Opening Day 2013: Baseball

Yes! Just a week away now! Baseball season officially begins on Monday, May 1. I cannot wait. And since I cannot wait, it seemed the perfect time to do a few posts about the science involved in baseball.

For instance. Did you know that every single ball in major league play is rubbed with mud from one place? Yes. I kid you not. Lena Blackburne MudThe mud is called Lena Blackburne Original Baseball Rubbing Mud. It is named for Lena Blackburne, the baseball third base coach for the old Philadelphia Philly’s who found just the right mud on the Delaware River. Where? No way anyone is going to tell you. And yes, I have personally spoken to the Mud Guy. He really does go out there and harvest the mud each year. I have some of the mud. It looks like regular mud, but rub it on a brand new baseball and it leaves the ball spotless while making it easier to grip.

Mud is necessary for a scientific reason having to do with control of the ball and aerodynamics. When a ball is new, it is slick and difficult to manage. If a pitcher needs to position his fingers in a certain way to throw his favorite pitch, it is nearly impossible to do with a reasonable degree of certainty. For years before the Lena Blackburne mud, players used to rough the ball up with whatever they had on hand – from spit to mud to hair gel. Anything that would give the ball a surface that made it easier to throw or hold on to than an ice cube.

Player attempts to alter the surface of the ball resulted in dirty, misshapen, barely discernible lumpy balls rushing toward the batter. It became clear that something had to be done about the players attempts to render the super-slick balls more manageable in 1920 when Yankee pitcher Carl May threw a fastball that bounced off Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman’s skull with the resounding crack of a pitch well hit. Chapman reportedly took two steps toward first before dropping to the ground. Skull crushed, he died twelve hours later.

From that day on, the umpire inspects the ball frequently to be certain there are no mars or nicks, or substances, on the surface of the ball. So how do they make the ball less slick? Lena Blackburne mud. It’s the only mud that doesn’t stink up the ball or change its shape. With this mud, the pitcher is able to take advantage of the Magnus Effect as the ball races toward the batter.

So now you know what a slick baseball and secret mud have to do with baseball and science!

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