MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It is finally baseball's opening day, which means umpires and clubhouse assistants around the country are dipping into tubs of thick, dark mud. They'll rub it onto the baseballs to take the sheen off, make them easier to grip and throw. For about 70 years now, the source of that mud has been a tributary of the Delaware River in south New Jersey. But where exactly is a secret known only to the folks at Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. Jim Bintliff owns the company. He joins me now. Mr. Bintliff, you are, I guess, the mud guy.
Mr. JIM BINTLIFF: I am the mud guy. I'm the head mud farmer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Why is it important for balls to have a little rubbed mud in them?
Mr. BINTLIFF: That goes way back. Back at - they had the factory gloss on them, and the pitchers couldn't get a good grip of the ball. So there was lot of wild pitches and even an incident where a batter was killed by a ball that hit him in the temple. At that point, the umpires decided they had to take the factory gloss off. They tried tobacco juice, and shoe polish, and dirt from under the bleachers, and found that while those things took the sheen off, they also damaged the leather and scratched the leather. So it would be like a pitcher throwing a doctored ball. Lena experimented with this mud that he found at his fishing hole, and found a concoction that the umpires liked. And we've been part of baseball ever since.
BLOCK: And Lena is - is Lena Blackburne the guy who started this company and a former baseball player himself?
Mr. BINTLIFF: Yes ma'am.
BLOCK: If you put your fingers in it, what does it feel like?
Mr. BINTLIFF: It would be like putting your fingers in cold cream or pudding.
BLOCK: And are you adding anything to it once you take it out of the river?
Mr. BINTLIFF: Well, yeah, there's a secret ingredient, but that's part of the secret, the spot and the ingredient.
BLOCK: Yeah. And this is it. This is what the company makes. You can make a living just on the mud that you supply to Major League Baseball?
Mr. BINTLIFF: I wish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BINTLIFF: No, I work a full-time job other than the mud. It's not enough to support my family.
BLOCK: Yeah, I was going to say, it seems like a pretty narrow little niche there.
Mr. BINTLIFF: Well, it's dirt, how much can you sell dirt for?
BLOCK: Well, I can tell you how much you can sell it for, because I was looking on your Web site. I guess it's 20 bucks for eight ounces and a 32-ounce professional size, $58.
Mr. BINTLIFF: Correct.
BLOCK: Seems like a pretty good deal. I guess that would last a while.
Mr. BINTLIFF: Yeah. Usually a major league team can get through with one 32-ounce container a season, so…
BLOCK: It's probably the cheapest item in their budget.
Mr. BINTLIFF: I'm sure they spend more on mustard.
BLOCK: That's Jim Bintliff, also known as the mud guy. He's the owner and president of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, the only mud provider of Major League Baseball. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Major League Baseball teams rub Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud into their new baseballs to break them in. The mud comes from a secret location along the Delaware River in New Jersey. Company owner Jim Bintliff says the dirt is among the cheapest items on a team's budget.
Major League Baseball teams rub Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud into their new balls to break them in.
For 70 years, the mud has come from a secret location along the Delaware River in New Jersey. The practice dates back to the "dead-ball" era of the early 1900s, says Jim Bintliff, owner of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, named for the former baseball player who discovered the mud.
Bintliff says there were many wild pitches in that period, and umpires decided they had to take the factory gloss off the balls.
"They tried tobacco juice and shoe polish and dirt from under the bleachers, and found that while those things took the sheen off, they also damaged the leather and scratched the leather," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "Lena experimented with this mud that he found in his fishing hole and found a concoction that the umpires liked, and we've been part of baseball ever since."
Although the dirt is an integral part of baseball, Bintliff says he still has to work a full-time job to support his family.
"Well, it's dirt," he says. "How much can you sell dirt for?"
An 8-ounce container costs $20, and 32 ounces will set you back $58. Usually, a Major League team can get through with one 32-ounce container a season, Bintliff says.
"I'm sure they spend more on mustard."