Every baseball used by every major league team is coated in mud from the Delaware River.
One of the problems with brand new baseballs is that their clean surface makes them slippery to handle, especially for pitchers. Following the 1920 death of Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman by an accidental pitch to the head, Major League Baseball created rule 3.01c requiring umpires to “remove the gloss” from baseballs before the game, to help improve the pitcher’s grip. Teams tried a variety of methods but had mixed results. Enter Lena Blackburne.
Born in 1886 Pennsylvania, Russell “Lena” Blackburne was a baseball player, coach, and manager. In the 1930s while he was the third-base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics an umpire complained to him about this grip problem and how there wasn’t a good solution. Blackburne went in search of a material that could be applied to new baseballs and he found the answer in mud.
Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud
Blackburne collected mud from the Delaware River near Palmyra, New Jersey (coincidentally, close to where he lived). The exact location is a guarded secret. He took this mud to the Athletics clubhouse and they tried it on baseballs. It didn’t soften the surface of the ball, it didn’t discolor the leather too darkly, it didn’t smell, it provided grip, and the umpires approved.
Lena Blackburne began to sell this mud to teams around the American League – he refused to sell to the National League teams as he was ardent supporter of the American League. After his death in 1968 the Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud company began to sell to the National League and today every team in Major League Baseball uses the product on every baseball.
The Barkley Marathons is an ultramarathon that is “set up for you to fail.”
For runners who find the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles not challenging enough, there is the ultramarathon. An ultramarathon is any race beyond 26.2 miles. Some are a set distance while others are a set time with runners going as many miles as they can within that time.
While all ultras are grueling, some are particularly noteworthy. The Badwater 135 is a 135 mile race going from the lowest point in California to the base of the highest, from Death Valley to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney. The Marathon des Sables (The Marathon of the Sands) is 150 miles of running in the Moroccan portion of the Sahara Desert where runners have to carry their own food & water. Part of the entrance fee also covers the repatriation of your corpse should you die. While there is no real ranking of the most difficult ultras, one that makes every list is the Barkley Marathons.
Set in the rugged hills of Eastern Tennessee, the Barkley Marathons is an annual race where 35 to 40 runners look to run 100+ miles in less than 60 hours. The course is 5 laps around the woods of Frozen Head State Park, up and down the hills of mostly unmarked trails. There is no electronic tracking and participants are not allowed any GPS devices, leaving runners to wayfind by map & compass. To prove you’ve made each full lap you find books in the woods at designated places and tear out the page corresponding to your running bib number. Because of the many hills the total cumulative elevation gain is around 54,000 feet, or 2 Mount Everests in 3 days.
The Barkley Marathons is universally considered one of the hardest races in the world. Most people who start never finish. The temperature changes, the distance, the lack of sleep (the race runs day & night), and the terrain (the hills, the thorns, the uneven ground) all work against you. Founded in 1986 by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, more than half of the races have ended with no-one completing the course. As of 2021 the full race has only been completed 18 times by 15 runners – around a 1.3% completion rate.
The idea for the race came from the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (which is located beside Frozen Head State Park). In 55 hours Ray only made it 8 miles from jail because of the terrain. Cantrell felt that in 55 hours he should have been able to make it 100 miles, and so began the Barkley Marathons.
How and why would you do this?
The registration process to enter the Barkley is a secret. There is no website. Entrants pay a $1.60 entry fee and write an essay on why they should be allowed to participate. First time participants are also required to bring their license plate with them which Cantrell strings together and hangs like a curtain at the starting area. For repeat participants Cantrell requests some article of new clothes that he is in need of (flannel shirts, socks, etc.). Each year one person is allowed to participate who Cantrell knows will almost certainly fail, the “human sacrifice.” This person is given bib number 1.
Why would someone do this? As with running a regular 26.2 mile marathon, or any sort of endurance challenge, participants what to know what they are capable of. For most people winning isn’t the goal (or even an option). You’re in competition with yourself more so than with the other runners. People want to see, when really put to the test, what can they accomplish? What are they made of? The Barkley Marathons sits at the edge of impossibility, giving participants the rare chance to learn about themselves and see what they’re made of.
“If you’re going to face a real challenge it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”
GARY “LAZARUS LAKE” CANTRELL, Barkley Marathons founder
The 1992 Lithuanian mens basketball team had tie-dyed uniforms because they were financially supported by the Grateful Dead.
In 1990 Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union after 50 years of communist occupation. As a new country they had nationwide economic problems and funding their Olympic team was low on the priority list. So to try and raise funds for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Lithuanian basketball star Šarūnas Marčiulionis (who also played for the Golden State Warriors and eventually made the NBA hall of fame) went on a campaign to get sponsors & donors wherever he could. Enter the Grateful Dead.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Marčiulionis and the Lithuanian team was brought to the attention of San Francisco based Grateful Dead who had Marčiulionis come to meet them at their rehearsal space. As drummer Mickey Hart said, “We’re always for the underdog, and this wasn’t just a basketball team. This was a struggle for life, liberty and freedom.” They cut Marčiulionis a check for $5,000 and supplied the team with tie-dyed uniforms in the colors of the Lithuanian flag with a slam-dunking skeleton on the front. When the Lithuanian team made it to Barcelona their tie-dye uniforms were an international sensation. While their actual game uniforms were fairly traditional, they did take the podium to receive their bronze medals (after a symbolic 82-78 victory over their former Soviet team) wearing their Grateful Dead tie-die.
An added bonus: Through the Grateful Dead’s charitable organization, the Rex Foundation, they sold Lithuanian tie-dye shirts to the public, with proceeds going to the Lithuanian basketball team and Lithuanian children’s charities, raising over $450,000. You can still buy a copy from the artist who designed them.
The organ became a part of early movie theaters and then moved over to entertain baseball fans
Hot dogs, the seventh inning stretch, and the organ are all a part of the summertime ritual of baseball. But how did the organ end up in baseball? Organs became a part of baseball game entertainment because, in the early 20th century, organs were played in theaters to provide music for silent films. Since they became associated with entertainment, baseball stadiums eventually took the next step and incorporated the organ into their games. On April 26, 1941, Chicago’s Wrigley Field became the first baseball stadium to feature an organ (and they still feature a live organ, not a digital recording).
A feminist baseball anthem
Probably the most well known baseball song performed on the organ is Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Most teams feature the song (usually just the chorus) during the 7th inning stretch. The song was written in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Jack Norworth & Albert Von Tilzer, neither of whom had ever been to a baseball game. The chorus speaks of the love of the game, but it’s the two verses that bookend the chorus that are groundbreaking.
The song is about a woman named Katie Casey whose young man asks if she wants to see a show, but as a sports fan she would rather go to a baseball game. She’s “baseball mad,” knows the players names, she argues with the umpire from the stands, she leads a chant to raise the home team’s spirits, etc – she does all of this as a woman in 1908. The character of Katie Casey was based on outspoken suffragist Trixie Friganza, a vaudeville star who also in a relationship with Norworth at the time. The early 20th century suffragist spirit of confidence & equality typically associated with politics, is brought into the arena of sports, which was was also traditionally just for men. So while most people know the song’s chorus as an ode to baseball, the full song’s feminist message makes it more important than just a sports song.