Newequipment 3960 Nokona Glove Grass

Last American Baseball Glove Maker Refuses to Die

Aug. 14, 2017
How is a niche manufacturer of baseball gloves in northern Texas still hanging on? Good ol' American grit.

This little brick factory isn't supposed to be here. It should be in the Philippines, or Vietnam, maybe China. Not here, in the heart of Texas.

Baseball gloves, like many other things, aren't really made in America anymore. In the 1960s, production shifted to Asia and never came back. It might be America's favorite pastime, and few things are more personal to baseball-lovers than their first glove — the smell, the feel, the memory of childhood summers. But most gloves are stitched together thousands of miles away by people who couldn't afford a ticket at Fenway Park.

One company didn't get the memo. Since the Great Depression, Nokona has been making gloves in a small town outside Dallas with a long history of producing boots and whips for cowboys. There's a livestock-feed store next door to the factory, which offers $5 tours for visitors who want to see how the "last American ball glove" is made. You can watch employees weave the webbing by hand, feed the laces through the holes with needles, and pound the pocket into shape with a rounded hammer. The American flag gets stitched into the hide — and that, they say at Nokona, is more than just a business matter.

"Made in America means you believe in our country," said Carla Yeargin, a glove inspector and tour guide at Nokona, where she worked her way up from janitor. "We have the love for the ballglove, because we made it here."

Nokona employs 35 people at its North Texas plant and produces 40,000 gloves annually.

And the final product could cost you 25 times more than a foreign-made version at the local discount store. Yes, that's partly a reflection of the premium nature of the Nokona line but still it represents a huge challenge for the company, as well as for Donald Trump.

"Making it here" is a big deal for the president. Last month Trump staged a week of events to celebrate U.S. manufacturing, showcasing products from Campbell's soup to Caterpillar construction gear. July 17 was declared "Made in America Day."

"Restoring American manufacturing will not only restore our wealth, it will restore our pride," Trump said.

The president loves to use his bully pulpit to advance the cause, but it doesn't always work. Trump threatened Ford over its plan to shift assembly of Focus cars to Mexico — and so the automaker moved operations to China instead. Plus, modern factories rely more on automation than ever, so even if production comes back, it might be done by robots.

There's nostalgia in Trump's rhetoric — critics would call it fantasy. He harkens to a time when the U.S. was the world's biggest manufacturer, and Fords rolled off the assembly line into the driveways of upwardly mobile households.

Some Nokona gloves require 25 pieces and can take up to four hours to make. 

By now, though, "supply chains have been so heavily outsourced that it's no longer possible to buy American for some products," said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who studies advances in manufacturing. "The suppliers don't exist. In some instances, it's too little, too late."

Trump's message also represents a break from the globalization gospel preached by his predecessors, as they pushed for trade deals that would bring emerging giants such as China into the capitalist fold. Offshoring production was seen as acceptable, because it would make American economies more competitive. That, added to cheap imports, would leave the U.S. economy better off.

Economists are waking up to the limits of that logic. Voters have been awake for a while — especially in the Rust Belt towns, hollowed out by industrial decline, which swung last year's election for Trump.

"For 30 years, this country all but neglected any serious challenge to a globalist view of sourcing," Muro said.

Nokona refused to follow the herd.

After the Civil War, ranchers drove longhorn cattle through Montague County to livestock markets in the north. The town of Nocona, located some 100 miles northwest of Dallas and named after a Comanche chief (hence the Native American-in-headdress logo on Nokona gloves), developed a reputation as a leather-goods hub.

The company's name is spelled with a "k" because it was told in the 1930s that the town's name couldn't be trademarked. Today, Nocona is home to about 3,000 people and a few stoplights. "God Bless America" banners line the street, and locals wish you a "blessed day."

Founded in 1926, the company originally made wallets and purses. It was a former Rice University baseball player named Roberts Storey who steered Nokona into ballgloves.

In the early days of baseball, it was considered unmanly to use a glove. Broken bones were common. The first mass-produced gloves had little padding and no fingers. In the 1920s and '30s, companies started producing gloves with a web between the thumb and forefinger, to create a pocket.

The shift to Asia in the 1960s nearly put Nokona out of business. Storey wouldn't budge. "It hit him all wrong that we would have to go to Japan," said his grandson Rob Storey, now the company's executive vice president. "One of his favorite sayings was: 'If I have to tell my employees we're closing up and they don't have jobs any more, I may as well get a bucket of worms and go fishing'."

It hasn't been an easy faith to keep. The company went bankrupt in 2010, but kept producing after a Phoenix-based maker of football gloves bought a majority stake. And cracks are starting to show in Nokona's claim to be all-American. It recently started importing partially assembled gloves from China, made of Kip leather, a luxury cowhide.

Still, 98 percent of its gloves are made at the factory in Nocona. The nutty scent of leather fills the place. In the lobby, samples of the company's work over the decades are displayed on the wall, from wallets to football pads. When you buy a glove, the cashier Helen — who's worked there for 55 years — writes out a receipt by hand.

Making a glove involves about 40 steps and can take four hours. Hides, mostly from Chicago or Milwaukee, are tested for temper and thickness. Workers lower presses onto metal dies to cut the leather. The pieces — some models require 25 of them — are sewn together, joining the inner and outer halves. The product is turned right-side-out and shaped on hot steel fingers. A grease used during World War II to clean rifles is lathered under the pocket, to keep it flexible.

The company emphasizes the craft that goes into each glove, and that's reflected in the bill. Rawlings has gloves for all budgets: Its top-end models cost plenty, but you can get a 9-inch children's version for less than $8. Nokona's equivalent-sized mitt costs $220, and its pro model runs to $500.

Like many made-in America holdouts, they're always going to be niche products. Making them isn't going to generate jobs on the scale Trump wants.

Nokona ships about 40,000 gloves a year, a fraction of the 6.2 million sold annually in the U.S. It employs about 35 people at the Texas plant. Storey won't disclose the privately held company's revenue. "Will we ever be Nike? No." But he says it's profitable. Trump got 88 percent of votes in the county and Storey counts himself a supporter. He welcomes White House support for domestic manufacturers: "It's music to our ears."

It's also hard to compete with the big brands — Rawlings, Wilson, Mizuno — for Major League endorsements. Some companies pay players to use their gloves. Nokona has one superstar admirer: Texan legend and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, whose first glove was a Nokona, and who's appeared in the company's ads. But it only has about a dozen current top-level players signed up.

Up against so many odds, why doesn't Nokona give in and go offshore?

"Because I'm crazy," says Storey. "This is all I know how to do."