Being that a leap year only comes around once every four years, it seemed a shame to not do a column on an event that took place on one of those days, even given a whole week of days to choose from. Unfortunately, being that a leap year only comes around once every four years, there’s not exactly a wide selection of events.
Feb. 29 can claim the birth of a MVP (Al Rosen), a Rookie of the Year runner-up (Terrence Long) and one of baseball great nicknames (Pepper Martin, known as “The Wild Horse of the Osage”). Tempting though it is to dedicate a thousand words to working out just what being the Wild Horse of the Osage entails, I don’t think it would make for much of a column.
Just as I was losing hope for the bissextile I turned to the rather more macabre section of leap day deaths. Only three players have died on this date, but one, Lena Blackburne is worthy of note.
Blackburne first arrived in the Major Leagues at age 23 as a shortstop for the White Sox in 1910. His nicknamed—Slats—suggests a certain thinness. Despite this, nearly every photo I’ve seen of Blackburn indicates that he wasn’t especially thin but was a champion frowner.
Perhaps the glum expressions come from recalling his hitting during his first year in the majors. Blackburn hit just .174 and managed only four extra-base hits in 275 plate appearances. Even for a shortstop in the deadball era, this was an extraordinarily low total, the fewest by a shortstop who came to the plate that often since 1892.
(The White Sox had a bad run with hitting for power around this time. The year before Billy Sullivan set the record for fewest extra-base hits by a catcher with 300 or more plate appearances.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Blackburne plied his trade outside of the Major Leagues in 1911, played only five games in 1912 and once again was out of the majors in 1913. In 1914 he finally reclaimed the White Sox shortstop job, and responded by dragging his hitting up from “deplorable” to “lousy.”
He moved to third base in 1915 and promptly established a new record for fewest extra-base hits by a third baseman receiving 340 or more plate appearances. With his lack of power now established Blackburne was again out of the majors until 1918. That season he returned with the Reds and while he did manage to leg out ten triples—that equaling his 1910 and 1915 of all extra base hits—he was still not much of a hitter.
Blackburne was finished as a major league player after the 1919 season and spent a few years bouncing around the minors as both player and coach. He returned to the White Sox as a coach in the late 20s. In 1928, he took over as manager and after a respectable showing there (40-40) he was given the chance to manage in 1929, which not go as well (59-93).
Blackburne then moved into coaching with the Philadelphia A’s, where his story would normally end as many old players had, aging gently in baseball as a coach or scout. Fate had bigger plans for Lena Blackburne, however.
As some people know, for many years it was uncommon to use more than one baseball in the course of a game. (I once read an article from the New York Times about a pair of fans who were arrested a Giants game for making off with a foul ball.) After the death of Ray Chapman, which was blamed in no small part on a scuffed baseball that was difficult to see, balls were changed more often.
While this was good for people hoping to not be killed by a pitched ball (which is to say, everyone) it was bad for pitchers. New baseball fresh out of the box had a sheen which made them difficult to grip, and some even suggested they were more dangerous than the scuffed balls which had killed Chapman.
To that end, umpires began rubbing up the balls in order to take the shine off. There are various accounts of what material umpires used for this task. Some say it was a mud made from extra infield dirt and water, while others say umpires used tobacco juice. The latter possibility seems unpleasant beyond words, but the general impression is that umpires used whatever was on hand.
These catch-as-catch-can recipes were effective in taking the shine off the ball, but tended to weaken the cover. This had the unintended side-effect of making the rubbed balls far easier to tamper with, thus negating a good portion of the point of the rubbing.
According to the most popular version of this story, during the 1938 season, an umpire complained to Blackburne—then coaching at third base for the A’s—about the difficulties of rubbing the balls. For reasons lost to history, Blackburne decided to take up the cause. After checking an assortment of mud holes around his home near the Delaware River, Blackburne finally found an acceptable variety.
Bringing this back—described variously as “a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream” and “smooth and creamy, but with a fine grit”—Blackburne rubbed it on the balls and passed them on to the umpires.
They were nearly an instant hit in the American League, and shortly thereafter the National League began using the mud as well. By the time of Blackburne’s death in 1968, using the mud on baseball was common through organized baseball.
Though his family is no longer involved in the company “Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud” is still the official mud used on Major League baseballs. The location of the famed mud hole is kept a secret but curious parties can order the mud ($51.75 for 32 ounces) and “Got Mud?” t-shirts from the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud website.
Had some other clever fellow found a suitable mud earlier, Lena Blackburne might just be the infielder with terrible power. His fate is instead inexorably linked with the mud that bears his name, and is now consistent part of every game of Major League Baseball.