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Lena Blackburne and Baseball’s “ Magic Mud”
By Lynn Whitney
Palmyra, NJ. Maybe you have passed through it on your way to the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge heading for Philadelphia. Blink and you might miss it. And that would be a shame, because hidden in a copse of green leafy trees, is a tiny trail leading to a swimming hole in a tributary of the Delaware River, with mud so thick you could lose a shoe. Just where is this swimming hole? Well, that is top secret. But that mud is magic and it made Lena Blackburne famous.
As a youth, Blackburne played baseball with the Palmyra Field Club. The local boy broke unto the majors in 1910 as an infielder for the Chicago White Sox. He went on to play for the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. To say the least, he was a mediocre player, with a lifetime batting average of .214. In 1927 he switched to coaching. Once again it was not a stellar career with a .427 winning percentage.
So, just what made Lena Blackburne famous? Well, in 1920 Ray Chapman, while playing shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, took a pitch to the head and died. The blame was put on the slick sheen of the leather on new, out-of-the –box, “pearls.” The shiny surface made the ball difficult to grip and, up until then, no substance had been found to remove the shine without damaging the ball or making it too soft. Coaches and Umps began searching for something, anything, to de-gloss the balls. They tried tobacco spit, shoe polish and infield dirt mixed with water. Nothing worked. Overhearing such a conversation, Lena had an idea. He thought back and remembered his favorite swimming hole in Palmyra. That mud, so thick and airtight it could trap your foot and swallow your shoe, just might be the answer.
The next morning, Lena went back to his secret spot and dug up some mud. He filtered out the sticks and rocks and let it settle. When he tried it out he found to his delight, it removed the slickness without creating an odor or discoloring the horsehide and gave the ball a great grip. That spring Lena and his friend John Haas began marketing the “Magic Mud” and everyone wanted it. Business was good. Lena would shovel the mud into buckets, pack it in coffee cans and ship it off for $14 dollars a can, in an age where a regular job paid an average of $40 dollars a week. But, Lena being an American League guy, refused to sell it to the National League. No way, no how. Ten years later he finally relented and began selling to the National League. But the location? Still a secret.
Lena died in 1968, leaving the business to his partner and friend, John Haas. Jim Bintliff , Haas’ grandson, now runs the company. Other companies have tried to market their own “magic mud,” but all have failed. What makes this mud so magic? Does it really matter? In a sport so saturated in superstition as baseball, maybe it shouldn’t be questioned. It works and that’s just the way it is. Today, every MLB team orders a 32 oz. tub for spring training and two additional tubs during the season, at a cost of $75 dollars per tub.
While collecting Lena Blackburne’s Magic Mud is really more of a hobby than a business, Jim Bintliff takes pride in saying, “from the day the pitchers and catchers report to spring training, until the final Game 7 of the World Series, my hands have been on every baseball in kind of a round about way.”
Next time you drive through Palmyra, keep your eyes open!