About 100 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, one of the only baseball glove factories left in the United States.
Inside, there are stacks of tanned and dyed kangaroo, buffalo and calfskins piled at one end of the 20,000-square-foot one-story shop. "We literally bring leather in through one door and magically, ball gloves come out the door at the very end," says Rob Storey, Nokona's executive vice president.
"That, and about 45 labor operations, and you've got a ball glove."
Storey should know — this is the family business. To survive the depression, his grandfather, Bob Storey, added baseball 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.
Rob Storey says, these days, being the nation's only baseball glove maker in continuous operation for 85 years gives Nokona a competitive advantage: "Because we have people that understand the game of baseball. Our competitors are making them in factories. [In] 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."
Nokona and its seventy-five employees make, market and sell their mostly handmade gloves in the town with 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 it's been spelled that way ever since.
At about the midway spot on the factory floor, Martin Gomez is busy turning gloves, something he's done for 19 years. It's a big deal because every glove is first sewn inside-out, and Gomez is considered a master.
"It's not that hard," says Gomez. "It takes time to learn, to get used to. Like the first time you start to work, it gave me a blister all over my hands, but you get used to it."
Storey says Gomez is modest. If he's not careful, he can tear the leather and hand-stitching. Fast, practiced, yet efficient, 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.
"It's very critical to do that," says Storey, "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 the game of baseball."
The game of baseball, after all, is what Nokonas are all about, even if the brand is not nearly as well-known as sporting goods giants like Rawlings or Wilson. In the youth market though, it's big.
"I grew up using a Nokona glove," recalls major league pitcher Robby Scott. "My first glove that I ever really remember was a first baseman's mitt that was a Nokona."
We first talked to Arizona relief pitcher Scott when he was with the Red Sox between World Series games — the Sox would go on to win the series. Scott says there's just something special about Nokona: "I will never wear a different glove," he says. "It's a special bond 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."
And, says Rob Storey, Nokona is the only maker he knows of that will refurbish its old, tattered mitts.
He says that doesn't happen with gloves made overseas.
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