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