The start of a new Major League Baseball season is upon us, marking a tradition that goes back to May 4, 1869, when the world's first professional ball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, took the field at Ohio's Union Grounds to play the Great Westerns in an historic event witnessed by thousands. The club that later became the Cincinnati Reds won 45-9 and rolled up a perfect 57-0 record, capping it off with a 17-8 victory over the Mutuals of New York on a chilly November day.
This year, the grand old game opened on March 25 in Tokyo, with the Boston Red Sox defeating the Oakland Athletics 11-7 before 44,628 fans. By season's end, 2,430 games will have been played drawing as many as 80 million spectators. Odds makers have the Sox meeting the New York Mets in the World Series, giving both teams 9:2 odds of winning it all. But don't count out the Detroit Tigers (11:2) and New York Yankees (13:2), or for that matter, the Los Angeles Angels (11:1), Chicago Cubs (12:1), Cleveland Indians (14:1), Arizona Diamondbacks (16:1), and Philadelphia Phillies (20:1). The odds against the Baltimore Orioles are 200:1, with the Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates faring only slightly better (150:1).
Baseball, then and now, is a game of facts, figures, and numbers, which makes for stimulating conversation, especially among the analytically minded. Consider, for example, the game ball, defined as a “sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber, or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together.” The rules say the ball must weigh between 5 and 5¼ ounces and measure 9 to 9¼ inches in circumference.
Home teams are responsible for supplying the balls and must have 90 on hand for each game. Before a baseball is ready for play, however, it must be hand polished with a special rubbing compound. Since the 1950s, all major league clubs have used the same natural substance, a dark, soft mud that comes from the banks of a tributary along the Delaware River in New Jersey. The exact location is closely guarded by Jim Bintliff, owner of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, a company named after its founder who discovered the mud in the 1930s. At the time, Blackburne was a third-base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics and had been looking for something better than infield dirt to take the shine off baseballs and make them easier to grip.
The mud harvesting process was recently featured on the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs. Every July, Bintliff goes to the secret spot and digs up 1,000 pounds of the messy substance to sell the following season. He used to make the trip by boat, but has recently found a path through the woods that makes the job easier. The mud is sold in various quantities, starting at $2.99 for a trial size that polishes a dozen balls and ending with a 32-ounce “professional” tub that sells for $45.
Nick Zibelli, director of umpiring for the Eastern College Athletic Conference, says technique is very important when it comes to polishing baseballs. A dab of mud, moistened with water, is rubbed over the leather but not the seams. “If you don't apply it uniformly, the pitcher can't get the proper grip,” he adds. And if the pitcher doesn't like the feel, the ball is thrown out.
It's no wonder, then, that the average lifespan of a baseball in a major league contest is just six pitches. In a typical nine-inning game, that translates to five or six dozen balls, which at $3 per ball, works out to around $200 a game and $486,000 a season. That's more than the original cost of Chicago's Wrigley Field ($250,000) and Boston's Fenway Park ($420,000).
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