Friday, July 10, 2015

Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball by David A. Kelly

Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball by David A. Kelly, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
Millbrook Press

Rating: 5 stars

I love books like this--well-written, true stories that answer the question: What's the story behind ___? I don't know about your kid, but my kids listen to a story like this with a nice dose of disbelief and amusement, and a light switch seems to get turned on inside them. It's the wonder or curiosity switch. And we all know that when a child wonders or gets curious, good things happen.

David A. Kelly has researched and written a fascinating book about the story of "miracle mud." He starts the story around 1900, when a guy named Lena Blackburne tried to play professional baseball, but he just couldn't cut it. Still, he loved the game and wanted to stay involved. So he became a coach.

One day, an umpire complained about the baseballs to Lena Blackburne. The balls were too soggy and soft, making them difficult to throw and even harder to hit. They were soggy because players often soaked the balls in water to make them less shiny and slick. Other players tried to reduce the shine by using shoe polish. That made the balls black. Still other players used spit or tobacco juice. That made the balls stink.
One day, an umpire complained to Lena about the baseballs.

Lena didn't know the answer until he went fishing along the Delaware River in New Jersey. He stepped in thick brown mud that was smooth and gritty. A lightning bulb went off in his head. Lena grabbed a bucket of mud and went back to his team.

He took some baseballs, wiped mud all over them, then wiped them off. They weren't soggy, black, or stinky--but they'd lost their slick shine to them. The players noticed the difference.

And so Lena became a mud farmer--who knew that was a thing--and never told anyone where he got his mud. Still today, this "Lena Blackburn's Baseball Rubbing Mud" is the only thing allowed on major-league balls. Talk about having a corner on the market!

I was pretty incredulous after reading this story. Really? Really?! Kiefer wanted to know if Lena Blackburne was still alive. There's a great Author's Note in the back of this book that helped me out. Nope--Lena died in 1968. His son Jim Bintliff owns, runs, and keeps the secrets of the business today. July is mud-harvesting season. Jim and his crew go out to a spot that's STILL a secret and scoop up the mud, then store it in barrels during the winter.

And...really? They use it today? Yup. The official rules of Major League Baseball (rule 3.01(c)) states that "before a game, an umpire should, among other things, ensure the baseballs to be used are regulation baseballs and 'that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.'" Usually one of the home team's clubhouse attendants rubs the seventy-two balls with mud before each game.

Here's a neat video about the Texas Rangers, explaining the use of mud in today's baseball games:

My kids are wondering what else they don't know about this game of baseball that our family loves. That's wonder, that's curiosity, that's also the stuff of magic.

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