Baseball player Don Larson pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. To better grip the ball, he likely relied on an ingredient from the Delaware River.
The introduction of rubber-coated cork as the core of baseballs in the early 1910s resulted in an even livelier ball. An earlier experiment with a plain cork center was not successful because the wool yarn swelled after the ball was made.
Wily pitchers found ways around the benefits to batters of these lively balls. They increased their use of so-called freak deliveries, including spitballs and scuffballs, until the league outlawed the use of such doctored deliveries in 1920.
That ban on applying substances to–or otherwise changing the surface of–balls coincided with a seemingly inadvertent change in the baseballs themselves. The availability of finer, more resilient wool yarns, which had been going to the war effort, and improvements in the machinery used to manufacture the balls resulted in a tighter wound, still livelier ball.
During the 1921 season, pitchers complained that they couldn’t get a good grip on the shiny, slick, undoctored surface. Umpires began rubbing the balls before games, a practice that continues today. MLB’s official game-ball preparation calls for umpires to rub the balls with Lena Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud, which one representative of the Major League Umpire’s Association describes as smooth and creamy, but with a fine grit. The composition of the mud is a closely held proprietary secret, but the base ingredient is known to be mud from a specific site in a tributary of the Delaware River.
Visit “What’s That Stuff” to read more about the process of making baseballs.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 1999 American Chemical Society