for when the book is out. I’ll be at PNC soon, I read one of your previous entries about it and you said you found a good foul ball spot but got kicked out of it. Do you remember where it was? And do you have any games after Coors planned?
Alex

I meant to say that when i went to Winged Foot (the golf course that hosted the 2006 U.S Open) in the clubhouse bathroom, there was like an entire row of shaving creams and lotions spanning like 15 ft all perfectly lined up.

BRAVES04-
Glad you like that typo. I’m tempted to call the company and let them know about it.

GREG-
The way I see it, ANY behind-the-scenes action is awesome.

REDSFAN101-
Very cool about Fenway. As for Mister Blackburne, I know all about him. If you manage to get your hands on a copy of “Watching Baseball Smarter,” you’ll see a short section about him and the mud. But hey, thanks for sending the info on him. Sometimes I miss things.

NOAH-
I’ll be able to write about the humidor even if the Rockies don’t let me see it. I’ve found lots of info on it already, but it would be great just to SEE it. Anyway, you’re now on the list. See you very soon.

FLORIDAFLY-
I called the Phillies and asked if I could interview the equipment manager for a book about baseballs. Then I had to prove that I was legit — that I’m really a baseball writer and that there really IS a publisher who’s going to publish the book. I had to provide the names of my agent and editor, along with their contact info. Once the Phillies’ media people were convinced that I was legit, they put me in touch with the equipment manager. He and I played phone tag for quite some time, but eventually, when the Phillies had an off day, I was able to get him on the phone, and I interviewed him for nearly half an hour. At the end of the call, on a whim, I asked him if I’d ever be able to come watch him rub the baseballs. I was almost ashamed to ask. I felt it was an intrusion, and I was sure he’d say “no” but he shocked me by inviting me down. There wasn’t a formal application, and I certainly didn’t have to pay. It’s just one of those things that happened to work out for me.

KYLIE-
Do you know if that episode is on YouTube? I’d love to check it out.

MATT-
Aww man, I wish I’d known that Heath was gonna be on there. Well, good to know. Thanks.

ALEX-
You are now on the list, my friend. There’s nothing fancy about the foul ball spot at PNC. I just picked a staircase on the right side of home plate, shaded slightly to the side, and I stayed far back. “Standard strategies apply,” as I sometimes say. It was only good because the stadium was so empty. After Coors Field, you ask? I don’t know. Possibly Philly on September 1st. Probably one of the Mets-Marlins games the week after that. Maybe a couple Rays-Orioles games in mid-September. I also have a couple (weekend/oy) Watch With Zack games scheduled for Citi Field.

PUCK COLLECTOR-
Yup, that sounds like what I saw.

Hey Zack! Getting to see all that behind-the-scenes stuff must have been really cool. I’m definitely going to get your new book when it comes out. Snag On!

Double face-palm = Double amount of rubbing mud on face. ; )

Why do they have the boxes of baseballs then? at least in cleveland they have 2 boxes of 12 within view behind home plate

Awesome Zack! I have been reading your blog for a while now, but this is the first time I have commented. I am trying to collect baseballs too, but I only have 1 major league ball right now, lol. I am going out to the royals game next Saturday though, so I am looking to get more!

I am flabbergasted – and it’s a long time since my flabber has been gasted – that in all the years I’ve been watching baseball – including as a kid batboy in the minors, hanging around the game – I never never, never, never, EVER heard about balls being rubbed with mud. Were they doing it back in 1939, the year I was a bb in the PONY League?

Zack,
I just picked up one of your books! Great entry here with lots of information I did not know. I can’t believe mispelling labels!
Emma
http://crzblue.mlblogs.com/

Zack, I saw a show on yes called yankees on deck & they actually interviewed Lena Blackburne on the mud, you should look into it. Also im going to citi field for the first time in september & want to know a few things about the park,

A. During BP were is the best place to use the glove trick without getting noticed by security, ushers, ect.?

B. What is the best way to get to the dugout right before the game without getting stopped by ushers? walk right down from the top of the section or cut across the field box/ baseline seats?

Just FYI–
Yesterday (8/16) during the Tex/Bos game, there was a boy about 11 or 12 years old that got 2 foul balls in the same at bat! I don’t remember the inning, but Josh Hamilton was up. The boy was in the first row of the 2nd level on the 3B side of homeplate. The first one was up in the air straight to him, and the second one (two pitches later) he reached to his right to glove a lined foul shot. The TV guys talked about that for a minute, and I think he was on the video board too. Thought that was pretty cool.
Brian
http://txbaseballfan.mlblogs.com

Great story Zack, I love this behind the scenes stuff. Have you thought about interviewing Ernie Tyler, the 85-year-old ball boy/umpires attendant for the Orioles? I haven’t seen him this year, so I don’t know if he’s retired now or just working behind the scenes. I’m sure you know about him, but here is a link: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Ernie_Tyler. Maybe you could try to set something up if you go to Baltimore in September. I bet he has some great stories.
Gotta love the double typo…I can hear the employee now: “But I ran spell check, I don’t know what happened!” An employee of mine once sent an email to a customer that I was copied on that said “I felt you a massage” instead of “I left you a message”. Classic!

Zack and everyone else on here. Did you guys hear about this kid catching 2 foul balls, 3 pitches apart?

http://www.bustedcoverage.com/?p=18609

Yeah, that’s what I just referenced. I just found a write up on the Rangers’ website:
http://texas.rangers.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090817&content_id=6467198&vkey=news_tex&fext=.jsp&c_id=tex
Hopefully that will work
Brian

You know how I said I only have 1 major league baseball, actually I have 2. :p

Zack you going to be at citi field tonight? 8/18/09? i may go and im just wondering if im going to have any competition during mets BP

ROYALS FREAK-
Excellent…thanks.

JOBAJR26-
Haha, nice.

ICANTTHINKOFANYUSERNAMES-
Not sure what you mean.

ROYALS2110-
Well, either way, I hope you add to your collection.

BRADFORDBATBOY-
They probably were, yes.

EMMA-
Thanks for getting my book, and I’m glad you enjoyed this entry.

47CARDSFAN-
I’ll see if I can track down that episode. As for Citi Field, there IS no good place. There’s security all over the place. I was there last night and some guy with a little kid had his cup trick confiscated. If you’re going to use it, you have to be extraordinarily careful. Getting to the dugouts is also tough because there’s a guard at the top of every staircase. It’s just a matter of finding someone who’s not looking.

BRIAN-
Very cool. I saw the highlights after you mentioned this.

ABBYSDAD-
Classic indeed. Thanks for the suggestion on Ernie Tyler. I’ve actually called the Orioles already, and they were surprisingly uncooperative about letting me talk to the equipment manager. But they’ve been great in other ways, so I won’t hold it against them.

PSU532-
Good stuff.

LI7039-
Nope, no Mets game for me tonight. No more Mets games for me this month, in fact. Have fun.

wow awesome ! i never knew the umpires put mud on the baseballs!

Zack, Lena Blackburne lived in Palmyra NJ for 68 years.I’m with the Palmyra Historical Society and we were instrumental and successful in proposing a little league field be named in honor of Blackburne. He’s a bit of a local hero. If you want an interesting angle for your book on the mud and Blackburne, email me at icarusfalling88@comcast.net. I have quite a number of photos and I can send you some articles and a cool Lena Blackburne Memorial diamond button. Jim Bintliff of Delran NJ carries on Blackburne’s legacy and suppplied MLB with the mud is a friend and I have some photos of him with our Historical Society in “GOT HISTORY” baseball jerseys. He’s a great guy . We have an interesting story to tell if you want to tell it. I just thought it was important for local kids to know about Blackburne. He played with the Palmyra Field club as a young man before hitting the majors and i have the earliest known photo of Blackburne when he played football for the Palmyra Field club. He played Baseketball too. We’re very proud of him.

Oh Zack, forgot to mention an Eagle sculpture paying tribute to Blackburen and his Delaware River mudsits in the headhouse of the Palmyra Cove Nature Park not far from the river itself. The EAGLES wingsare mad from the skins of baseballs used in the area by Little Leagues. A can of Lena’s mudsits at the feet of the eagle. It was purchased by two Palmyra historical Society members and loaned for display. Along with our” Lena Blackburne memorial Diamond”, I think its imporatnt to see how Blackburne’s legacy is somethingwe are all proudofhere. This is a big sports town, and it was big when Blackburne first played ball here on the same fields our children do today. Do a search – theres some stuff on the internet.

Here’s an article and video written and produced for CNN by a buddy of mine where they went and met Blackburne’s son while he gathered the “magic mud”. http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/10/28/baseball.mud/index.html

ROYHOON-
Glad to be the one to inform you.

ICARUSFALLING88-
I feel silly answering your comment all these months later after we’ve been emailing privately, but nevertheless, this is really great info. Thanks very much.

BRIAN.PATRICK.WARD-
Wish I could’ve been there. Thanks for the link. It’s a great piece.

hey zack! I know this is an older post but I clicked on the link of 5/6/11. since im a huge baseball nerd like you (no offence), there are 3,816 baseball in all of the cases. thought this was kind of cool. thanks for replying to my email. See ya later!

-Nick

Ha, nice job calculating that, and for the record, I welcome comments on old posts. Nice to know that people are still reading them.

Ssorry for this late reply. I was in tennessee on a school trip for 4 days. Sometimes when I’m done reading the newer posts, I go back and check out the old ones. I think my favorite posts are the ones at roger centre. isn’t it wierd how they spell center “centre”? Any way love your posts and can’t wait for new ones!

-Nick

No problem. The “centre” spelling is a bit weird, but I actually think it’s classy. Those were some good times in Toronto. Can’t wait to get back there in a couple weeks…

sweet cant wait! staying at the field view hotel again?? if so try to snag some baseballs up there for me ok?

Yeah, same hotel, but I’m not yet sure if I’ll have a room with a view. I know someone who works there, so hopefully I’ll get a last-minute upgrade.

sweet! good luck! if you can, go to the 500 level right behind home plate and make a panorama of roger centre. i think this would look awesome cause im looking for a panorama of roger centre on google for my backround! thanks! see ya later!

nick

I’m not sure if I’ll make it up to the 500 Level on this trip. I got all my exploring out of the way last time I was at the Rogers Centre, but we’ll see…

ok cool. hopefully that one security guard in the 200 level won’t be there. lol

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