Celebrating Baseball Old-Timer Lena Blackburne

In February I started a project on this blog of asking people to name their favorite obscure baseball figure: it can be a player, manager, umpire, or anyone else employed by pro baseball. My choice is Lena Blackburne, for several reasons. His rubbing mud is the industry standard; his endearing nickname (his real name was Russell Aubrey Blackburne); him getting the White Sox’s first two hits at the real, original Comiskey Park, him pitching for the first and only time in the majors at age 42: that was his last game, in 1929. He hit a single to win a 1927 game when he was 40 and the temporary White Sox manager in place of an ejected Ray Schalk; he died on Leap Day 1968 at 81; he was a baseball lifer, who worked for the Philadelphia and Kansas City A’s, into his 70s, as a scout for the A’s. Lena covered practically the full spectrum of baseball jobs: infielder, pitcher, coach, manager, scout, entrepreneur. He was a baseball man, one of the old-timers who help keep MLB together, and he was also apparently a strong-minded, proud, tough man, which is a nice contradiction of his feminine nickname.

Here’s what Jim Bintliff, who now runs the Baseball Rubbing Mud enterprise Lena started in about 1939, had to say about his character:

“Having only met Lena as a young boy I don’t know a lot of his history. I do know he was a hard nosed German man. Proud and fair, and could be as gentle as he could be tough.

“I was told a story about him walking in a snowstorm one night to get medicine for a sick player on his minor league roster while he was a manager. But I also heard that he sent one player packing for not reacting to every pitch while playing left field. He was a die hard American Leaguer, not even offering to let the National League have his mud until the late 40’s early 50’s. I know he had the first official hit in Cominsky Park.”

Lena Blackburne

Russell (Lena) Blackburne, who died on Leap Day, 1968, spent 1910 through 1919 as a baseball player, but his time in the big leagues was very sporadic: Blackburne was with the White Sox in 1910 for a half-season, in 1912 for five games and one at-bat, came back to Chicago in 1914 and 1915 for full and half seasons, then reappeared with the Reds in 1918. His 1919 was spent with the Braves and Phillies, and with that his big league career seemed over. Blackburne became a coach and manager for the White Sox. He got into a fight with his rookie first baseman, Art (the Great) Shires, in 1928, and got a black eye out of the fight. Shires was hit with a murder charge in Dallas in 1948: he got convicted of something less because the man he’d beaten had other health problems, but still, it sounds like Blackburne was lucky to come away with just the black eye.

But Lena is more important and more interesting than he seems from the statistics. On June 28, 1927, as a White Sox coach, he filled in at manager for the ejected Ray Schalk. In the bottom of the ninth inning, at age 40, Blackburne put himself in the game as a pinch hitter in a 7-6 game against the Indians, with the tying run on second base and one out. As the Associated Press said, “Lena cracked a single which sent Peckinpaugh home from second, tying the score. Hudlin replaced Shaute, and Sheely greeted him with a single, which sent Blackburne to third. Kamm followed with a long fly to Jacobsen, which scored Blackburne with the winning run.”

Then, in 1929, at age 42, Blackburne, who’d spent his entire major league career as an infielder, closed out a game, which I have not been able to identify, by making his debut as a pitcher, getting the last out, giving up a hit as well, but recording a 0.00 ERA that he took to his grave.

Four decades later, when the Associated Press wrote up Lena’s obituary, it noted that he “originated the idea of rubbing mud on new baseballs to remove their slippery finish.” Check out Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud for more information about this invention.