Pitcher Max Surkont once said “Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously — if it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball”. I’m not sure about javelins, but this much I know. It’s a lot of fun to watch a home run, hit out of the park.
The New York Yankees hit 267 home runs last year, breaking the single-season record held for twenty-one years, by the Seattle Mariners. But that’s not always how the game was played. The “Hitless Wonders” of the 1906 Chicago White Sox won the World Series with a .230 club batting average. Manager Fielder Jones said “This should prove that leather is mightier than wood”. Fielder Allison Jones. That’s the man’s real name. If that’s not the greatest baseball name ever, it’s gotta be one of the top ten.
This was the “dead-ball” era of the Major Leagues, an “inside baseball” style relying on stolen bases, hit-and-run plays and, more than anything, speed.
That’s not to say there were no power hitters. In some ways, a triple may be more difficult than a home run, requiring a runner to cover three bases in the face of a defense, still in possession of the ball. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen “Chief” Wilson set a record 36 triples in 1912. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford hit a career record 309 triples in 18 years in Major League Baseball, playing for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit tigers from 1899 to 1917. 100 years later, it’s unlikely that either record will ever be broken.
In his 1994 television miniseries “Baseball”, Ken Burns explained that “Part of every pitcher’s job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field… They smeared it with dirt, licorice, and tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred… and as it came over the plate, [the ball] was very hard to see.”
Spitballs lessened the natural friction with a pitcher’s fingers, reducing backspin and causing the ball to drop. Sandpapered, cut or scarred balls tended to “break” to the side of the scuff mark. Balls were rarely replaced in those days. By the end of a game, the ball was scarred, misshapen and entirely unpredictable. Major League Baseball outlawed “doctored” pitches on February 10, 1920, though it remained customary to play an entire game with the same ball.
The first ever game to be played “under the lights” was forty years in the past in 1920, but the practice would not be widespread, for another fifteen years.
Late afternoon on August 16, the Cleveland Indians were playing the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman took the plate in the top of the 5th, facing “submarine” pitcher Carl Mays.
A submarine pitch is not to be confused with the windmill underhand pitch we see in softball. Submarine pitchers throw side-arm to under-handed, with upper bodies so low that some scuff their hands on the ground, the ball rising as it approaches the strike zone.
It seems Chapman didn’t see it coming. He never moved. The crack of the ball hitting Ray Chapman’s head was so loud that Mays thought he had hit the end of the bat, fielding the ball and throwing to first for the out. Wally Pipp, the first baseman best known for losing his starting position to Lou Gehrig because of a headache, knew something was wrong. The batter made no effort to run but simply collapsed, slowly dropping to the ground with blood streaming out of his left ear.
29-year-old Ray Chapman had said this was his last year playing ball. He wanted to spend more time in the family business he had just married into. The man was right. Raymond Johnson Chapman died 12 hours later, the only player in the history of Major League Baseball, to die from injuries sustained during a game.
The age of one-ball-per-game died with Ray Chapman, and with it the era of the dead ball. The lively ball era, had begun. Batters loved it, but pitchers struggled to come to grips, with all those shiny new balls.
MLB rule #3.01(c) states that “Before the game begins the umpire shall…Receive from the home club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home club by the league president. The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game”.
Umpires would “prep” the ball using a mixture of water and dirt from the field, but this resulted in too-soft covers, vulnerable to tampering. Something had to take the shine off the ball without softening the cover.
Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne took up the challenge in 1938, scouring the riverbanks of New Jersey for just the right mud. Blackburne found his mud hole, describing the stuff as “resembling a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream”. By his death in the late fifties, Blackburne was selling his “Baseball Rubbing Mud” to every major league ball club in the country, and most minor league teams.
In a world where classified information is kept on personal email servers, there are still some secrets so pinky-swear-double-probation-secret that the truth may Never be known. Among them Facebook “Community Standards” algorithms, the formula for Coca Cola, and the Secret Swamp™, home of Lena Blackburne’s Baseball Rubbing Mud.
There’s an old joke here on Sunny Cape Cod™, that we have four seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and Bridge Construction. As we gaze out on the frozen tundra longing for that first crocus of Spring, one thing is sure. The first pitchers will show up to the first spring training camp, a few short days from now. Every baseball thrown from pre-season to the 2019 World Series, will first be de-glossed with Lena Blackburne’s famous, Baseball Rubbing Mud.