Interesting If True - Episode 27 - Out In Left Field
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that vies to be your new national pastime now that the nation, and baseball, are dumpster fires.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me is Shea;
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that blowing on the wine in your coffee mug will help convince the rest of the Zoom people that your tea is hot.
This week I learned about a sports.
The world is on fire so I thought I’d pass the time with America’s great pass-time — not letting your own object stupidity get in your way. So I “got into the game” as they say and I started early — late 1800’s early.
You know, when it was about the sport!
Before the league and its helmet rules made everything lame. When manly-men played a manly game then went home to do other, also probably manly, things like build airplanes that don’t fly, starting magazines no one wants, or opining on the nature of reality and how much like Jesus you are. Just baseball stuff.
And so our story begins with Alfred William Lawson being born on March 24, 1869. An amazing event he described as “…the most momentous occurrence since the birth of mankind.” He died November 29th, 1954, about which he said nothing. ‘Cause he was dead.
He was a professional baseball player, aviator, and utopian philosopher… it was before players had twitter. Iono. Of himself Lawson wrote, in the 3rd person because he’s a nutcase,
“his mind responds to every question, and the problems that stagger the so-called wise men are as kindergarten stuff to him. To try to write a sketch of the life and works of Alfred W. Lawson in a few pages is like trying to restrict space itself. It cannot be done.”
And he’s not wrong. It took me nearly three pages to chronicle his various failures.
His baseball career was from 1888 to 1907 when he played… the… ball… position… I guess, perhaps one of the base positions… but, definitely one of the two.
He played for the most appropriately named team ever, the Boston Beaneaters until 1895 when he transitioned to management.
In 1908 he founded the Union Professional League to rival that other league, the… “M”, “L”, something… but it went under a year later because he was broke, baseball is expensive, and no one wanted to play with his weird beans.
Aside from a short, beanie, baseball career Alfred fancied himself an aviator. And by aviator I mean magazine publisher. He started Fly, later renamed Aircraft, and printed interesting articles about the new and exciting world of disobeying gravity until 1914 when the magazine, like his Union league, folded.
He was one of the first people to envision commercial air travel, even coining the phrase “airline.”
Then, the War.
During the war he learned to fly the Sloan-Deperdussin, and the Moisant-Bleriot monoplanes. For what reason, who knows. He also designed three aircraft for the U.S. Military. One became a test craft, another managed to get funding, but the third never left the drawing board because that economy-wrecking Wonder Woman had to go and defeat Ares, allowing the Armistice to be signed, ending the need for newfangled bombers and sending Lawson Aircraft Corporation the way of the dodo, Union Professional Baseball, and yee-oldie aviation magazines.
Undeterred by his track record of not being a super-good leader of industry Lawson began development of the Lawson L-2, an 18-seat commercial airliner that he flew some 2000 miles from Milwaukee to Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo-Syracuse-New york City-Washington, D.C.-Collinsville-Dayton-Chicago and back to Milwaukee creating some real buzz for the development of his 26-seater, the Midnight Liner, and I’m sure the first “what’s with airplane food?” jokes. Interestingly, back in the day everything tasted like boot anyway so most of the punchlines were about dressing your salad in an unpressurized wind tube.
Thanks to his amazingly multi-city tour Lawson raised over a million dollars to build the Midnight Liner. Which he began work on in 1920… yeah. So six years later when the depression eased he was finally able to secure the 100k he needed to begin the work to spend the million dollars of government funding on his amazing new airliner. Which he completed in 1926, loaded with 56 people, and immediately crashed.
And so went the Midnight Liner the way of the dodo, Lawson Aircraft Company, Union Professional Baseball, Fly magazine, and his reputation.
Realizing he was as good at flying as he was at stick-ball Lawson finally invested in his other erstwhile hobby: bullshit.
Lawson became a philosopher and pseudo-religious leader spreading the good Lawsonion word. Because that’s what he called the philosophy and religion he founded, Lawsonomy.
In the Lawsonomy Trilogy, the three books with weird fonts that make up the foundation of his philosophy, teachings on physics, and of course the origins of his Lawsonian religion, he says of his own brilliance, having finally understood the zig-zag-and-swirl, it was apparent that
“About every two thousand years a new teacher with advanced intellectual equipment appears upon earth to lead the people a step or two nearer the one God of everybody”.
Continuing, again about himself in the 3rd person:
“If Lawson should die today, posterity will honor and glorify him as no other mortal, because he has given mankind the true base from which to start an edifice of super-knowledge of the universe and its laws.”
That super-knowledge would, of course, include economics. See, he wanted a system of Direct Credits from the government. To his mind Banks were the root of all evil, especially the Great Depression. So in his world the government issues you credits for the value of land and property. Kind of like money, but not. And if your confused, don’t worry, it’s a tricky topic. As Lawson explains “economics is a side partner of physics…like a couple that can’t be separated.” So you’ll need to take that money and zig it all the way up your zag before you can understand his great theories.
Fortunately, in 1943 he founded the Humanity Benefactor Foundation and the University of Lawsonomy in Des Moines and began offering degrees in “Knowledgian.”
Now, you can be forgiven for not having heard of Lawsononian physics. On a count of it being absurd nonsense or whatever but I think he was on to something.
See, instead of math and science, both of which are tricky—especially when applied to mechanically defying the pull of the Earth—Lawson went with what he called “Natural Law.” Which he said included biology, psychology, and economics. Also energy doesn’t exist.
Without energy to explain movement and so on he based his physics on the concept of “penetrability”, “suction and pressure”, and of course the foundational principle of “zig-zag-and-swirl” a theory which he considered to be on-par with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.
See, when he was a kid he noticed sucking and blowing moved dust in the air. Therefore…
Lawsonic physics were based on principles of “Suction” and “Pressure” acting upon substances. “Substances,” by the way, are everything, ever: air, “other gases,” solids, liquids, “mentality,” heat, cold, light, sound, electricity the “ether of outer space,” and something called “lesether.”
See, our planet swims in the great ether, but lesether, because it’s… wait for it… less dense than ether, it’s called lesether. It’s lowered density creates a suction at the north pole into which all manner of stellar debris falls. Per Lester, lesether is:
“supplied directly by the Sun in currents of various density and also by solid substances which are drawn into the Solar System, such as meteors and other cosmic debris which are dissolved into gases by contact with the atmosphere of the Earth.”
Energy had no place in Lawsonic physics:
“There is no greater load of misconception that Science has ever had to shoulder than the unprovable theory that somewhere, somehow, and in some shape, there exists a substance called Energy that causes movement. No such thing exists anywhere and Science should expunge the fallacy without delay.”
The useful nutrients are absorbed by the planet and it’s life, the rest are flushed out of the planet’s butt, also known as the South Pole. (Interestingly, the poles being the planets mouth and anus was not a new idea, John Cleves Symmes had proposed this nearly 100 years earlier). Lawson even proposed academic expeditions to the planet’s northern, gaping maw to over 500 world leaders, colleges, and intellectual societies. To all of which he attached certifications of his own sanity — a thing all great thinkers do for surezies.
Now that you know what’s up the real excitement can begin. See, as substances achieve maturity, or “equaeverpoise” or “a perpetual movement of matter” you can apply these theories to the human body! Inside the body, equaeverpoise is called “lawonpoise” and with proper raw vegan dieting, good hygiene, rest and exercise, you’ll live to no less than 200 years!
At his school students labored over his grand three books, but also the some 50 supplemental books he wrote which were, of course, the only books allowed to be on campus. They came with titles like MANLIFE, a book he wrote in 1923. Exams were just recitations of his books and were held not by semester… but after the 10 to 20 years he estimated it would take to understand his great mind. And, after 30 years and a handful of passed tests you would be given the title and degree of Knowedgian.
So, I took a look at the books, titled Lawsonomy, Mentality, and Almighty, which have 29, 40, and 23 chapters respectively. The longest of those chapters appearing to be about a page and a half if it were single spaced. Most paragraphs are single sentences, which are themselves almost entirely declarative statements. For example:
Man grows up from seed.
Before I explained PENETRABILITY in MANLIFE in 1923 no one seemed to know the cause of capillary action. The two foregoing paragraphs should clear up that problem for you.
Those paragraphs are:
The menorgs have built in each cell of man a minute suction and pressure pump which acts for the cell as the heart acts for the entire body.
The menorgs have balanced the entire system so well that the combined pull and push of all the cells of the whole body equals the pull and push of the heart’s power plant.
What’s a Menorg? As best as I can surmise, they’re angles. So that’s all terribly confusing. Good thing he’s a professor how eh?
And so the academic life was going well for Lawson, that is until the IRS and a few other federal abbreviations’ investigations shut the school down in 1952. During the investigations, unable to teach, fly, or have other useful skills, he couch surfed around the country living with various “acolytes” because the IRS can’t take what you don’t have I guess.
In 1954 he would be called before the United States Senate for one such investigation.
Basically, the Senate was real curious about why his Benefactory non-profit was buying up post-war weapons, munitions, and machinery and then selling it for a profit. In response he began explaining Lawsonian philosophy until the Senators became so frustrated with the proceedings that they just let him go. Leaving the meeting, Lawson supposedly called the affair “the damnedest thing I’ve ever heard of in all my life.” To which one senator retorted, “I don’t know whether we’re talking about the same thing, but I’m inclined to agree with you.”
The University remained open, but lost its status as a non-profit forcing Lawson to sell it to a developer who turned the site into a stripmall.
Having started and run into the ground a number of careers, businesses, and actual physical objects, Lawson died penniless and not at all Jesus, in 1954.
His legacy is mostly failure and his religion and teaching now little more than a dying cult. In fact, you can see the story of his last disciple, a 90-year-old man named Merle, in a documentary made about the cult called MANLIFE from Cow Lamp Films.
So there ya go. Physics are nonsense, the zigs and the zags are all the matter. And that’s what I know about baseball now.
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We have all heard superstitious stories from the sporting world, from Wade Boggs’ chicken obsession to Serina Williams not changing her socks during a tournament. Now I don’t know if you would consider this a superstition but did you know that every major and minor league baseball game uses the exact same mud to dirty their baseballs before play?
You heard that right, dirty balls… I’m sure there are some baseball fans out there that can quote MLB Rule 4.01(c), which states that all baseballs shall be “properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed,” I am not one of those fans. It turns out a brand new ball has a glossy finish and often pitchers will have a poor grip and occasionally the ball can get away from them. This was true back in 1920 when Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, was killed by a wild pitch to the head. After the tragedy, MLB tried to improve player safety. It needed something that would help a pitcher’s grip without damaging the ball’s surface or dirtying it so much that it would be difficult for hitters to see. Teams tried shoe polish, tobacco juice, dirt. Nothing worked well and more often than not scratched the hell out of the ball.
Photo of Lena Blackburne (center) with Eddie Collins (left) and Ty Cobb (right)
In the 1930s, though, Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne found the answer. He rubbed a baseball with mud found near his childhood home in Palmyra, N.J.—special mud, smooth, almost creamy, gloppy without being especially gooey. It’s a geological thing, Bintliff says: There’s a high clay content in the soil, an oddity for the area, plus brackish water from the tributary mixing with “cedar water” dripping from nearby trees. Perfect conditions exist for only about a mile. Blackburne realized that a single finger dipped in mud would yield enough to spread across an entire ball, removing all of the dreaded shine without discoloring the surface. And, crucially, this mud neither dribbled off nor sat heavy on the cover. Instead, it permeated the cowhide, perfect for improving grip. If you waited just a minute, any lingering muck would fade and it would be hard to tell that the ball had been treated at all—unless, that is, you were the pitcher, who would immediately be able to feel it.
The Special Mud was a huge hit with the Philly A’s and soon other teams were eager to try the mud out. Somehow, this secret special mud exploded in the MLB world and by the 1950’s every major league team was using the same mud form the same secret hole.
And now for nearly three quarters of a century, a special variety of Jersey muck, Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, has been removing the sheen from baseballs for just about every professional baseball team in the country.
Blackburne’s mud business, along with the secret of the mud’s source, was willed to his close pal, John Haas, who had worked with Blackburne on his mud-finding exploits. Haas eventually turned over the enterprise to his son-in-law, Burns Bintliff. Burns in turn passed it on to son Jim and his family.
Each July the Bintliff crew heads a boat out to the “ole mud hole” and scoops up hundreds of pounds of the “Magic Mud”, enough for one season. Then the precious product rests in barrels until the next spring when it’s packed and shipped to each of the major league teams, minor league teams, most independent leagues and many colleges in time for opening day.
It isn’t simply a matter of shoveling the mud and packing it into tins. No, it’s a process—a little art, a little science, plenty of patience. “It’s like wine,” Bintliff says, joking only slightly. Good mud needs to mature. It needs to be cleansed. (“Clean mud,” he’ll have you know, is not a contradiction in terms.) When he brings the stuff back to his house, he first runs it through a strainer, removing any twigs or leaves. Then, it has to sit. Mud is mixed with the right amount of water and deposited into bins the size of trash cans. Over the course of five or six weeks Bintliff will siphon off excess liquid and rerun the mud through the strainer. Finally, the water will have fully drained, and the mud should be ready. It will feel more like cold cream than pudding, with any trace of grit removed. Mix a dollop with a tiny bit of water (or spit, as some equipment managers do), and it will be just perfect for rubbing up a baseball. He used to send it to teams in spray-painted coffee cans, but in recent years he’s made the upgrade to plastic containers with labels.
Bintliff now has a modest backyard, just enough room to fit four mud bins at a reasonable distance from a small patio table. When he married Joanne in 1989, though, they didn’t have any outdoor space. Instead, they had to store the mud inside—and the only space large enough was the laundry room, which, despite the practicality of its tiled floor, is hardly where anyone might want to keep giant containers of mud for weeks at a time.
Mud is not a lucrative business. This might seem self-evident and strange: It’s mud, but it’s an essential piece of a multibillion-dollar business, a feature without which an official baseball game cannot be played. Bintliff makes more money from it than his dad, but that’s not saying much. When Sports Illustrated did a short piece on his father in 1981, each can of mud was $20, and every team ordered two per season. In 2019, a can goes for $100—in keeping with inflation, plus a little extra—and every team orders four. Modern baseball has been kind to Bintliff: More home runs and more foul balls mean using more balls, and each additional one requires additional mud. “Every time we see a foul ball hit, it’s like, cha-ching!” Joanne says.
But you can multiply $100 by 30 teams by four annual cans and see that it’s only around $12,000, not enough to make anyone rich (or even particularly comfortable). Bintliff has worked to expand the business, selling to softball teams and Little League, but this only goes so far. The family has never been able to live on mud alone. For decades Bintliff worked the graveyard shift as a printing press operator and Joanne was a typesetter for the same company. Now, they’re both semi retired; Social Security is enough to pay the rent while mud is enough to cover everything else.
Bintliff plans on retiring soon, and like his ancestors will pass on the legacy to one of his youngest, Rachel. She grew up loving to play in the mud and has always been in it “For the love of the game.”
Maybe it’s a bit early to sell everything in hopes of hitting it big in the mud world but I know of worse jobs than playing in mud pits.
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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