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The Last American Baseball Glove Factory

Mar 24, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Baseball is back again. The first games of the regular season were played last week in Tokyo. America's oldest professional sport has grown worldwide and the industry that supports it. But a tiny town in Texas is holding onto one tradition. KERA's Bill Zeeble in Dallas takes us to the factory that's still making gloves in the U.S. for major league baseball players.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: About a hundred miles northwest of Dallas-Fort Worth past pastures of crops and cattle sits Nocona, Texas, population 3,000, home to the Nokona baseball glove factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

ZEEBLE: Inside, stacks of tanned and dyed kangaroo, buffalo and calf skins are piled at one end of the 20,000-square-foot shop.

ROB STOREY: We literally bring leather in through one door. And magically, ball gloves come out the door at the very end - that and about 45 labor operations, then you've got a ball glove.

ZEEBLE: Rob Storey should know. He's Nokona's executive vice president. And this is the family business. To survive the depression, his grandfather Bob Storey added ball gloves to the family's line of leather goods in 1934. Since then, just about every U.S. competitor has moved production overseas. Grandfather Bob, who died in 1980, said he'd rather quit and go fishing than import Nokonas.

STOREY: In some ways, we see it as a competitive advantage because we have people that understand the game of baseball. Our competitors are making them in factories. A lot of those factories - people have never even seen a baseball game or know what it is. Sure, it would be easy to go over there and do something. But that's not who we are. We're not about easy.

ZEEBLE: Nokona and it's 75 employees are about making, marketing and selling their mostly handmade gloves in the town with the same name. The brand honors Comanche chief Peta Nocona. The company couldn't legally use the city's spelling, so Storey's grandfather changed the C to a K. And its been spelled that way ever since. Martin Gomez has been Nocona's master glove turner for 19 years. That's a big deal because every glove is first sewn inside-out.

MARTIN GOMEZ: It's not that hard. No, but it takes some time to learn, to get used to. Like, the first time you start to work, it give you a blister all over your hands. But you get used to it.

ZEEBLE: Storey says Gomez is modest. If he's not careful, he can tear the leather and hand-stitching. Gomez slides a rod in each inside-out finger, pushes it hard against a wooden dowel and turns each leather finger back the right way. First, he sprays leather softener on the inside-out glove. Then, says Storey, he heats it on a 250-degree metal form.

STOREY: It's very critical to do that so that you don't rip out any of the seams while we're going through this process because this process, in some ways, is more difficult on the glove than, actually, the game of baseball.

ZEEBLE: The game of baseball, after all, is what Nokona's all about, even if it's not nearly as well-known as giants like Rawlings or Wilson. In the youth market, though, it's big.

ROBBY SCOTT: I grew up using a Nokona glove. My first glove that I ever really remember was a first baseman's mitt that was a Nokona.

ZEEBLE: That's Arizona relief pitcher Robby Scott. When we first talked long distance, he was with the Red Sox between World Series games. Nokona found him while searching for player endorsements. Scott says there's just something special about it.

SCOTT: I will never wear a different glove. It's a special bond that I have with them. They could have 200 players wearing their gloves. But to me, it seems special because they make it seem like I'm the only one.

ZEEBLE: And, says Storey, Nokona's the only maker he knows of that'll refurbish its old, tattered mitts. He says try that with a glove made overseas.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Nocona, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.