July 24, 2012
I was blindfolded in the passenger seat of a black 1994 Ford F-150 on a 97-degree day in southern New Jersey, and after two minutes I was queasy.
The guy behind the wheel, Jim Bintliff, was laughing because I told him it felt like we were going 70 mph down his suburban street. He informed me that I was off by, "Oh, only about 50."
The object was to get me as disoriented as possible, so when we arrived at the sacred site, the origin of one of Major League Baseball's longest-running secrets, I wouldn't know where I was. How could I tell anyone else?
The truck, bedecked with bumper stickers that help define a curious man -- the Palin bottom with the McCain top cut off, Mr. Zog's Sex Wax for surfboards, "It IS FINISHED," hand-printed two years ago when he became born again -- kept bumping along on struggling shocks. Nine white, five-gallon hand-soap buckets pilfered from the print shop where he ran the presses on the overnight shift for 12 years were rolling around in the bed under the camper shell along with old towels and a tool chest. I asked Jim what might happen if a state trooper or local cop drove by and saw me riding shotgun with a blue bandana wrapped around my eyes. He laughed again.
"I'd get pulled over and asked why I was harboring a hostage, that's what," he said.
The truck kept going, speeding up on what I assumed was now Route 130, the main thoroughfare through this part of Jersey, across the Delaware River from the sprawl of Philadelphia, before he slowed and exited (or so my remaining senses told me). After a few more minutes he was executing a three-point turn, then he was backing into a parking spot, the tires settling into grooves of earth that I figured were about as friendly to him as a pair of old loafers.
"You can take off the blindfold now," he said. "Let's go get the mud."
Yes, the mud. The Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. The only mud used to rub up baseballs before they're put into play. A baseball tradition, and part of Rule 3.01c, if you're scoring at home, for the last 75 years.
"The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed," reads the rule, and a member of Jim's family has supplied the mud that removes that gloss since the edict was written. Before Jim, it was his father, Burns, who inherited the business from his father-in-law, John Haas. Haas had begun digging the mud with Lena Blackburne, the man who brought it to baseball, in the 1930s.
I took off the bandana and was greeted by green -- trees upon trees, with their overhanging leaves obscuring the trail into the woods like some hidden, magical door. The second thing I saw was another truck.
"Somebody else is here," I said.
"Yup," Jim said, nodding in solemn agreement as he grabbed the stack of buckets, a dirty shovel and a dolly.
"Gotta see what they're up to."
I. Lena and John
Picture an old man driving a wing-tipped Cadillac through the streets of his hometown, maybe for the last time. It's a late fall day in 1967, and the dying sun catches him for a moment through the windshield, lighting up his weathered forehead, his deep, dark eyes and his big German nose. In a few months, this man will die in peace near here, the place he loves. But today, he's enjoying one of his customary early-evening drives in Palmyra, a borough of Burlington County in southern New Jersey known for a bridge that stretches over the Delaware into the row-house enclaves of Northeast Philly, and probably known as much for this man driving this huge, obnoxious car through its streets.
Imagine the codger doing a slow roll past the stately brick of Borough Hall, enjoying the soft chill of the gloaming, and reaching out the window to tap the ash of an eight-inch cigar before waving to a father and son who walk to Legion Field to play catch. The dad might stop and point, grinning and making sure to tell his boy about the man driving the iron chariot.
"Son," he might say, "you need to hear a few stories about Lena Blackburne."
Like the one from 1910, when Lena becomes the first former member of the Palmyra Field Club to play in the Major Leagues. He's a 23-year-old rookie in the inaugural game at Comiskey Park, and although his team loses in front of 32,000 fans, the Chicago Tribune makes sure to note the next day that, "Up to the seventh only two [White Sox] hits were made off [St. Louis Browns starter Barney] Petty and Lena Bearcat Blackburne made all of those without getting to second."
Already this kid will be thinking that a hardscrabble slap-hitter born Russell Aubrey Blackburne, nicknamed Lena, and then somehow dubbed Bearcat on top of that is one heck of a character, and his dad might say something along the lines of, "Kid, you haven't heard the half of it."
June 28, 1927, Comiskey again. Lena, now a 40-year-old White Sox coach whose most recent big league plate appearance came in 1919, takes the place of manager Ray Schalk, who's been ejected from the game against Cleveland. The White Sox are trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on second. Lena puts himself in the game to pinch-hit, singles to tie it, and scores the game-winning run two batters later.
June 5, 1929. This time Lena's managing the White Sox, who are getting pasted by the Red Sox in Fenway Park. He's just watched his relief pitcher, Dan Dugan, give up 13 runs on 15 hits in 3 2/3 innings. There's one out left in the home eighth of a 17-2 loss. So once again he comes out of retirement in the middle of a game, and at the age of 42, he decides to pitch for the first time in his career. He gives up a hit but no runs, allowing him to retire, this time for good, with an ERA of 0.00.
And then the big moment, nine years later, May 1938. Lena's hunched over, coaching third base for the Philadelphia A's at Shibe Park and third-base umpire Harry Geisel is telling him that we've really got to do something about these baseballs. Ever since Ray Chapman took a pitch to the head and died in 1920, players and umpires have been clamoring for something, anything, to take the slick sheen off the white leather of fresh-out-of-the-box "pearls." In fact, the rules of the game adopted this language that year: "The seal on boxes of new balls is not to be broken by the umpire except prior to game time and for the purpose of inspecting the ball and removing the gloss therefrom."
Nothing seems to work. Tobacco spit leaves stains, although you might hear pitchers say the ball can never be dark enough, especially during a night game. Shoe polish never did the trick. Infield dirt mixed with water? Crude and harsh, so much so that it cuts and snags the balls and makes them fly goofy through the air.
Lena thinks on what the ump has said for a moment and remembers his favorite summer swimming hole near Palmyra, where you'd sink into mud at least a foot deep. The muck would encase your feet in an airtight lair and you'd lose a shoe if you lifted up your leg too quickly.
"Harry," he says. "I might have an idea for you."
The next morning, Lena goes right back to that spot, digs up a sample and takes it home to the big house at the corner of Henry and Cinnaminson. He filters out the rocks and sticks, lets it settle so more water drains, adds a little something extra to give it a bit of a jiggle, like pudding, and tries it out.
Eureka. The mud takes the gloss and slickness right off a new ball. It doesn't smell. It doesn't discolor the horsehide so much that it'll offend pitchers or hitters or umpires. You get a great grip on it. It's perfect, really, Lena Blackburne thinks. Heck, it might be magic.
The next spring, Lena shows his creation to Geisel, who loves it. Soon everyone wants it. Now Lena's got a side business, and the profits add up to more than the beer money he makes driving a truck for Kenney's Flowers in Riverside, his regular offseason job.
Business is so good that Lena and his best boyhood friend, Haas, are packing the mud into silver coffee cans donated by Haas' neighbors in Bridgeboro. The old Field Club buddies and football teammates have worked out a system. They reach the bank of the waterway, the location and name of which they vow they will never reveal to anyone, by boat. They wait for low tide and then pounce, with shovels and buckets in hand. They go back until they have what they need, and they store the mud over the winter in garbage cans in Lena's basement to prevent it from freezing. Before Spring Training they ship it off, fetching $14 a can in an age when a regular job pays $40 a week.
But Lena refuses to sell the mud to the clubs of the National League. He's an American League man through and through, and that's the way it will stay.
John's family used to own the Haas Bakery in Riverside, serving the best cinnamon buns, cream puffs, eclairs and crumb cakes from Camden all the way up to Trenton before the lucrative business died in the Depression. He's OK now, having ended up with a job for Metropolitan Life and a dedication to improving Riverside. He's the mayor, a Democrat in the first of two terms. It started with service on the Township Committee in 1937, and now, in the early 1940s, he's overseeing the construction of Town Hall.
Not that anyone who knows him is surprised. While Lena likes to settle arguments with high spikes on the basepaths -- and, in the case of one of his former players, Art Shires, a well-placed fist to the face -- John attends daily mass and doesn't mind talking away problems over pints with Lena and the boys in the downstairs bar at the Riverside firehouse.
A World War passes. Lena and John lose friends, but they stay together, bound by the mud. In the early 1950s, Lena relents and begins selling it to the National League. He figures it's about time. But give away the location? Never.
In 1965, 79-year-old Lena is visited by a newspaperman, and the ballplayer who once told The Sporting News that he was a distant relative of Raul de Black Bourne, a "man-at-arms who was knighted in 1348 for gallantry in battle" and told scribes looking for the source in the 1950s that he had hired a team of SCUBA divers who plummeted to the depths of the Delaware to retrieve it for him, shows he's still got a bit of that fight left in him.
"I can't be telling writers where I get this stuff," he tells reporter Joseph F. Lowry. "But I'll let you in on most of it, being as I'm a nice guy."
Lena puts on knee-high clam-digger's boots and takes poor Lowry out to the spot. The wrong spot.
Two years later, months from death and with John Haas already written into his will as the heir to his baseball rubbing mud business, Lena Blackburne is driving his big Cadillac down the streets of his beloved Palmyra, waving at his fans, steering toward the sunset.
Down at the mud hole, the tides come and go.
July 24, 2012
We walked down the trail. A hundred yards in, Jim stopped and pointed out a barrier in our path -- a massive fallen maple, its trunk, maybe a century old, rising a good foot off the forest floor.
"I hate this part," Jim said. "Slows me down."
I suggested that he bring a chainsaw next time. He laughed, pointing out that we were on public land and that he wasn't going to be the one to cut bloody gashes into the environmental sanctity of this greenbelt. My arms and ankles caught a few spikes of brush as we trudged forward. He told me to watch out for poison ivy. Seconds later, the walkway ended in light and water.
I scanned the tributary as Jim jumped down to the stony bank, orchestrating a well-rehearsed dance: setting his buckets by a huge piece of driftwood that now served as a bench, pulling off their caps, grabbing one by the handle with his left hand and the shovel with his right. He walked in silence to the mud, the 10-foot buffer zone of creamy brown separating the rocks from the tiny lapping waves. He didn't look over at the visitors -- a father and son, fishing. They looked over at him, though.
I'd resolved -- back at the Walmart where I'd purchased for $12 the low-top canvas sneakers I was wearing -- that I would go all out on this expedition. I stepped into the muck with something akin to care.
My feet sank into the wet chill until I was in to my shins. Air bubbles popped all over. It was clammy and raw and sucking at my legs. It felt right.
Jim seemed to glide through it. He hunched and moved the tip of the shovel along the top of the surface. He pulled it back inch by inch, shaking the shovel up and down just a hair to let the primo ooze collect onto the upturned blade. When it was full, he poured the nectar into the bucket.
"You can't dig down too deep," he said. "If you do, it gets fishy. Gotta stay on top of it."
He filled all three pails and I helped him carry them back to the bank. Each one had to weigh 50 pounds. Six more and we'd be done until tomorrow. Seven or eight more trips out here this summer and he'd have enough for the year.
The father and son looked over again. The father spoke.
"What are you using that mud for?"
Jim had told me over the phone that this was what people asked when he happened upon them here. He said his usual lie was that he needed the goo for his rose bushes. Sometimes, for fun, he'd say he was with the EPA, doing a soil study. One time in the late 1970s he saw two guys in Grateful Dead tie-dyes and told them he used it for plants that aren't quite as, well, legal, as rose bushes.
"It's for my rose garden," Jim said. "It works like a charm."
"Yeah. You'd be surprised."
"I'm sure I would."
The dad smiled.
If he knew something, we weren't going to find out today. Jim grabbed another bucket, I grabbed two more, and we went back at it. He told me that I should beware of certain sharp-toothed reptilian nuisances under the surface. I didn't think he was serious until he said his grandmother, Jenny Bintliff, had been known for one of the "better snapping-turtle soup recipes in the Delaware Valley."
I asked him what occupied his mind while he was out there sweating and shoveling in stifling heat. He named pitchers, Hall of Famers, men who forged iconic careers because they were able to grip the ball. Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan. He said he thought about his father and mother, his grandfather. He said he thought about Lena.
The tide was coming in, and we were done packing up mud and ready to lug it back to the truck.
The boy caught a catfish. His dad took it off the hook and threw it back before glancing our way one last time and speaking, again with a smile: "It's the perfect mud, huh?"
"Yeah," Jim said. "It's the perfect mud."
II. Burns and Betty
It's December of 1985 in the Pot-Nets community in Delaware. Ronald Reagan is in his second term and the Kansas City Royals are World Series champions. The ring of the telephone cuts through the silence in the mobile home, and Burns Bintliff rises to answer it, letting out an annoyed sigh. It seems that he can't even find a way to relax in the place where he and his wife, Betty, just moved to retire.
So who will it be? If it's a clubhouse attendant or an old umpire buddy, that's fine. He'll talk to those guys. Reminiscing about baseball is always fun. But if it's anyone else, he's probably not in the mood to talk. He's 67 years old, for crying out loud. He's done enough talking.
He picks up the phone and is greeted by an excited voice. Burns can afford only a few words, as always. He mumbles a bit. He says he'll think about it. He'll call back.
Burns hasn't seen the mud in a while. A few years ago it was still all around him at the house in Willingboro Township, stored in the garbage cans in the laundry room downstairs, along with the hampers full of dirty clothes that nine kids will inevitably produce. The mud would settle all winter down there to a soundtrack of whining and cracking from an old hot water heater. If he'd still been in Jersey, he would have been home from a shift as a carpenter on the Turnpike, sitting in his kitchen at the wooden picnic table his father made all those years ago, packing the mud into the used coffee cans the neighbors would leave on the wraparound front porch of the brown house on Bradford Lane.
But tonight, Burns Bintliff is on the phone, scowling, as Betty descends the stairs to ask who called. Burns tells her it was a producer from a television show, "Late Night with David Letterman". You know, the one that comes on after they watch Johnny Carson and go to sleep. The awkward guy with the space between his teeth. He seems mean-spirited. He's a bad comic, is what he is. Is that what passes for humor these days?
They want Burns to go on TV and talk about the mud. Maybe they want him to rub up a ball. Make a big joke out of it. They'll probably want him to spill his big secret and tell the viewing public where he digs it up. Like he'll ever tell anybody that.
It took him long enough to tell his own children. There were five boys and four girls, and he only took the boys to the spot once he was old enough to need their help lugging those buckets and once he could trust that they'd keep their traps shut about where to find it. He had married Betty, who was born Catherine Elizabeth Haas, all those years ago, and her dad, John, had inherited the business from Lena Blackburne himself. Burns married into it, and he loved baseball almost as much as Betty. She never had any questions that she'd keep the family side business going, and he never had questions that he would handle the tough parts of the job. Over the years, it had become a sacred family bond. You don't mess with that. He never would.
That's why he kept it quiet. He'd only harvest before Memorial Day or after Labor Day because the waterway was too crowded in the summer. Too many waterskiers out there. Too many people to wonder what he was doing.
So he doesn't advertise. Once, he got a letter from Japan asking him to ship mud overseas. He tossed it in the wastepaper basket. He and Betty have been fine with running the business the same way they ever did, making enough money from the mud to maybe pay for one vacation a year. It's a hobby, not a full-time profession, and they don't see any reason to change it. It's more about loving the game, about knowing that every time Burns goes to that spot with that shovel in his hand, he's digging up a little piece of history. Every World Series, every All-Star Game, every home run that's hit in every big league ballpark -- every ball has a little piece of Lena Blackburne, John Haas and Burns and Betty Bintliff worked into its hide. That's enough.
Sure, Burns has had his name in the papers and magazines. He remembers when the Army Corps of Engineers did a scientific analysis of the mud to pinpoint the location of the hole, using its geology as a marker. They got close, but they didn't find it.
The most high-profile article was in Sports Illustrated, in 1981. There were others, too, and somehow there's a bad taste left over. He remembers being misquoted, misled by writers. That's not going to happen again. You want to call him crotchety? Surly? A stubborn old man? Fine. Fire away.
But know that he served his country as a Navy parachute rigger in Korea. Know that he was an anchor at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Willingboro, starting the color guard and attending the parades while Betty was president of the local VFW Ladies Auxiliary. He did good things even if you didn't like the way he spoke into your tape recorder.
The mud is in Jim's hands now. In 1966, two years before an old coffee can of Lena Blackburne mud became a permanent part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Betty and 11-year-old Jim were out in the boat as Burns worked the bank. The only sound was the slap of shovel to surface. Betty looked at her son and told him that he would be the next in line. He'd inherit the business when his dad couldn't do it anymore. Jim wondered why he was chosen, but he never asked. He figured she went down the long list of siblings, narrowed it down, talked it over with Jesus for a little while, and got her answer.
Now Betty asks Burns about Letterman again. He shrugs, like always.
"Nah," Burns says, and that's all he needs to say. Burns Bintliff is a man of his word. He never goes back on it.
"I'm a Carson man."
July 24, 2012
We got back to Jim's house and went straight to the backyard. He wasted no time peeling off his Chase Utley T-shirt, throwing it on a summer chair, and jumping into the above-ground pool to remove the initial layer of grit that had spread from his ankles to his elbows. His 20-year-old daughter, Rachel, and two girlfriends sunbathed in bikinis on the deck. The Bintliffs' rescue pit bull, Rose, barked at me as I aimed the garden hose at my lower legs and let fly.
Nine garbage cans were spread out before us on the yellowing grass. Jim didn't even bother drying himself off before picking up one of the empty ones and dragging it to the middle of the yard. He pulled out a weathered, dirty metal screen and set it over the can to commence another part of his ritual -- pouring the fresh mud from the buckets into the garbage cans through the screen to take out the detritus. He said he wouldn't have enough mud until all nine 35-gallon cans were full. He had almost three more to go.
I went back to my hotel and showered because we had dinner plans at a seafood joint on the water. I was surprised to see that the mud didn't come right off once the jets of steaming water hit my still-filthy torso. The residue lingered, and I had to take a washcloth and really scrub to rid my body of it. I watched it swirl down the drain, and when I got back into the rental car and turned the ignition key, I looked at my fingernails. There was still mud in there.
A few hours later, out on the restaurant deck above a silent creek, I asked Jim and his wife, Joanne, why they did it. Why did Jim continue to bust his back shoveling mud in this oppressive humidity? Why did Joanne spend all those hours keeping track of the shipments, running the baseballrubbingmud.com website, printing up the "Got Mud?" T-shirts and logo golf towels and packing those jars into the Priority Mail boxes to make sure they got to the teams on time?
They didn't answer, so I asked again.
"Jim, why do you do it?"
He asked his wife the same question.
Joannne paused, looked up from her surf and turf, and could only muster a laugh.
III. Jim and Joanne
Jim Bintliff stares out at the water of the Puget Sound, dark like the October sky and spotted with the falling rain that seems to never stop pock-marking its surface. He looks down at his feet, planted in a foreign shoreline of rocks and dark dirt, not the sweeping sands of his New Jersey youth. He knows he has to go home.
It's 1975, Jim's almost 19 years old, and he's leaving Bremerton, Wash., headed back to Burlington County. He won't be a Navy man like his father and grandfather and two older brothers. He doesn't know what he'll do with his life, other than grow his hair long again and dig up the mud. He'll get a day job. He'll figure something out.
Ever since he arrived from basic training there's been a burning in his stomach, restlessness he can't seem to pinpoint but knows he doesn't like. It was enough for an honorable medical discharge. Anxiety.
It's gray and damp and bleak here, and he needs to be around Jersey: the pounding breakers, those miles of ocean beach. Surf in the summer, ski in the winter. He remembers the long June days as a teen, months of light and warmth ahead, listening to Jan and Dean and Beach Boys records, driving out to Long Beach Island, paddling out from Wooden Jetty and doing the best he could to come back, preferably on top of his nine-foot longboard but sometimes being dragged through the pebbly silt.
Every wave is different. The solitude, the unavoidable collision with nature ... that's where it's at. When you're tossed around in the roiling Atlantic, you're singing high harmonies with the rhythms of the water, punch-drunk by the power of the tide.
And soon enough, his wish is true: He's back in Jersey, a mail clerk for the corporate office of Macmillan Publishers. Then he's a garbage man in Northeast Philly. He loves that gig -- good pay, easy hours, a daily dose of fresh air. He's the only one getting the mud now since his aging parents bolted for Delaware. He buys the Willingboro house outright. He gets married.
Fourth of July, 1986. Jim's on his way down to Cape Hatteras for a weekend in the waves. He's driving a new Ford Escort to Delaware to spend the night in his dad's trailer. It's late. He's straining to keep his eyes open. Only a few more miles.
He wakes up in the Christiana Hospital trauma center in Newark, Del., and finds out he fell asleep and rear-ended a dump truck. His right wrist, left hip and right ankle are broken. They tell him that when the police pulled up they thought he was already dead. The cops cut him out of the car and he fought with them. They stabilized him in a hospital in Lewes, Del., before putting him in the three-day drug-induced coma he just woke up from.
He's been on a respirator for 10 days. He'll stay here for a month, walk with crutches for a year, get an artificial hip put in after that, and spend another year recovering. He's got two kids now: Jason and Vanessa. He's getting a divorce. He hasn't even reached 30 and he's scuffling to stand.
But like the mud that replenishes itself with each high tide, Jim Bintliff gets back up. He marries Joanne in 1989 and they have two daughters, Abbie and Rachel. Joanne waits five years before Jim tells her the exact location of the mud hole.
Competition ebbs in and out. In the 1990s, Rawlings, the company that makes MLB's official ball, tries to get in the mud game, marketing its own product. On the jar, it says that Rawlings Baseball Rubbing Mud "rubs sheen off the ball, just like the pros." It never catches on. Rawlings discontinues it quickly.
Now it's the year 2000 and Jim Bintliff is 43 years old. None of the world's mainframes have conked out like everyone thought, but it is time for a millennial change at the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud Company.
Jim flies down to Largo, Fla., to see his father. Burns Bintliff is an old man, almost 80, and it's time to make it official. There's no need for a speech. The business is Jim's now. Jim will be the contact person for Major and Minor League Baseball. He'll do the shipping, the billing, and yes, if he so desires, the interviews.
Two years later, Burns passes away and Jim makes some decisions. He's no longer willing to pay for shipping the way his dad always did, forking over $400 a year just for the Major Leagues. He talks to his MLB contact, club relations senior vice president Phyllis Merhige, and arranges an acceptable price increase for the product. He's not gouging the big leagues, mind you, but he needs a bit more. That way he can make sure to answer those emergency Spring Training calls for replacement mud after a janitor unknowingly tosses the tubs into a dumpster. That way he can save a bit for his next surfing safari.
Jim is president and Joanne, who keeps the company books with a notebook and pencil, is his VP, or, as she likes to say, "The Mud Lady." Jim expands in ways his father wouldn't, bringing on high schools, colleges and Little Leagues. Anyone who might be interested. That includes National Football League teams looking for a better grip on the pigskin and a salon in downtown Philly, Ursula's About PHace, which buys up Lena Blackburne mud for its $76 organic "Philly Phacial" that mixes the mud with pureed sweet potatoes, Greek yogurt, oatmeal and olive oil to "absorb the toxins" in one's skin and serve as a "purifying natural exfoliant." Jim shows up one day at 17th and Sansom and gets one himself.
The Bintliffs aren't stuffing pillowcases with cash in their new house in Delran, but there are perks. Jim's invited to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to help Rawlings with demonstrations of how baseballs are made. The prop master from the movie "The Green Mile" sends the Bintliffs a mousetrap that appeared in the movie. Brad Pitt sends them an autographed ball after a can of the mud is used in the movie "Moneyball."
Down at the mud hole, though, he won't part with the past. The original shovel from his grandfather was the primary tool until the handle broke in 1995. Jim could have replaced it with a fiberglass model, but he didn't. It had to be a wooden handle. He's packing with the original spatula, too, but these days the mud is shimmied into plastic jars and tubs, not painted coffee cans. The Bintliffs even have a special logo sticker and catchy slogan: "Baseball's Magic Mud."
The mud has made it into the pages of National Geographic, in the October 2008 issue that also features bee-eating birds, India's superhighway and the Ozark Highlands Trail.
It's 2012 and Jim's a crew leader and a press operator for local hometown newspapers distributed around Philly -- auto trade magazines and penny-saver shoppers. Then corporate comes in and trades scalpels for hatchets, cleaning out the older union guys and going young and lean. Jim isn't surprised. He saw it coming.
He'd already been thinking about taking a one-year course to become a certified nurse's assistant. He can start making a difference in peoples' lives. He'll see if his limited Navy time can qualify him for Veterans Affairs aid to pay tuition, but it's tough out there.
"Right now," he says, "the mud's pretty much all I've got."
July 25, 2012
I woke up early on my last day in South Jersey. Jim was at a morning church function, so I decided to drive into Philly. I had an idea.
I'd been trading emails with one David R. Vann, Ph.D., the lab supervisor for the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania. I asked Vann if he might be able to take a sample of the Lena Blackburne mud, do some sort of scientific analysis of it, and maybe come up with an explanation for why it worked so well.
Maybe he could break down its mineral components. Maybe he could identify the secret final additive that Jim wouldn't reveal. And, most important, maybe Jim could take the information and use it in some positive way.
Vann's email had raised a good point: "If there are properties of this mud that people say make it the 'it' mud to use -- it has the right 'feel,' it is gritty, it spreads easily, etc., these would all be helpful clues to guide both the analysis and interpretation," he wrote.
"On the other hand, it could dispel some of the mystery and magic in one of the more superstitious sports. Do you want to go there?"
I thought of Jim one more time, wrote back, "Of course I do," and soon was on my way to see him. I drove past the jug-handle exits of Route 130 and strip malls, making it down to Palmyra to stop by Lena's grave. I went by the old Legion Field, which became Lena Blackburne Memorial Baseball Field in April 2012, the culmination of a passionate campaign by the Palmyra Historical and Cultural Society and its resident Lena expert, Will Valentino. Jim Bintliff delivered the dedication.
An hour later, I pulled up to Penn's urban campus and parked, emptying my pocketful of change into the meter and walking a tree-lined path through a quiet quad to stately Hayden Hall, a dark-red-and-black brick turreted castle of learning built in 1896 and named for Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, whose geological survey led to the creation of Yellowstone, our first national park.
The hallway snaked around into a tidy office, where rocks cluttered the shelves, papers flooded his desk, and Vann sat by a rip-roaring air conditioning unit. He wore a tropical shirt, shorts, glasses, a graying goatee and a smile. He said he'd grown up in Missouri and was a lifelong Cardinals fan. I congratulated him on the 2011 World Series, handed him an 8-ounce jar of the mud, shook his hand, shot the hardball breeze for a few minutes and went on my way.
The results of Vann's XRD (X-ray diffraction), XRF (X-ray fluorescence) and ICP (Inductively Coupled Plasma Spectroscopy) were a bit dizzying. It's possible that they were revealing ... to someone other than me. But if Rawlings or some entrepreneurial dirt farmer decided to give mud-making another whirl, they'd have to adhere to the following recipe, more or less:
Carbon content: 4.95±0.09 percent. Nitrogen content: 0.33±0.01 percent, with a C:N ratio of 15.1. Toss in 18.7 percent quartz sand, 53.4 percent silt and 29.4 percent clay.
"The sand allows for the gritty texture, and is responsible for most of the 'roughening' effect (like liquid sandpaper)," Vann wrote in the email I would receive after all the tests were completed.
"The clay content is the very tiny particles, most of which is likely responsible for the 'dirty' color left on the ball, working somewhat like pigment. The silt fraction, between the clay and sand size (all of these are very small particles), is likely providing most of the bulk of the mud, and provides a 'matrix' to carry the sand; a combination of the silt and clay gives the 'slick' feel, and lubricates the action of the sand."
And then the rest of the makeup: muscovite mica (potassium source), phlogopite mica (magnesium source), albite (feldspar, sodium source) with some oligoclase (calcium source). Total weight: 55.41 percent water, 44.59 percent dirt. Trace amounts of aluminum, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium and nickel make up the toxic or potentially toxic metals found therein. Not a trace of gold to be found, unfortunately.
"Rare-earth elements" include cerium, dysprosium, erbium and 10 more iums. Mix in some phosphorus, sulfur, chlorine, iodine, manganese, iron and molybdenum. Dust with zinc, tin and antimony to taste. Stir. Serve.
Vann's final email included two charts identifying the XRF's spectral output and the rerun of the XRD. It was multicolored and detailed and baffling. I figured Jim would find this useful, so I emailed it to him.
"Here you go," I wrote. "Would love your thoughts."
He wrote back an hour later:
"Don't wanna eat the mud."
IV. Rachel and Zach
Rachel Bintliff sits in sixth-grade science at Delran Middle School. It's November 2003 and the bell has rung. The students are sitting in a U, desks along the sides and back wall of the room. Garfield -- the cat, not the president -- looks down at them from a poster and offers a motivational chestnut: "Don't wait for opportunities. Create them!"
Mrs. Sacca, the teacher, stands in the middle of it all. The kids are still talking. They're asking Rachel about the mud.
They've heard about it from their parents, who have just watched Jim and a blindfolded TV host, Mike Rowe, go to the mud hole on the pilot episode of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs". It seems Rachel's the daughter of a local celebrity.
The kids are intrigued, and now Mrs. Sacca's intrigued. Why does Rachel's dad go around digging up South Jersey mud? Can Rachel please explain this to the class to begin today's lesson?
A blast of heat shoots through Rachel's stomach. Her face reddens. Action!
Rachel will repeat the story of her father and grandfather and a wily old-time ballplayer called Lena in classroom after classroom. She'll deal with the deluge until she graduates from Delran High in 2011 and finally gets away from hallways cluttered with mean girls and cliques she can't stand.
She takes a few positives from the experience, though. One is her boyfriend, Zach, whom she met through a mutual friend at the Moorestown Mall in late 2007. They went to see the movie "Juno" on their first date a few weeks later and have been together since. Their plan is to get married in a few years.
Another: being her dad's baseball buddy. Jim gets two seats and only two seats at Phillies games, first at Veterans Stadium and now Citizens Bank Park. Rachel didn't become enchanted by the intricacies of the game until high school, when she pitched on the varsity softball team and began going mudding with her pop, but she's hooked now.
Still, all along Jim knew she was the one. When she was 7 years old he told her, flat-out. And she understood. She doesn't remember any fanfare from the day he pronounced her the future heiress of the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud Company. The quiet assurance told her everything.
Thirteen years later, she's committed to staying in or around Delran for the rest of her life. She loves it here. She goes to Burlington County College. She wants to be a high school teacher. She'll specialize in American history.
She can see it now. The first day on the job, she'll tell her students that the best thing about history is that it's a puzzle. You look at what happens in the past and you piece it together. Maybe it helps you figure out what's going on in the present and what might happen in the future.
But when Jim retires from the mud-mongering trade, she'll need to mix in some math skills: 30 Major League teams, about seven or eight dozen balls per game, 162 games a year, six weeks of Spring Training, the playoffs, more than 20 Minor League affiliates. Rachel will run the business. Zach, in the off hours from operating his dad's paving company, will take over the physical labor at the sacred spot. Jason, her baseball-crazy step-brother, will help out with the business. Abbie, her older sister who attends Rowan University, has dreams of owning a health club, and has always been grossed out by the mud, will not.
Chances are the new regime will take Joanne's rune-like pencil-marked notebooks and turn them into Excel spreadsheets and backup hard drives. Chances are they won't raise the prices too much, either.
"It's mud," Rachel says. "I mean ... you can only charge so much for mud."
And she loves that mud. Well, she doesn't love the fact that it's so dirty, and she's not crazy about the angry creatures that might be lurking in the murk. She could probably stand to get better at picking her legs up out of it, and she's not ashamed to admit that she's fallen headfirst in it more than a few times.
But she's always thought it was cool. How could it not be? It's her dad out there doing it, after all. He's the best guy she knows.
And he's the only one doing it.
July 25, 2012
We had a "nice little window" to get more mud, Jim said. He had figured low tide would go down an hour later than it was the previous day, so we backed out of his driveway at 1:45 and got to the site at 2 on the nose. Jim told me he was OK with me 86ing the blindfold.
"I trust you," he said.
As I traced every track of his tires, logging the route in my head for posterity and not wanting to squander a second of this grand privilege, an odd thought occurred to me. Here I was, getting lost in Jersey and in my own head, knee-deep in the mud and in a family history written by protectors of priceless lore, and this guy was cool with handing me the key to it all?
In other words, was I even in the right place, or was this a semi-elaborate ruse? Was this Jim's plan all along -- to take me to the wrong spot, like Lena in his clam boots back in the day, and show me how to fill buckets of mud that he would never use?
I asked him, and he offered little more than a tickled shake of the head.
"I don't know," he said.
I wanted to press him on it, but I didn't have time, because before Jim's front bumper had reached the familiar gravel parking area, we saw a familiar truck.
And a familiar dad and his familiar son, packing up their tackle box to head home.
"Man," Jim said, shaking his head while wheeling his Ford around and backing in. "They're back for more."
We got out and said hello. The dad had a look of concern on his face.
"The tide's coming in fast," he said. "You're probably not gonna get much."
Jim looked perplexed for a second but then confessed that he hadn't checked the chart. He had assumed we'd arrive for low tide, but you can't make assumptions this time of year, and Jim knew right then and there that his pop, Burns, would have let him have it over this careless slip-up. But what the heck. We'd try anyway.
"Might as well get as much as we can," Jim said.
He grabbed the buckets and the shovel and I pulled out the dolly. The father turned to us again.
"Jim, right?" he said, with the pleasure of knowledge curling up his lips.
Jim didn't hesitate, spitting a curt, "Who are you?" right back at him.
"I'm Mike," he said. "My Aunt Patti used to babysit for you in Willingboro."
The muscles in Jim's face relaxed.
"How about that?" he said. "That's a long time ago."
Mike smiled and waved goodbye.
"Take it easy," Mike said. "And don't worry. Your secret's safe with me."
I walked the trail for the last time and watched from afar as Jim scooted ahead through the trees. He wasn't wasting a second.
When I made it to the bank, I saw the water creeping in. There were maybe three feet of mud for us to work with. Jim ditched six of the nine buckets, took three out into the soup, and got to it. Fast.
I thought about waddling in there again, helping him finish up. I thought about what he might be thinking about -- his father, his mother, his grandfather, Lena Blackburne, his favorite pitchers and their greatest games, the millions of moments just like this one that he'd taken in right here while the world spun and his kids grew up and loved ones suffered in hospital beds and he kept shoveling and shoveling until he felt like he'd pass out, fighting against the tide, hoping for a good, quick, quiet haul, and doing it by himself, unseen, unheard. Keeping this history a secret.
As I retreated to the big piece of driftwood that doubles as a bench, now content to sit, stay clean and watch him work, I thought about asking him one more time, "Jim, why do you do this?"
The sunlight hit his brow and the strain etched lines into his face as the sweat gathered on his forehead.
I didn't need to say a word.