Story of Blackburne's mud withstands test of time
I just discovered the meaning of the term "out of body experience." There I was, reading a riveting piece on MLB.com regarding the rubbing of mud on baseballs, and my graying hair was becoming blacker with every paragraph, nearly every syllable.
I kept reading. The weeks became months before evolving into years and decades as I kept going back in time.
Finally, I returned to the summer of 1977, when I wrote a story for the Cincinnati Enquirer with the headline "Baseball's Dirtiest Trick ... Family secret changes magical mud for baseballs into gold."
My story went nationwide on the Associated Press.
Now back to the future with that MLB.com piece, which was titled "The Mudville Line: The legend of mud rubbing." As was the case with my 35-year-old story, this one was only partly about how the game uses mud to knock the slickness from new baseballs.
The rest of the story? Well, since the late 1930s, baseball has settled on a special mud from a secret place in New Jersey. Not only that, the number of those who know the location of that mud -- and then travel there every year to gather the mud for packing and shipping around the Major Leagues -- could fit into the corner of a dugout.
So MLB.com's Doug Miller was among the blessed when he was allowed to visit the mud hole last year. Miller wrote about his experience in the "Mudville Line" article, and he began by mentioning that he was blindfolded for the trip, made in a pickup truck through the backwoods of southern New Jersey.
The driver? Jim Bintliff.
Bintliff. Bintliff. That sounded familiar.
I kept reading, and the article mentioned the "Lena Blackburne Baseball Mud." It is mandated by the rule book that, courtesy of the mud, "[baseballs] are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed."
I kept reading, and I got to the part describing that Blackburne was a former Major League player and manager whose best friend was named John Haas.
Bintliff. Blackburne. Haas.
That's when I went scrambling for the scrapbook.
Was it 1978? 1979?
There was that old Cincinnati Enquirer article, still looking surprisingly fresh against the page.
It was July 17, 1977, when I mentioned all of those names (and others) in a story I was inspired to write after watching umpires rub something on baseballs before a Reds game at old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.
Legendary umpire Dutch Rennert held up a can filled with the mud while reading Blackburne's name on the label. Then he said, while puffing on his long cigar, "Where ... do they get this stuff? All we know, it's here when we get here."
I decided to answer Rennert's question.
After a slew of phone calls, I hit (ahem) pay dirt with Fred Fleig, the National League secretary-treasurer in charge of the league's umpires at the time. He said of the mud, "They've been using it since before I got here, and that was in the 1960s. Before, they would just go out to a nearby river, say the Ohio, for the mud. Then a fella by the name of Lena Blackburne said he had a new type of mud that worked well on the ball.
"Well, the National League liked it and had him send two coffee cans of it to every ballpark."
Where did they get the mud?
Fleig didn't know.
More phone calls. Then some more.
Eventually, I was on the line with Betty Bintliff. She lived in Willingboro, N.J., and was the daughter of John Haas.
Bintliff told me that for decades, Blackburne was the only person who knew the exact location of the mud and how it was processed. Then she said that with Blackburne on his deathbed in 1968 and with her father at his side, Blackburne gave her father enough money for a drinking party to be held in his honor at a local bar ... and the secrets to the mud.
Haas became the sole operator of the business.
I mean, literally.
Nothing changed until about the time I wrote my story in 1977. Haas was 84 then, and his trips to the lake for the mud were becoming rougher every year.
That's when he brought his daughter into the mix.
Bintliff confided in a few more people back then, but they were all from her immediate family.
"My husband, [Burns], goes out to the place where the mud is found every year," she told me at the time, "and he gets it with help from our five sons."
Her five sons? Let's return to Miller's piece, which talked of how Burns and Betty Bintliff had nine children.
Wrote Miller: "There were five boys and four girls, and [Burns] 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."
Jim Bintliff was one of those five sons about whom Miller and I wrote -- nearly 35 years apart.
In Miller's piece, Jim Bintliff is described as the same solo act in the mud business that his father, Burns, was before him ... and what Burns' father-in-law, Haas, was before that ...
And what Blackburne was before all of them.
Miller added near the end of his piece that Jim Bintliff's daughter, Rachel, is the heir apparent to the business. She attends a local community college with hopes of becoming a high school teacher of American history.
As for baseball mud history, this is what Betty Bintliff also told me during the summer of 1977, when granddaughter Rachel was years from being born: "I think we'll be doing [the mud business] as a family as long as the Major Leagues request it. The time will come when our grandsons will take it -- if they want it."
Betty Bintliff was right about baseball's extended love affair with her family. She was wrong about the grandsons.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.