The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (2022)

This story appears in the July 29, 2019, issue ofSports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price.Click here for more.

Jim Bintliff’s collection of lies is small and sharply curated, each one loose enough to be plausible and mundane enough to limit interest in verifying it. They work like this: Bintliff will be out on the banks of a tributary of the Delaware River, in his personal uniform of denim cutoffs and disintegrating sneakers, using a shovel to harvest buckets of mud. Someone will come along and ask what he’s doing. Bintliff sizes up the questioner, usually a boater or swimmer or fisherman, then picks from his collection. I’ve been sent by the Environmental Protection Agency, and I’m surveying the soil. Or: I’m helping the Port Authority, looking into pollution. Or, if it’s a group of young folks who look like they’ve only come out on the water for a good time: I take this mud, and I put it on my pot plants. They grow like trees.

This always does the trick. It prevents anyone from exploring what he’s actually doing, which is what he’s done for decades, what his father did before him, and his grandfather before him: Bintliff is collecting the mud that is used to treat every single regulation major league baseball, roughly 240,000 per season.

Mud is a family business; it has been for more than half a century. For decades, baseball’s official rule book has required that every ball be rubbed before being used in a game. Bintliff’s mud is the only substance allowed. Originally marketed as “magic,” it’s just a little thicker than chocolate pudding—a tiny dab is enough to remove the factory gloss from a new ball without mucking up the seams or getting the cover too filthy. Equipment managers rub it on before every game, allowing pitchers to get a dependable grip. The mud is found only along a short stretch of that tributary of the Delaware, with the precise location kept secret from everyone, including MLB.

The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (1)

The business is small and fundamentally unglamorous. Bintliff harvests the mud himself, using only a shovel and a few buckets, as he has for his entire adult life. The 62-year-old has recently begun bringing a trusted assistant to help him carry the load, but other than that, the process is the same as it has always been. After he collects the mud, he hauls it back to his yard in southern New Jersey, where it sits until he’s ready to pack it up in his garage and ship it out to teams. His wife, Joanne, takes orders and does invoicing. That’s it. There’s no one and nothing else to the operation. It’s increasingly out of place in a hyper-controlled, ultra-competitive, high-tech league, where every detail is calibrated for peak efficiency.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that MLB has recently tried to eliminate Bintliff, teaming with Rawlings to develop a ball that doesn’t need to be enhanced by mud. But baseball is realizing that it isn’t so easy to replace him, and, in fact, it might not be possible at all.

(Video) Baseball's Muddy Business and How It Might End

The mud’s story does not begin with the Bintliff’s family. It begins with Ray Chapman—the Cleveland Indians shortstop who was killed by a pitch to the head in 1920, the only major leaguer to die from an injury received during a game. After the tragedy, MLB tried to improve player safety. It needed something that would help a pitcher’s grip without damaging the ball’s surface or dirtying it so much that it would be difficult for hitters to see. Teams tried shoe polish, tobacco juice, dirt. Nothing worked.

In the 1930s, though, Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne found the answer. He rubbed a baseball with mud found near his childhood home in Palmyra, N.J.—special mud, smooth, almost creamy, gloppy without being especially gooey. (It’s a geological thing, Bintliff says: There’s a high clay content in the soil, an oddity for the area, plus brackish water from the tributary mixing with “cedar water” dropping from nearby trees. Perfect conditions exist for only about a mile.) Blackburne realized that a single finger dipped in mud would yield enough to spread across an entire ball, removing all of the dreaded shine without discoloring the surface. And, crucially, this mud neither dribbled off nor sat heavy on the cover. Instead, it permeated the cowhide, perfect for improving grip. If you waited just a minute, any lingering muck would fade and it would be hard to tell that the ball had been treated at all—unless, that is, you were the pitcher, who would immediately be able to feel it.

Blackburne brought his find back to the Athletics, and it was an immediate hit. Soon, every team wanted some. In order to handle mud collection, the coach partnered with an old friend of his from New Jersey named John Haas. They called it Magic Mud, and by the 1950s it was standard for every team to rub it on every single baseball.

The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (2)

Haas was Jim Bintliff’s grandfather. When Jim was 10, Haas decided that his grandson was ready for his first harvest. The two of them made their way to the secret location on foot and packed mud into a five-gallon camping kettle—the start of a lifetime of mud-work for Jim. His grandfather took full control of the company when Blackburne died in 1968; eventually, it was passed on to Jim’s father, Burns Bintliff.

Jim still doesn’t know exactly why he was the one picked to carry on the legacy. He’s one of nine children, all of whom were encouraged to play in the mud from an early age, and Jim is right in the middle of the birth order. But when he was 15, during a family mud harvest, his mother turned to him and said that she felt he’d eventually be the one in charge. Whatever she saw in him, she was right. Nearly 50 years later—long after his grandfather and father have died, after siblings have moved far away—Bintliff has never wanted to leave New Jersey, never wanted to quit the business.

“I know the mud,” he says. “I’m the only one on the planet who does.”

(Video) Business harvests the only substance legally applied to MLB baseballs

It isn’t simply a matter of shoveling the mud and packing it into tins. No, it’s a process—a little art, a little science, plenty of patience. “It’s like wine,” Bintliff says, joking only slightly. Good mud needs to mature. It needs to be cleansed. (“Clean mud,” he’ll have you know, is not a contradiction in terms.) When he brings the stuff back to his house, he first runs it through a strainer, removing any twigs or leaves. Then, it has to sit. Mud is mixed with the right amount of water and deposited into bins the size of trash cans. Over the course of five or six weeks Bintliff will siphon off excess liquid and rerun the mud through the strainer. Finally, the water will have fully drained, and the mud should be ready. It will feel more like cold cream than pudding, with any trace of grit removed. Mix a dollop with a tiny bit of water (or spit, as some equipment managers do), and it will be just perfect for rubbing up a baseball. He used to send it to teams in spray-painted coffee cans, but in recent years he’s made the upgrade to plastic containers with labels.

Bintliff now has a modest backyard, just enough room to fit four mud bins at a reasonable distance from a small patio table. When he married Joanne in 1989, though, they didn’t have any outdoor space. Instead, they had to store the mud inside—and the only space large enough was the laundry room, which, despite the practicality of its tiled floor, is hardly where anyone might want to keep giant containers of mud for weeks at a time.

But Joanne didn’t particularly care. (“It’s very clean, as far as mud goes.”) She had a bigger battle to fight: She wanted, more than anything, to know the mud’s secret location. Bintliff had told her about the family business only just before their wedding; at the time, his father still owned the company, but all the work of harvesting had been passed on to him.

The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (3)
The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (4)
The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (5)

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, I did,” Joanne says. “I said, I can’t wait to go dig up mud, oh, I really wanted to play in the mud!”

(Video) 1983 MLB All-Star Game (Chicago AL)

She wasn’t allowed, though—yet. They were legally wed, yes, but sharing the specifics of the family secret represented an entirely different kind of intimacy for Jim. This was new, and he wasn’t quite sure if he was ready to open up. But after five years of marriage, and the birth of two daughters, he took her out to see the mud at last. She’s been going ever since.

Mud is not a lucrative business. This might seem simultaneously self-evident and strange: It’s mud, but it’s an essential piece of a multibillion-dollar business, a feature without which an official baseball game cannot be played. Bintliff makes more money from it than his dad, but that’s not saying much. When Sports Illustrated did a short piece on his father in 1981, each can of mud was $20, and every team ordered two per season. In 2019, a can goes for $100—in keeping with inflation, plus a little extra—and every team orders four. Modern baseball has been kind to Bintliff: More home runs and more foul balls mean using more balls, and each additional one requires additional mud. “Every time we see a foul ball hit, it’s like, cha-ching!” Joanne says.

But you can multiply $100 by 30 teams by four annual cans and see that it’s only around $12,000, not enough to make anyone rich (or even particularly comfortable). Bintliff has worked to expand the business, selling to softball teams and Little League, but this only goes so far. The family has never been able to live on mud alone. For decades Bintliff worked the graveyard shift as a printing press operator and Joanne was a typesetter for the same company. Now, they’re both semiretired; Social Security is enough to pay the rent while mud is enough to cover everything else.

But, modest as it is, Bintliff’s business is facing an existential threat. In 2016, MLB approached Rawlings about developing a baseball with a naturally improved grip, right out of the wrapper. It made sense: From MLB’s perspective, there are several reasons to abandon mud. It would no longer have to be so dependent on Mother Nature, no longer have to rely on a single secret spot, and, perhaps most crucially, would no longer have equipment managers rubbing dozens of baseballs in idiosyncratic ways. Essentially, in the current setup, there are plenty of chances for the ball to be affected by irregularities, however tiny—which could hypothetically be removed by a ball that doesn’t need mud.

The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (6)
The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (7)
The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (8)
(Video) Stupidest Purchases MLB Players Ever Made..

So Rawlings developed a prototype for MLB, first tested in the Arizona Fall League in 2016. Bintliff’s son Jason forwarded him an article about the experimental ball.

“He said, ‘What do you want to do?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Nothing.’ I know the mud. I know how the mud works.”

He does. And Rawlings? Well, it’s still trying to learn.

“Mud is mud,” says Rawlings’ chief marketing officer, Mike Thompson. “But, obviously, mud isn’t mud. We’ve had chemists look at it. We’ve had engineers look at it. We’ve had scientists study it.”

Rawlings has spent years researching Bintliff’s mud and developed several prototypes for a new ball. It’s come up with several—tested in spring training and fall league and, recently, in a brief experiment in the independent Atlantic League. But pitchers have long been accustomed to the grip that they get from the mud, and it has proved tricky to find a suitable replacement that satisfies everyone. “When you hand Pitcher A the ball, he says, ‘I love it,’ ” Thompson says. “You hand Pitcher B the ball, he says, ‘Too tacky.’ When you hand Pitcher C the ball, he says, ‘Not tacky enough.’ How do you win?”

Rawlings and MLB have continued to test different options, looking for something that keeps the same standard of playability, that keeps the same color, that doesn’t lose its feel when it’s thwacked into a catcher’s mitt or when it’s coated with sweat or doused in rainwater. Blackburne’s mud was originally called magic, and that seems to be exactly what baseball is searching for, eight decades later. (It's worth noting that this experimentation has taken place at the same time as an unexplained change to the current game ball, which has been measured by independentstudies in connection with the spike in home runs. Bintliff has heard theories that his mud could somehow be part of this increase, which he dismisses: “I wish I could affect it,” he jokes, briefly switching into the role of ordinary fan. “Then the Phillies would get special mud every year.”)

The story behind MLB's longtime mud suppliers (9)
(Video) MLB Baseball's Seasons: 2001

Thompson believes that Rawlings will find an answer: “It’s just a slow burn here, and we’ll get the ball precisely the way they want it.” Bintliff isn’t so sure: “Nope. Can’t do it.” Either way, Bintliff isn’t particularly worried. Even if Rawlings’ prototype does end up being implemented in MLB, the last few years have seen him develop a new revenue stream—football. His mud works its magic just as well on a pigskin, removing the factory sheen without doing anything to muck up the laces. Half of the NFL now places annual orders with Bintliff.

Bintliff plans to retire, though not necessarily soon. Just as his mother did, he has determined in advance which of his children will take over: 27-year-old Rachel, the youngest of his four, who loved tagging along with him and playing in the mud from the time she was a little girl. But Bintliff wants to give her some more time before the responsibility is hers—she’s still early in her career as a high school teacher, and she only recently married—and, anyway, he’s happy to keep it up. He has a good reason for it, the same reason that his father used to give; it’s the only answer that he has and the only one that he wants: “For the love of the game.”

FAQs

Does MLB reuse baseballs that hit the dirt? ›

In the modern game, any baseball that comes into contact with dirt is usually discarded and replaced. Some of these balls will be used for batting practice, and some will be sent to the minor leagues. As soon as a catcher passes an umpire the ball that has hit the dirt, the umpire will pass him another.

Does MLB still rub mud on balls? ›

Of course you do. Well, it turns out that MLB does the same thing. Prior to being used in a major or minor league game, all baseballs are rubbed with mud to remove the sheen and give pitchers a firmer grip on the ball.

Where does MLB mud come from? ›

The mud originates from the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The mud is cleaned and screened before sale. Each year Jim Bintliff visits the mud's source and returns with 1,000 pounds of it to store over the winter and sells it the following baseball season.

Do batboys get paid? ›

Currently, the rate of pay for bat boys and ball girls falls within $9-10 per hour. Because they typically work 8-9 hour days during each home game, the math adds up to an annual salary somewhere between $19,000 and $20,000 per season.

How much does a major league umpire make? ›

How much do umpires make in the MLB? In Major League Baseball, professional umpires just starting to work pro-level games begin with a salary around $120,000 per year, according to the Major League Baseball association. Senior umpires with more experience can earn upwards of $350,000 per year.

Where is magic mud harvested from? ›

"Magic mud" used by every Major League Baseball team is harvested in south Jersey. When pitchers across Major League Baseball take to the mound, they rely on a secret ingredient that comes from a fishing hole in southern New Jersey.

How much do MLB mud guys make? ›

Bintliff said his profit is modest. For example, he said, Major League Baseball pays less than $20,000 a year to have 10 pounds of the Lena Blackburne mud sent to each of the 30 major league teams. If a team needs more during a season, it deals directly with him.

How much does a container of baseball mud cost? ›

(A “personal size” half-pound container of mud sells for $24.) Each MLB team gets 12 pounds for spring training and the regular season, he said. Dan Wallin, the Nats' equipment manager, said it takes him or a clubhouse assistant about 45 minutes to rub the mud on the 12 dozen baseballs that are prepared for a game.

Why do pitchers lick their fingers? ›

Pitchers can lick their fingers before drying them off on their uniform to get a grip on the ball, but they can't be in contact with the rubber when they do so.

Why do they throw away so many baseballs? ›

Catchers constantly change baseballs because it is a rule set by the MLB and enforced by umpires. If an umpire notices a ball is scuffed or has dirt on it, a brand new baseball must be introduced into the game. This rule is in place to ensure hitters are able to clearly see every pitch.

Why do they water the dirt in baseball? ›

To the grounds manager on a baseball field, watering dirt is about ensuring that the entire soil profile players hit, pitch, run and field on has sufficient moisture not just on the surface, but through the surface.

Who makes baseball mud? ›

"Rawlings manufactures Major League balls on a rolling basis at its factory in Costa Rica. Generally, balls are produced 6-12 months prior to being used in a game.

Where do they get mud for baseballs? ›

Since the 1950s, that mud, and all the mud in every clubhouse in major league baseball, has come from the same secret spot in South Jersey. It is from Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, a company that has been in Jim Bintliff's family for three generations.

What kind of dirt does MLB use? ›

For Major League Baseball, the infield mix is a bit different: 55 percent sand, 30 percent clay, and 15 percent silt. The key to these three components existing in a Field of Dreams harmony is the moisture level associated with the mix.

Do MLB players room together on the road? ›

That perk is among the most common going right now for the big shooters. "Used to be, under the old collective bargaining agreement, guys shared a room on the road," former agent Barry Axelrod says. "Now, everyone gets his own room. "We used to have to negotiate that.

Do MLB batboys travel with the team? ›

The first thing to understand is that, except in very rare circumstances, bat boys don't travel on road trips with the team. So the home and visiting bat boys are both employed by the home team.

Do baseball ball girls get paid? ›

MLB bat boys and ball girls generally have a similar average salary in general. By and large, ball boys and girls make roughly minimum wage or $9 to $10 per hour.

Do major league umpires pay for travel? ›

The answer is a resounding NO! Top-level professional umpires benefit from a comprehensive travel and expenses package that is paid for by Major League Baseball. This includes all airfares, ground transportation, accommodation, and meals while on the road.

Are there any female MLB umpires? ›

But only nine women have umpired in the minor leagues, according to MLB. Two, Pawol and Isabella Robb, are currently umpiring in the minor leagues. Numerically, she is an outlier.

How much is an MLB pension? ›

The full pension consists of 40 quarters that each have a pension value attached to them. Therefore, a player can earn a partial pension by earning less than 40 quarters in their career. Partial pensions are earned for each quarter (43 Days) of service time, which in 2021 was valued at $5,750 per quarter.

Why do pitchers rub the ball? ›

A pitcher rubs the baseball to increase tack and create friction, which gives pitchers more control over the baseball. Pitchers rub the baseball to scuff up a new ball's cover in hopes of altering its weight or wind resistance.

How many balls do umpires carry? ›

Generally, the pouches can easily hold about half a dozen balls each. Any more than that is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is running from one base to another. Of course, it's a matter of personal preference, since some umpires use one bag and some two.

How are MLB balls made? ›

The ball consists of a rubber or cork center wrapped in yarn and covered with white natural horsehide or cowhide, or a synthetic composite leather. A regulation baseball is 9 to 9¼ inches (229 to 235 mm) in circumference (just slightly under three inches (7.6 cm) in diameter), with a weight of 5 to 5¼ oz.

How many baseballs do they use in MLB game? ›

Baseball estimates between eight and 10 dozen baseballs are used in every major-league game.

What is the oldest baseball park? ›

Fenway Park

Boston's professional baseball stadium is home to the infamous Green Monster. That's the nickname for the nearly 40-foot-high left-field wall in Fenway Park, the oldest major league ballpark still in use by a professional team. The Boston Red Sox have called Fenway home since it opened in 1912.

How many baseballs are prepared for a MLB game? ›

On average, 84 to 120 balls are usually used in one average MLB game. By calculation, it means that 30 teams use about 1,550 balls in a single day. According to an equipment manager at MLB, the most amount of balls used in one game is about 120 baseballs.

How do you muddy a baseball? ›

The proper technique involves "painting" the full surface of the ball with mud using two fingertips. Then comes a very precise rubbing motion with the ball in between both hands to get mud into the pores of the leather. Muddying each ball is a 30- to 40-second process.

How early can a baseball game end? ›

In professional baseball, there is no time limit. So games will continue indefinitely until one team is ahead at the end of any inning beyond the 9th inning.

What is Spider Tack baseball? ›

SPIDER TACK. The goop-du-jour in Major League Baseball was originally made for strongmen to lift Atlas Stones. It's almost as sticky as super glue, and it took two throws to even get the ball to the plate. The first one was spiked after 35 feet.

Why do they change baseballs when it hits the dirt? ›

Catchers constantly change baseballs because it is a rule set by the MLB and enforced by umpires. If an umpire notices a ball is scuffed or has dirt on it, a brand new baseball must be introduced into the game. This rule is in place to ensure hitters are able to clearly see every pitch.

What happens to all the baseballs used in an MLB game? ›

Umpires discard dozens of others after they've been dinged by a bat or bounced in the dirt. The Cardinals prepare 120 baseballs for every game. On an average game day, between 40 and 60 used baseballs will end up in the Authentics Shop.

How many baseballs are used during a MLB game? ›

Baseball estimates between eight and 10 dozen baseballs are used in every major-league game. So how do you go through 96-120 baseballs every single night?

How many balls does the MLB use in a season? ›

Each of the thirty teams plays a total of 162 games. Hence, every season has about 2430 games. And, that's not counting playoffs, world series, or spring training. So, the total number of balls used in a single MLB season is estimated to go over 900,000 baseballs.

Why do so many MLB players wear gold chains? ›

So, why do baseball players wear chains? Most baseball players who wear gold chains want to upgrade their appearance. Religion is also among the primary reasons. Some players even think that wearing jewelry helps them play better.

What do MLB teams do with used balls? ›

With a scuffed or dirty ball no longer useable in a game, the teams began to permit foul balls and home runs to be simply kept by fans as a souvenir. Previously, the crowd were not allowed to keep a ball and it had to be thrown back into the pitcher so that it could continue to be used in the game.

Do baseballs go bad? ›

Between 90 and 120 balls are used per game in the MLB, and the average lifespan of a baseball is just a few plays, or eight pitches – about a week in total, including batting practice.

Has anyone ever hit a 600 foot home run? ›

Babe Ruth was said to have hit a home run over 600 feet.

Do MLB players pay for their bats? ›

For MLB players baseball bats are an essential piece of equipment. Some players choose to purchase their own bats. But, for the most part, many pro baseball players will have their bats bought for them. Endorsers might pay for the bats.

How much does a MLB ball cost? ›

How much do baseballs cost? Costs vary from year to year, but it is safe to estimate that each baseball costs around $10.00. This might not sound like a lot, but when you consider how many baseballs are used per game, that comes to well over $1,200 each time. And that's just for the balls used in play.

Why do pitchers rub the ball? ›

A pitcher rubs the baseball to increase tack and create friction, which gives pitchers more control over the baseball. Pitchers rub the baseball to scuff up a new ball's cover in hopes of altering its weight or wind resistance.

Do baseball players wear new uniforms every game? ›

All players on a team must wear identical uniforms during a single game. Numbers: All players must wear their uniform numbers on the back of the uniform. Undershirt: If the undershirt is exposed then all the players on the team must wear matching ones.

How much does it cost to make a baseball? ›

The cost per ball to Rawlings: about $4. And though all balls head through a quality-control centre in Missouri, the factory uses an 85 mph pitching machine and a wooden backstop to see how lively they are when pounded by the meatiest part of a slugger's bat.

How much does a major league baseball bat cost? ›

Baseball bats cost anywhere from $30 to $500, with most bats ranging between $75 to $150. The cost of a wood bat is between $30 to $200 while the cost of an aluminum bat is between $30 to $500.

How much money does a baseball stadium make per game? ›

With the record attendance and highest ticket prices, they earn the most even before the game begins. The average attendance at the stadium is 40.975. With the hefty average ticket price of $86.85, they earn more than $3.5 million in gate receipts for every home game.

How much does a baseball glove cost? ›

They can range from $40 -$80, which are often made of top-grain leather. In addition, their high-end line of professional Wilson baseball gloves is all over $200 per pair. Rawlings: Rawlings baseball gloves for infield players are available at nearly $400.

Videos

1. Baseball Has A Baseball Problem
(Baseball Doesn't Exist)
2. MLB Baseball's Seasons: 1965
(cacable7)
3. MLB Baseball's Seasons: 1993
(cacable7)
4. I OPENED TOO MANY FREE PACKS IN MLB THE SHOW 22
(DaddyDimmuTV)
5. MLB: Billy (Martin)
(cacable7)
6. All MLB Rookie Team So Far | Just Baseball Show
(Just Baseball Fans)

Top Articles

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Nicola Considine CPA

Last Updated: 10/21/2022

Views: 5243

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nicola Considine CPA

Birthday: 1993-02-26

Address: 3809 Clinton Inlet, East Aleisha, UT 46318-2392

Phone: +2681424145499

Job: Government Technician

Hobby: Calligraphy, Lego building, Worldbuilding, Shooting, Bird watching, Shopping, Cooking

Introduction: My name is Nicola Considine CPA, I am a determined, witty, powerful, brainy, open, smiling, proud person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.