Thursday, August 17, 2017

Baseball Gloversville

I’ve driven through Upstate New York, on I-90, many times, and one of the towns you pass through is Gloversville, once the home to the American glove making industry. Not all American gloves were made there. The same interstate passes through Amsterdam, NY, and – although I’m not sure it’s still in operation – you can still see the Fownes glove factory from the Thruway.

Driving through and around Upstate (and through parts of New England) you get to see all the evidence you need to of the rise and fall of American manufacturing. We used to make things in America. Now we don’t so much. Which is not to say that there is no manufacturing here. There’s plenty. It’s just that a lot of the everyday objects we take for granted are made elsewhere. Like shoes. And clothing. Gloves. And baseball gloves.

I played baseball as a kid. The boy: girl ratio in my neighborhood was skewed towards boy; we were one of the only families on our street that was majority girl. So if you wanted to play with the pack of kids running around the ‘hood, you ended up playing a lot of “boys’” games. Like baseball.

But I never owned my own glove.

Not that you needed one.

As long as there were enough gloves to go around, so that the team in the field was gloved, it really didn’t matter whose glove you used.

But my brothers, who played Little League (and, one of them, beyond: Babe Ruth, Legion, high school), always had their own gloves, starting with some flat little kindergarten starter glove that one of them had when he was really little – it looked like something out of the dead ball era; something Nap Lajoie might have worn – and moving on up to the “real” gloves you needed to play “real” ball. Which, of course, you outgrew. So we had plenty of mitts around the house over the years.

I remember my brothers breaking in their new gloves, a process that involved sticking a ball in the pocket of the glove, folding the glove over it, and wrapping some rubber bands around it. Once the rubber bands were off, they sat around punching their fist into the center of the glove, to make it more supple.Then there was something to do with oiling a glove. Not quite sure what that entailed. I’m guessing that a nine year old didn’t exactly do a bang-up job with it, although my father, of course, would have known just what to do. He was a ballplayer from way-back.

I can’t remember what brands those gloves were – Spalding? Wilson? Rawlings? Whatever they sold at Western Auto, I suppose.

But I don’t remember ever hearing the name Nokona until I saw an article on it on Bloomberg the other day.

Nokona, as it turns out, is the last baseball glove that’s actually made in America. Spalding, Wilson, Rawlings. They all still market gloves. They just make them in baseball happy (not!) places like the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, where they’re:

…stitched together thousands of miles away by people who couldn’t afford a ticket at Fenway Park. (Source: Bloomberg)

All this was oversea-ing was happening in the 1960’s. (Thanks, Obama!) But:

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.”

Well, I’m not going to get into it with Carla, but it is actually possible to believe in your country without believing that everything needs to be Made in America. That said, it might have been nice if we’d given some thought to what the folks who lost their jobs to offshoring were going to do with themselves. Maybe we’ll get it right before all the remaining factory jobs are automated.

Nokoma ball gloves are made with an exacting process made up of about 40 steps that take about 4 hours to complete. The end product is pretty high end:

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. 

I don’t know who’d pay $220 for a glove for a little kid, but I’m guessing that the $8 Rawlings is pretty cheesy and useless. For the 7 years old compelled to play, hovering in right field, hoping that no ball is ever hit his way.

Of course, in baseball’s early days:

…it was considered unmanly to use a glove. Broken bones were common. The first mass-produced gloves had little padding and no fingers.

Well, that sounds almost as much fun as playing football and getting your brain rattled.

Anyway, Nokona doesn’t produce a lot of gloves. A mere 40,000 of them, which is less than 1% of the 6.2 million gloves sold in the U.S. each year. And they don’t have a lot of big name ball players sporting their wares. But they keep at it. So I’ll be keeping my eye out for someone (in the stands or on the field) sporting a Nokona next time I’m at Fenway. You can customize your Nokona – right down to your name on it, and your color choice for the laces. I suspect I’ll end my life without ever having owned a baseball glove. But if I were to go for one, sign me up for a custom Nokona with purple laces.

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