Nolan Ryan is among the fans of the Texas-based baseball brand.
It’s the changing of the seasons as summer has eased into autumn. The kids are back in school. Darkness has begun to encompass more hours of the day.
Sports fans feel the changes, too. Football is back in earnest. The hockey season has returned.
And it’s time for October baseball!
Major League Baseball (MLB) begins its postseason series play on Thursday with the beginning of divisional series matchups. Eight of 30 MLB teams remain left in the hunt, hoping to become World Series Champions.
Americans have long had a love affair with baseball. Although the sport has deep roots in the United States — it is our National Pastime, after all — in recent years many foreign countries have had success in the business of baseball.
A lot of the baseball equipment sold in stores today is made by people living in countries where the average worker earns less money in one week than it costs to purchase a ticket to see one New York Yankees game. In the baseball glove market, popular brands like Wilson, Spalding and Mizuno are mostly manufactured offshore and imported into the United States.
But baseball is going to stay as American as a hot dog if Rob Storey has anything to say about it.
Storey is the executive vice president and fourth-generation family member to oversee Nokona baseball gloves, the only remaining major league player to produce its leather mitts in America.
To be sure, Nokona is an MVP when it comes to manufacturing baseball gloves. Its name is just not that widely known as other brands because the Texas company does not spend millions of dollars signing endorsement deals with baseball’s top players.
But the company is highly ranked when comparing the baseball gloves of today, and individual mitts sell from $250 to as high as $650 each.
While it is only fitting that a top-quality baseball glove be Made in America, the production of keeping it Made in America has weathered some tough times.
“It’s been a family business from the start,” Storey said. “We made our first baseball gloves in 1934. Sometimes, I think in America people assume stuffs spits out of a machine in China somewhere and it ends up on your table or you’re playing on a ballfield with it.
“Here, there’s up to 45 different labor operations that go into making one glove.”
Today’s gloves are made in a 20,000-square-foot building in Nocona, Texas. Yes, Nocona spelled with a ‘c’ instead of with a ‘k,’ as in the company’s name. Storey’s grandfather tried to trademark “Nocona” for the name of his baseball glove company but was denied, so he used the ‘k’.
Years later, the Storey family discovered that Nokona was an accepted spelling for one of the five tribes of the Comanche Indians, a connection now incorporated into the company's branding.
Storey estimates there are about 6.5 million leather baseball gloves manufactured around the globe each year. Approximately 40,000 of those are produced by Nokona in Nocona, a town of about 3,000 residents located north of Dallas about 10 miles from the Oklahoma border.
While the steers and cows for the leather are typically raised in Texas and surrounding states, the hides are shipped to tanneries in Chicago and Milwaukee, which is where Nokona gets it supply of leather.
“Production offshore really didn’t hit our industry until the early 1960s,” said 57-year-old Storey. “There were some small companies around 1960 or 1961 that moved to Okinawa, Japan, but they were making gloves in huts and houses, not in the large factories like today.
“A large part of it moved offshore quickly but it probably took another 25 years for everything — with the exception of us — to transfer over there.”
Hall of Fame pitcher and Texas native Nolan Ryan’s first baseball glove was a Nokona. Even though the legendary player is not directly involved with the company, he’s been fond of his home-state gloves.
“When Ryan was head of the Texas Rangers, they had a couple of good seasons, so Nolan decided to buy 320 gloves for his employees,” Storey said. “But a large part of our business now is customization, where the customer actually goes to the website and builds a completely custom glove. I’m talking about the aesthetics of it – the colored leathers, the different types of leathers, the laces, the embroidery and things like that.”
Storey understands his business model makes it more difficult to compete with the Wilson and Rawlings that are manufactured overseas, but he is committed to the words of his grandfather Big Bob Storey: “If I have to import gloves and tell my employees we’re closing up and they don’t have jobs anymore, I might as well grab a bucket of worms and go fishing.”