Think spring: Good mud is a big deal

Happy spring! Tis the season for mud!

With a fairly heavy late-March snow, followed by several days of rain, one healthy crop we seem to have plenty of right now is mud. One lady told me she’d been forced to cancel an annual outdoor Easter egg hunt for fear the kids would get stuck in the mud and the eggs might get lost in the ooze.

I’ve always considered mud the enemy, so I was surprised to learn that there is one segment of the world that actually pays money for mud. Not just any mud, but one very particular type of mud. And it seems to be shrouded in a bit of mystery.

I always knew that baseballs come out of the factory nice and white, so white they are almost shiny. Have you ever watched umpires stack up a bunch of new balls and rub them with something to de-gloss them? I never gave it much thought.

They’re using what? What they are using isn’t just any old thing – it is a very specific mud. The mud comes from a company in Florida: the Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud Company. I am not making this up.

In the book, “A Sense of Place,” national correspondent David Lamb tells the story of mud company owner 70-year-old Burns Bintliff. He really didn’t want to talk to a journalist, saying that his mud was a deeply held family secret. He did finally agree to let the journalist come to Florida and attend a spring training game with him as long as he didn’t get too nosy.

“Don’t come thinking I’m going to talk about how the mud’s made, because I’m not,” Bintliff said right up front.

Lamb tells that even though not many in professional baseball know Bintliff’s name, they all agree that his mud is the very best.

He writes, “Everyone agreed that his mud was really wonderful stuff – smooth as melted chocolate, light enough not to discolor the ball – and as the sole purveyor of mud to major league baseball, Bintliff had what might have been the world’s smallest monopoly.”

International requests. Bintliff had turned down requests from various other baseball markets for his mud, and had even tossed away a letter from a Tokyo firm wanting to promote Lena Blackburne mud in Japan. He was satisfied with the way things are.

Before the game, Lamb had the chance to watch two professional umpires work their way through a box of new baseballs. Larry Young would put a dab of Lena Blackburne mud in his left palm, spit into it, and work his hands over each ball as though shaping clay. The umpires were honored to finally meet the man behind the mysterious mud.

It was only when the umpires asked that some answers were given.

Lamb writes, “Every summer, Bintliff and one of his sons rowed out into a creek in New Jersey’s Burlington County at low tide, to the precise and secret location where major league mud has been harvested for more than 50 years. Wallowing waist-deep, they skimmed off the top half-inch layer of mud, shoveled five hundred pounds of it into their boat.

“Later it was mixed with another secret substance. The mud was packed into 3-pound plastic containers and shipped out to the major league clubs in March. One container costs $24.”

A big deal. Young found it all fascinating. In the minor leagues, he said, they had to scrounge for their own mud. Getting good mud is a big deal.

When Bintliff asked what changes the umpires would like to see him make, they said his mud was already perfect.

“That’s what everyone says!” Bintliff said, slapping his leg with glee.

So, in spite of the fact I never in a million years thought there could possibly be such a thing, I guess there actually is such a thing as really good mud.

About the Author

Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college. More Stories by Judith Sutherland

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