The ol’ ballgame

The Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, started as a way for hardcore baseball fans to “foster the study of baseball as a significant American social and athletic institution,” as well as “establish an accurate historical account” of the national pastime. Put another way, it’s an excuse for seamheads to geek out on the sport—and, constructively, preserve and celebrate its rich past.

I became a member while writing Montana Baseball History and, since then, have become more and more involved with a few of SABR’s committees. Mainly, this includes editing bios for the SABR Bio Project (since co-author Jeremy Watterson spearheaded including all the Montana guys) and transcribing some of the old interviews for the Oral History Collection.


Left to right, Eddie Collins, Lena Blackburne and Ty Cobb.

This work can get pretty wonky if you’re more a casual fan, but I love it for the tiny details, the personal tribulations, the hidden gems found in the margins of the game. For example, one bio I had the pleasure of working on covers the story of  “Lena” Blackburne. Lena received his nickname because the lanky pitcher first played in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the local fans called him “Leaner.” Due to their heavy accents, “Leaner” became “Lena,” and thus the guy’s name for the rest of his career.

But here’s an even better detail: Blackburne didn’t earn a place in baseball lore for his play in the field nor his managerial prowess. Rather, Lena impacted the game most because of … mud. Yes, mud. New baseballs are slick and back in the day teams would employ their own combination of tobacco juice, dirt, sandpaper, whatever to help scuff up the balls for a better feel. In the late 1930s, as a coach on Connie Mack’s staff for the Philadelphia Athletics, Lena dug up some mud from the creek out back on his New Jersey property, added a secret ingredient that gave it a better consistency and wouldn’t leave a stain, and used it on the new balls. It went over so well that other teams started to notice and asked if they too could use Lena’s mud. Soon, everyone in the league was purchasing the stuff from Pennsauken Creek. To this day teams still use it.



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