Eight months after its headquarters burned to the ground, and years after all its competitors moved overseas, the nation’s last large-scale baseball mitt manufacturer is still in the game.
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DRIVING DOWN U.S. 82 in Nocona, you see a familiar clutter of small-town Texas landmarks: a Dairy Queen, a couple of burger and barbecue joints, an auto parts distributor, some liquor stores, and a flyblown motel. You see something else that looks familiar too: seams of rust, decay, and abandonment. Tumbledown buildings, vacant lots, deserted filling stations, and empty storefronts testify to the town’s 120-year struggle against recession and depopulation. Here in Montague County, 95 miles northwest of Fort Worth, economic annihilation is an ever-present possibility. Of the 33 communities that once existed in this patch of rolling prairie on the Oklahoma border, 26 are now ghost towns, victims of booms that later went bust: cattle, cotton, oil, and leather goods. Against all odds, Nocona , population 3,198, has survived.
So it seemed an especially cruel turn of fate when, on July 18, the town’s main factory, the Nocona Athletic Goods Company, burned to the ground. Worse still, Athletic Goods, as the town calls it, was no ordinary firm. It was an iconic, old-line, family-owned American manufacturer that had been producing baseball and softball gloves and other sports equipment under the legendary “Nokona” brand since 1934. (The difference in spelling is due to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s refusal to allow the name of an incorporated town to be trademarked. Both words refer to Comanche chief Peta Nocona.) Its customers included Nolan Ryan, whose cherished first glove, purchased at age ten, was a Nokona. For many people, particularly in the Southwest, where the company has traditionally sold most of its products, the name conjures dusty, sepia-toned images of old-time ballplayers, of laceless and pocketless gloves, woolen uniforms, and crude baseball diamonds carved from wheat and corn fields. Nocona was the main supplier of ball gloves to American servicemen during World War II, shipping 250,000 a year. In the late forties its gloves were the only ones used by the Fort Worth Cats, of the Texas League. The company made other sports equipment too, mostly various types of balls and football padding. It was instrumental in the development of the elongated football that became the NCAA standard in 1939. Southern Methodist University’s Doak Walker, who won the Heisman trophy in 1948, wore a Nokona leather football helmet.
At the time of the fire, the company was, moreover, the only place left in America that made baseball gloves on a large scale. Larger competitors, like Wilson and Rawlings, had long ago moved their manufacturing to Asia. Nocona Athletic Goods stayed put in north-central Texas, stubbornly refusing to import anything at all and somehow surviving against the onslaught of foreign-made sports equipment. It is to many people living proof—like motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson—that Americans can still build quintessentially American products that can compete with the mass-production houses of Asia. Nokona gloves are, generally speaking, top-of-the-line products, hand-stitched and hand-laced by people who make considerably more than 35 cents an hour. Many are made either wholly or partially from buffalo, a material no other glove maker uses. If you have ever tried on a $275 Nokona buffalo-hide fast-pitch-softball catcher’s mitt, you know that there is nothing in the world that feels or looks like it. Stitched into every palm are the words “The American Glove.”
For all its real and symbolic destruction, however, the great fire at Nocona Athletic Goods was really not the tragic loss it first appeared to be. It was not, in fact, a tragedy at all, for reasons that were not apparent in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The first had to do with the speed with which the company rebounded. While the wreckage of the 60,000-square-foot factory was still smoldering, company president Rob Storey—grandson of Bob Storey, who made the company’s first baseball glove in 1934—announced that his eighty employees would continue at full pay. “Our feeling was, and we told this to everybody at the time,” says Storey, “that the company is not the factory. The company is the employees. And we said we were going to take care of them.”
During the next few weeks, workers scavenged the rubble for the precious “clicker” dies—the molds that they used to cut individual pieces of leather that would be stitched together to make gloves. To everyone’s amazement, they found most of them. Employees showed up for work even though there often was none. To bolster morale, Storey bused them all, with their families, to a Texas Rangers game and gave them each $20 spending money. They built benches and tables for future production and hunted on the Internet for some of the rare and ancient machinery that had been destroyed. They found a temporary location at an old boot factory nearby. They pulled together so well that, to everyone’s astonishment, the company turned out its first glove a mere 51 days after the fire. By November the Nocona Athletic Goods Company was back in business, making gloves and equaling its pre-fire output of 175 a day. By January they were at 200 a day, with 10,000 orders to fill.
But the main reason for hope in Nocona these days is not the plant’s recovery; it’s the truly profound change that has taken place at the company over the past few years, change that was obscured by the news of the fire. The company that had stubbornly resisted moving its production overseas, as it turns out, had been stubborn in other ways too, refusing to market or advertise itself to a wider audience—even refusing to pay for major league player endorsements—and sticking resolutely to its old, hidebound ways of doing business. This intensely conservative, paternalistic, family-driven management style had worked for a long time. After September 11, 2001, it stopped working, the result of a national economic recession and the rise of new competitors. The company was headed slowly but steadily down. And that’s when Storey decided to change everything. At the time of the fire, there were more radically new things going on at Nocona Athletic Goods than anyone had seen in sixty years.
JUST TO THE WEST of Nocona on U.S. 82 is a sign that says “Welcome to Nocona: Leather Goods Center of the Southwest.” This is not, as you might suspect, an exaggeration. Or at least it wasn’t twenty years ago, when the sign was put up. H. J. Justin founded his boot company there in 1889, and by 1910 he was selling his products in 26 states. Following his death, his sons moved the operation to Fort Worth, but his daughter Enid stayed behind and started the Nocona Boot Company. In 1926 Rob Storey’s great-grandfather Cad McCalls launched the Nocona Leather Goods Company, which manufactured purses and belts at first and later the sports equipment that would make the company famous. Over time, more leather goods companies set up shop in Nocona. At its peak, in the early eighties, the local leather industry employed more than eight hundred people.
Those days are long gone, in part because of the brutal ups and downs that plagued the leather goods business in the twentieth century. But the Storeys persevered. They survived the Depression, then managed to stay afloat during the war by grace of the huge government glove contract. In the sixties the biggest names in the business, including Wilson and Rawlings, started moving their glove production to Asia. By the seventies everyone except Nocona was manufacturing ultracheap gloves in China and Japan. “The seventies were tough,” says Storey. “We nearly went under. I remember we had a two-million-dollar loan and could barely pay interest on it.” They cut costs. They survived. In the nineties business boomed again—glove sales rose from 20,000 to 50,000, driven by economic prosperity and also by the new popularity of adult softball leagues. (Gloves accounted then, as now, for 70 percent of the company’s business; the rest is football helmets, pads, and catcher’s gear.) Then, after 9/11, adult softball leagues virtually disappeared. (No one knows exactly why, though Storey believes it may have been a combination of the recession and the onset of tougher DWI laws around the country. As anyone who’s ever played in such a league well knows, beer drinking is an important part of the fun.) Business crashed as glove sales slumped and a host of new competitors, including Adidas, Nike, and Reebok—all making products cheaply in Asia—flooded into the market.
For the first time in the company’s history, according to Storey, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. “The credo of my granddad was ‘Never import,’” he says. “I stayed with that as long as I could. But we were stagnating and not growing. We sold helmets, catcher’s gear, chest protectors, masks, all made here, but no one wanted new shoulder pads at the prices we had to charge. In 2001 we had our first layoffs ever.” The time had come to do the unthinkable. That year Storey took a trip to Asia that convinced him that he needed to break with tradition. He began first to import his football equipment, and then added a low-end line of baseball gloves ($20 to $100), sold under the brand name Team Nokona. In 2002 the company began to sell bats too, both traditional wooden ones from Pennsylvania and composites from Asia. The idea was to boost profits so that Storey could sustain the company’s core business: high-quality, high-dollar, American-made gloves.
That was just the beginning. The next revolution at Nocona Athletic Goods came in 2005, when the Storey family owners—ten in all—sold 50 percent of the company to a syndicate of 35 investors from Boston and the surrounding area led by a baseball buff and marketing maven named Buddy Lewis. The company now had millions of dollars to do what it hadn’t done in more than fifty years: aggressively market and advertise its product.
“When I first saw this company, I felt it was a marketing guy’s dream, a hidden gem,” says Lewis, who now holds the title of managing director (Storey is president). “They just did not have the human and financial resources to unlock the best-kept secret in sports.”
Lewis, working closely with Storey, did not waste time. “We had a well-defined strategy and marketing plan, and now we had the funds to do it,” he says. Nocona Athletic Goods launched major promotions with four big-league teams, accompanied by radio and TV advertising, something it had never done before. In Philadelphia, for example, the Phillies run a “catch of the day” promotion at the stadium, in which a fan who has caught a foul ball is presented with a Nokona glove by the Phanatic, the team mascot. (This year the Nokona brand will be affiliated with the Rangers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Atlanta Braves, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Boston Red Sox, and the Phillies.) A Mexican joint venture called Nokona Mexicana was started up, which will export American-made gloves to the Mexican minor leagues. (They will also sell the lower-priced Asian starter gloves.) Major leaguers Todd Walker, of the Padres, Ryan Franklin, of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Jorge Cantú, of the Devil Rays, are now paid endorsers, and at least seventy minor league prospects have signed endorsement contracts. The company has plans to export its American-made gloves to Japan and Israel and to produce gloves in the Dominican Republic for sale there. Four “glovemobiles” have been dispatched across America to baseball and softball tournaments and other venues to push the gloves. “We’re doing things we never imagined doing,” says Storey, referring to his recent, large expenditures on advertising and promotion. “I sometimes say to myself, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”
What they are doing is globalizing their business on their own terms. And it’s working. At the time of the fire, sales at Nocona Athletic Goods were on track to double from the previous year. And as the company’s production continues to increase, the lost factory seems more and more like just a bump in the road. In the temporary plant you can see evidence of yet more new ideas: workers turning out “baby’s first glove”—pink and blue mitts that arrive partly assembled from China and are finished off in Nocona. They cost $75 apiece, and Storey says that Christmas business was strong. You can also see the company’s radical new wood-composite bat from Canada, one that Lewis and Storey say is unique to the market. “We tried it at Texas Christian and Boston College,” says Lewis. “And you can’t seem to break it.”
Storey figures that a new plant built on the site of the old factory will cost him around $2 million. It could be in production by 2008. If he gets his way, the place will have a museum too, a place where folks can go to see University of Texas hero Jack “Jackrabbit” Crain’s leather helmet from 1941; the Billy Hunter signature model Nokona glove from the 1951—1952 Fort Worth Cats; an antediluvian-looking model from the Depression era with no laces and primitive straps between the thumb and first finger; a two-fingered glove from the late thirties; Tony York’s (brother of baseball great Rudy York) Nokona glove from the Texas League of the thirties and forties. Part of the charm of such pieces is that they are obscure relics of the American heartland. That description once fit the Nocona Athletic Goods Company. Storey and his stalwarts are determined to outgrow it.