Everything You Wanted to Know About Baseball Rubbing Mud
When you review baseball regulations, would you be surprised to learn that it’s required that all balls be properly “mudded” before each game? It’s true. According to Wikipedia, “Before all major- and minor-league baseball games, an umpire or clubhouse attendant rubs six dozen or more balls with the mud to give them a rougher surface, to make them easier for pitchers to grip, and to comply with MLB Rule 4.01(c).”
That’s right. Mud is part of the rules.
But what exactly is going on with baseball rubbing mud, and what’s the point of it all? Is it really just about the pitcher’s grip? And why is it such an important part of the game? Even Sports Illustrated covered the gathering of baseball mud for about 240,000 major league baseballs per season?
Why Are Baseballs Rubbed with Mud?
It all goes back to the story of Lena Blackburne, a third-base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics. Lena Blackburne was having a conversation with an umpire, who told him that the existing mud had a tendency to damage the leather over the ball. Sure, using mud like this would enhance the grip on the ball, but given how much it damaged the leather, a better option must have existed.
At the time, it was already common practice to rub baseballs with mud for the aforementioned reasons. New baseballs had a tendency to be too smooth, and needed to be worked with to obtain a more jagged, easier-grip surface. The problem is that this had to be done in a hurry with a proven process. Lena Blackburne set about looking for better-quality rubbing mud. He eventually found it along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, founding a company to package and sell it. It wasn’t long before every team in baseball was using Lena Blackburne’s rubbing mud.
Over the years, Lena Blackburne often did much of the hard work of harvesting the mud—inasmuch as mud can be said to be “harvested”—and he left the company in the care of a friend. This friend, John Haas, then left the company to his son-in-law, a man named Burns Bintliff. According to Bintliff, the process of harvesting mud for MLB isn’t particularly a cash cow. However, these days, all major and minor-league games include a mudding process beforehand, ensuring that the balls are easy enough for the pitchers to grip and control.
Does the MLB Still Rub Mud on Baseballs?
Absolutely; in fact, it’s part of the rules. But when you read the actual rules, you’ll find a different reason for mudding.
Before the game begins the umpire shall: … (c) Receive from the home Club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home Club by the League President. The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game;
-Baseball regulations, 4.01c: Umpire duties
Of course, removing the smoothly glossy surface of the ball is synonymous with making the surface more textured and easier to work with. So the short answer is yes: the MLB doesn’t only still rub mud on baseballs. But it actually encourages it to the point of codifying this practice.
You’ll note that the code doesn’t explicitly require umpires to use New Jersey mud, however. It only says that the balls be “properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed,” and the umpire is the one who judges when they’re ready for game regulation use.
However, the widespread practice of mudding is synonymous with this process. Visit the Lena Blackburne website and you’ll note that they advertise themselves as “Used by every Major League and Minor League Baseball Organization for nearly 75 years!” They’re not making that up. It’s the popular mud of choice, and it remains in widespread use to this day.
Do Umpires Rub Mud on Baseballs?
In a word, yes. The MLB has a code of rules for how new baseballs are to be treated before every game. They then delegate the judgment of the quality of these baseballs to the umpires. It’s up to the umpires to decide how that works, as the rules only decide that a ball should be “properly rubbed.” This leaves some wiggle room; however, in practice, the treatment of balls before the game is fairly uniform.
Is it “magic mud”? Magic mud that only comes from a secret location? The idea has taken on an almost mythic quality. The idea that this mud is special because it comes from the Delaware River may have some merit, as the “magic mud” does have properties that make it an improvement over the previous complaints. Handling a new ball that’s been properly mudded is a superior experience from using an ordinary ball. Whether or not the New Jersey mud is indeed a “special mud” may be subject to debate. However, it stands to reason that in the world of sports, groundskeepers pay attention to the quality and source of grass. Why wouldn’t the quality and source of mud be of similar interest?
Do Hitters Care About Mudding Baseballs?
As with so much in baseball, it can be a highly subjective affair to measure how much the mudded baseballs feel differently than baseballs with the gloss still remaining on them. There are a few things to consider here.
• Mudded baseballs give the pitchers more grip. The more grip a pitcher has, the more control they have over the pitch. This can more than make up for the effect of a mudded ball feeling better on the bat. There may even be some hitters who believe that a smooth, glossy ball is actually better for hitting.
• Most balls are mudded before games, providing a difficult measuring stick. Because both minor league and major league baseballs are mudded before games, any difference between these balls can be difficult to measure, even for hitters—and in some cases, even for pitchers who routinely handle the balls.
Do Umpires Mud the Balls?
Yes. However, there has been talk of Major League Baseball manufacturing balls with more “tack,” which would remove the requirement of rubbing down the balls with mud. However, as with many time-honored traditions in baseball, it’s sometimes difficult for people to let go of the old way of doing things. While it remains in the rulebooks that umpires are in charge of ensuring the quality of the balls before the games, there is always the possibility that MLB could change things in the future.
What Do They Do with Used Baseballs?
Ever wonder what MLB does with all of those used baseballs—some 240,000 per season—after they’ve already appeared in games? After all, if umpires are reviewing new baseballs before every game, that means something must have happened to the old balls, right?
Something did happen. Here are some of the ways MLB uses old baseballs:
• Collecting and using for batting practice. It would be a shame to waste those fresh baseballs. Many teams then collect the used baseballs and dish them out during batting practice. After all, every club needs plenty of baseballs for drills and both in-season and off-season events. It only makes sense to keep those balls already around.
• They don’t ship them to the minor leagues. The minor leagues get their own source of fresh baseballs, which themselves are properly muddy before every game. There’s a myth out there that the minor leagues are simply using old baseballs, which doesn’t hold up.
• Saving baseball is common when something significant happens. After all, you wouldn’t want to use a record-breaking ball for batting practice. Many of these baseballs are saved and either given to the relevant player or manager. Sometimes, you or have the balls shipped off to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio.
Come spring training, every American and National League team needs a fresh supply of balls. However, baseballs (and the mud to treat them) are affordable enough for teams to continually replenish their supplies. While strange that a product comes from a specific mud hole in southern New Jersey, baseball has weirder traditions.