Though it may seem as though every baseball field is created equal, the battlegrounds of America’s favorite pastime are anything but. From local to minor to major, every field has its own unique personality. And whether it’s outfield dimensions or infield dirt, the nature of baseball stadiums have shifted throughout the years – changing to not only meet the needs of their players, but the cities that house them.
Before that, however, there’s one of the sport’s most important and expertly maintained components: dirt.
So what exactly is infield dirt?
The Short Answer…
A specially crafted blend of sand, silt, and clay.
The long answer… is a bit more complicated. Though the exact composition of Baseball diamond ‘dirt’ varies with location and climate, it’s usually a mix between 60-70% sand, 20-30% clay, and 10-20% silt.
When the sport first started, baseball diamonds consisted primarily of clay. However, on bright days, the sun would dry the clay out and make the field as hard as a rock. Similarly, if it rained, the fields would turn into a liquid nightmare.
So the numbers had to be adjusted.
Today, the dirt on a baseball field is so specialized that you’ll find different compositions across the diamond, from home plate to the pitcher’s mound. Each combination is designed to work to the player’s’ advantage – more clay on the pitcher’s mound so it stays firm when balls are thrown, thicker grains on the base paths for traction, even looser sand for sliding.
There’s a science involved in infield dirt that goes beyond basic maintenance.
Which may be why so many stadiums are so particular about where their ‘dirt’ comes from.
The answer? New Jersey. Currently, most major league clubs import a sports dirt mix called Beam Clay, made by Partac Peat Corp, which contains both red clay and orange sand from the garden state.
But this isn’t the only dirt they’re importing.
The Magic of River Mud
As anyone that’s played baseball or has a passing familiarity with the sport may know, rubbing dirt on a brand new ball is a common practice. And while it may seem a bit superstitious, coating a new ball with a mix of dirt and water has a higher purpose – traction.
Yet, the major league teams go a bit further.
Since the 1950s, every major league team has smeared their balls with mud from a secret location along the Delaware River in New Jersey. A location first discovered in the 1930s by one man, Lena Blackburne. Blackburne was a third-base coach for the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball team and discovered the undisclosed tidal tributary when he went home for a break.
After introducing this distinctive mud to the league, he passed the business, and the classified area, onto a friend – Mr. Burns Bintliff.
To this day, the Bintliff family remains in charge of the gathering and distribution of the mud. Going each summer to collect around 1,000 lbs of the soil to be stored over the winter and sold the next season.
Yet this isn’t where baseball’s ties with dirt end.
Welcome to the Hall of Fame
If you’ve ever gone to the beach on vacation and brought home a bottle of sand, you get the concept of wanting a memento beyond the typical tourist t-shirt. And though you may at some point question why you decided to keep such an unremarkable artifact, it’ll always serve as a reminder of a place and a time.
And more than that – be an actual piece of it.
The Baseball Hall of Fame takes a similar approach, immortalizing infield dirt from historic stadiums and events alike. Within its walls you’ll find dirt from places like the old Comiskey Park in Chicago as well as soil from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues.
You can even find residuals of all the fields Babe Ruth conquered stuck to the spikes of his shoes.
So the next time you find yourself in the stands or out on the field, take just a moment to admire the craft behind the earth beneath your feet.