The pitcher steps off the mound and holds the ball in his pitching hand, lifting it above his head and flicking his wrist toward home plate. He doesn’t toss it, though. Instead, he holds onto it, signaling to his catcher and the umpire that he wants a new baseball. This one just doesn’t feel right.
Once the umpire obliges him, they make the exchange — sometimes with a simultaneous soft toss, two horsehide orbs on similar high arcs from pitcher to catcher, from umpire to pitcher. The hurler gets his new baseball, then tucks his glove under his arm, freeing the hand inside to join the other wrapped around the baseball. He gives the ball a few rubs and twists in his palms and he’s ready to go.
In Little League, that new baseball would be pristine, as perfectly white as a sheet of paper. It’d be slick to the touch, making it all the more important to have a firm grip on the laces when making throws from the field or the mound. But in professional baseball, that “new” ball has already been soiled. It’s been taken from its box and rubbed in mud, usually by the umpires before the game.
The most fascinating bit of this little-known aspect of the game is that not only are the baseballs themselves licensed and approved by Major League Baseball, but so is the mud.
And that mud comes from one place: New Jersey.
At the other end of the state from Hoboken, where the first professional game was played, somewhere on the banks of the Delaware River, Lena Blackburne stumbled upon some mud while fishing. He took it back across the river to Philadelphia, where he was a coach for the A’s, and dirtied up some baseballs.
Now his name adornes the tubs of official mud in every major league equipment room: Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. It sounds like something concocted by a barnstorming con man in the 1800s. “STEP RIGHT UP, FOLKS, AND GET THE SALVE THAT WILL RELIEVE ALL YOUR PAIN!! LENA BLACKBURNE’S RUBBING MUD!!”
New Jersey may not have any major league ballparks in the state, but every team has a bit of New Jersey in its ballpark.