March 2, 2021

Lena Blackburne’s Playing Days

December 7, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

I first remember hearing of Lena Blackburne several years ago, when Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs went over to New Jersey to gather some river mud with Jim Bintliff, the head of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. But his name only stuck in my mind last year, when I saw his name on a list of ballplayers who’d died on a Leap Day (February 29, 1968 in Lena’s case). I eventually got interested enough in Lena to research some articles on him and write to Jim Bintliff for his input as well, and you’ll read what I’ve found below. Since the story of the Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud enterprise has been told already here, on that Dirty Jobs episode, and elsewhere, this article’s focus is on Lena himself: his baseball career, his personality, his life.

Russell Aubrey Blackburne, to provide his given name, spent 1910 through 1919 as a major league baseball player, shifting from shortstop to second to third, and hitting with only occasional success. But his time in the big leagues that decade was very sporadic: Blackburne was with the White Sox in 1910 for a half-season’s worth of games, including the first one at Comiskey Park: he had the Sox’s first two hits there. Lena was with the Sox again in 1912 for five games and one official at-bat. Lena came back to the Sox in 1914 and 1915, then reappeared in the majors with the Reds in 1918. He must be one of very few to have played in the 1910s for both the Reds and the White Sox, but only in the years before they met for the Black Sox Series of 1919. He spent that year with the Braves and Phillies, and that seemed to be the end of his big league career.

In the ’20s Blackburne went on to play and manage in the minors, then become a coach with the White Sox in ’27. Lena was promoted to manager in place of the fired or resigning Ray Schalk in mid-1928; in mid-May of ’29 he got into a fight with his rookie first baseman, Art (the Great) Shires. Lena came out of it with a black eye. Shires was hit with a murder charge in Dallas in 1948: he got convicted of something less because the man he’d beaten to death had other health problems, but still, it sounds like Blackburne was lucky to come away with just the black eye. (You can read much more about Lena and The Great Shires here.) After getting fired at the close of the ’29 season (the Sox were 59-93 that year), Lena’s big league managing days were over. He spent most of the ’30s and ’40s, and first half of the ’50s, coaching and scouting with the Philadelphia and Kansas City A’s.

But Lena’s playing career did not end with the ’10s. 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 at Fenway against the Red Sox by making his debut as a pitcher. Unlike 1927, this appearance was no strategic maneuver. The Chicago Tribune headline for that June 5 game: “Even Blackburne Pitches and White Sox Lose.” The Tribune: “The White Sox are no longer comical: they are pathetic. They reached this stage today when the tail end Boston club knocked them about like a flock of tin soldiers, a sight so irritating to Manager Lena Blackburne that he himself took up the pitching burden in the eighth to put a stop to a hitting riot that had gotten beyond the control of Dan Dugan.” Lena had very good reason to be upset, as the Red Sox, playing out an atrocious decade, were only 13-29 after the win; the Pale Hose weren’t much better: 16-31. 1929 would be the start of a very bad six-year stretch for the ChiSox.

On June 5, the score was 9-2 coming into the eighth, but “the Boston hosiery registered eight more [runs] on a series of fly balls that fell just out of the reach of everybody. After two were out and six Boston runs in, Blackburne, who had warmed up by throwing a few to Crouse in the dugout, decided to take the bull by the horns. He faced Rothrock, who singled, scoring two, and the round ended when Rothrock was cut down trying to stretch his hit into a two bagger.”

Lena then lifted himself for pinch-hitter Buck Crouse when the ChiSox came up in the ninth. His brief turn on the mound left Lena with an undeserved 0.00 ERA that he took to his grave. (Lena had at least acquitted himself much better than Jose Canseco, also pitching at Fenway, would 64 years later, on May 29, 1993.) Lena was 42 years and seven months old, and you wonder if he’s the oldest man to make his first-ever pitching appearance in an MLB game. I like to speculate that somehow his time at Fenway on that late spring day had some influence on the creation of his rubbing mud a decade later: that Lena suddenly realized the importance of pitchers having a solid grip on the ball as he watched Rothrock single off his misthrown fastball or curve; but I doubt anything like that happened.

When I wrote to Jim Bintliff in February to ask if he had any insights on Lena (such an endearing nickname!), he explained that “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 diehard American Leaguer, not even offering to let the National League have his mud until the late 40’s or early 50’s. I know he had the first official hit in Comiskey Park.

“He was a childhood friend of my grandfathers, and they played semi-pro football together in Palmyra NJ. And there are differing stories about his nickname ‘Lena.’ One news account credits him with giving Dean the nickname ‘Dizzy.'”

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a blog assembling eclectic items about baseball’s history, and 1995 Mariners.

Comments

3 Responses to “Lena Blackburne’s Playing Days”
  1. Brian Cooper says:

    In researching biographies of Red Faber and Ray Schalk , I found a game in which Blackburne might have cost pitcher Faber, then a rookie, a no-hitter against the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Athletics. On June 17, 1914, in Chicago, with nobody out in the ninth inning, Jack Lapp beat out a grounder to Blackburne. According to wire service accounts, Blackburne waited back for the ball instead of charging the grounder, and Lapp barely beat his throw. That was the game’s only hit.

  2. Arne says:

    By the way, Satchel Paige was also 42 when he made his MLB debut, but Lena was a few months older. Also, Lena apparently had at least three nicknames: Lena, Slats, and Bearcat, which is what the coverage of the first game at Comiskey Park called him.

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  1. […] 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 […]



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