The Only Baseball Glove Maker in America
By: Gene Fowler
“Leather is one of the most interesting materials known to man.” -Rob Storey
Cody. Cheyenne. Tombstone. Silver City. Durango. The landscape of the American West is strewn with place names that evoke region’s wild, romantic, storied past. The small town of Nocona, Texas, near the states border with Oklahoma, honors an uncommonly rich legacy. Named for the Comanche warrior-chief, Peta Nocona, father of the heralded man-of-two-worlds, Quanah Parker, the town looms larger in the leather history as the birthplace – along with the nearby Chisholm Trail ghost town of Spanish Fort – of Justin and Nocona cowboy boots.
Two-companies-in-one continue that celebrated tradition today. Nokona produces handcrafted, high-end baseball gloves and mitts for the great American pastime. And Nokona Leather Goods offers carry goods, bags, belts, footwear and accessories; all made with the same integrity of materials and methods and attention to detail.
The company began as Nocona Leather Goods in 1926, founded by Nocona banker Cad McCall and local businessman T.B. Wilkes. In its early years the company produced “ladies’ steerhide and men’s pocket books.” A couple years later, a young oil company employee named Bob Storey came to Nocona from the boomtown of Mexia, Texas. Before long, he was hitched to Cad McCall’s daughter. And when the oil company tried to transfer Storey to Louisiana, McCall talked him into taking a job in the purse and wallet factory.
Robert E. “Big Bob” Storey must have taken a liking to the leathercraft industry, for it was his vision that kept the business afloat in the lean years of the 1930s. “During the Depression,” Storey reportedly commented years later, “if you were selling a billfold for a dollar, it better have a dollar bill inside it.” as the nation’s economic picture darkened, Nocona Leather Goods looked for new revenue producers.
Having played baseball while attending Rice University, Storey hit upon the idea in 1932 of manufacturing sports equipment. Veteran sporting goods producer W.T. Hartman of Chicago came out of retirement to assist the young company. “We made our first baseball glove in 1934,” says Big Bob’s grandson, Rob Storey, executive vice president of Nokona today. The relaunched leather goods company had to change the “c” in their name to a “k” because the government wouldn’t allow them to trademark the name of an American town. “But we’ve learned,” adds Rob, “that the Comanches also accept Nokona as an alternate spelling of Peta Nocona’s name.”
Detroit Tigers catcher Rudy York became the first major leaguer to endorse the Nokona glove. And by 1942, the Texas glove-making company had become so renowned that the U.S. Army contracted with Nokona to produce some 260,000 gloves a year for soldiers fighting overseas. When they weren’t busy literally saving the world from tyranny, American infantrymen enjoyed the nation’s pastime with Nokona gloves until the end of the war in 1945.
The Nocona News reported on Big Bob’s ingenuity in 1953, annoucning the introduction of brightly colored baseball gloves in green, white, red, and yellow, “any color to match uniforms.” As other American sports equipment makers began moving their manufacturing bases to less expensive facilities in China and other Asian countries with far cheaper labor in the 1960s, the Storey family honored its roots in good old Nocona, Texas, USA. “If I have to tell all my people they don’t have a job anymore,” said Big Bob at the time, “just so that I can make an extra buck, I’m just going to quit. I’ll take a bucket of worms and go fishing.”
Today Nokona, the only company still making gloves on U.S. soil, has about 100 employees. Mothers and fathers have passed glove-making jobs down to sons and daughters. Some workers have been with the company for 40 or 50 years. Customers can choose from 45 different glove models and 20 separate web styles, or if you have something even more unique in mind, you can custom order a glove. An online “custom glove builder” on the Nokona website guides ballplayers in designing their own one-of-a-kinders.
Though the company may produce fewer gloves than some of the sporting good behemoths that do their manufacturing in Asia, as Chip Sivak director of sales and marketing, says, “We’re thriving because making our gloves in America allows us to do other things that our competitors can’t do. For example, the fact that we own our factory and carefully examine each and every leather good that comes through allows us to really push our quality control to the next level.”
Many baseball fans, along with lovers of leathercraft, visit Nocona and take the Nokona factory tour to see the gloves made in person. It starts in the lobby, where visitors marvel at a display of gloves in a rainbow of hues. A small museum area chronicles the company’s history and exhibits vintage mitts and other artifacts. the sometimes ancient-looking relics include a two-fingered glove from the 1930s, a Billy Hunter signature model Nokona glove used in early 1950s games with the minor league Fort Worth Cats, and a primitive-looking leather football helmet worn by the University of Texas star halfback Jack “Jackrabbit” Crain in 1941. A native of the town named for a Comanche chief, Crain was known as the “Nocona Nugget” on his high school team.
The redolence of the hide rooms leaves no doubt about the organic materials used in Nokona products. On one recent tour, company president Jeff Beraznik pointed out the cowhide, buffalo and kangaroo hides, noting that the last two are more lightweight. “We also use a little bit of caiman leather,” he added, conjuring an image of baseball mitts made from reptile skins.
First, hides are inspected for scars, blemishes and other defects. Then the pieces that will form the glove are cut from the hide with dies, which Nokona calls clickers. Some 25 pieces are cut with clickers for each glove and the company has about 2,000 of the cutting devices in the shop. “For the palm and the web of the glove,” added Jeff, “you’ll want to pick the strongest parts of the hide, like the neck and shoulder.”
When a cowpoke who hauled cattle for a number of Texas ranches took the tour, it’s been avowed, he could recognize familiar ranch brands on some of the hides. While certain cut pieces of the hides are still flat, they are hot stamped with the Nokona logo and “American Made.” Then the pieces of leather are stitched and welted together, and some 120 holes are laced with leather strips. Initially, the innards of the glove are on the outside, but once it is turned right-side-out, the glove is shaped by placing it on forms that look like giant hands that have been heated to 250 degrees.
Then a mechanized mallet repeatedly pounds the palm of the glove to soften it and shape the leather. On another recent tour, production supervisor Malinda Reynolds, referencing the hands-on know-how required for some parts of the process, said, “You’re not doing your job if you don’t smash your finger at least once.”
Finally, before tagging, bagging and shipping, the leather is moisturized by spraying a layer of oil comprised of hot petroleum jelly and lanolin. Folks come from all over the world to see the unique process. A Vermont softball player recently made the trip with her family as the present she requested for her 16th birthday. A 15-year-old from Arlington, Texas, said his favorite part of the tour was the pounding of the glove’s palm with the mechanical mallet, “That was cool!”
While the hides that go into the gloves once roamed the range in Texas, Oklahoma and other ranching states (and, in the case of the kangaroo hide, in the land down under), the glove maker procures them from tanneries in Chicago and Milwaukee. Nokona’s website includes an informative Leather Guide with handy descriptions of chrome, vegetable and alum tanning, along with other leather term definitions. The site also provides detailed data on the seven different leathers (which can be dyed over 30 different colors) Nokona utilizes in its gloves.
Full Grain Steerhide includes the signature Walnut “known for its classic ‘crunch’ look and feel,” Buckskin Stampede “infused with proprietary oils and waxes for a soft, pliable, dense feel” and the Generation “pro-grade Steerhide, with a vintage, golden finish.” Full Grain Americankip is described as “the finest American steerhide, durable, with a soft, buttery feel.” The flexible Nokona Supersoft is made with “an organic tanning method.”
The flexible, durable, easy-to-break-in American Bison is “ideal for select and adult gloves.” Lightweight and high-performing, the trademarked Japanese Calfskin is “sourced from specialty-tanned Japanese Calfskin.” It’s “smooth appearance” features “tight fibers and fine pores” and it reportedly “holds vibrant colors very well.” Australian Kangaroo, sourced from the wild Aussie range, “is stronger and lighter-weight than any other ball glove leather at the same thickness.” And the “rigid reptilian scales” of Caiman, when combined with more flexible hides, provides “an exceptional leather choice for a palm liner.”
A frequent refrain in testimonials about the last (and best) little baseball glove maker in America is that the cheaper mitts manufactured overseas are made by “people who have never even seen a baseball game.” And the Nokona folks walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to the American pastime. The company’s patented Play Catch Movement offers products and programs designed to “improve the welfare of children and the quality of life for adults through the game of catch.”
It gets kids outside, away from crazy computer games, mean social media and the jarring cacophony of the idiot box. And it replaces all that noise with the Zen of a ball sailing between friends, accentuated by the muffled pop of a cowhide (before 1974, horsehide) covered sphere hitting a leather receptacle. Or as Greg Larson, author of Clubbie, A Minor League Memoir, puts it on the Play Catch website, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing. And the importance of playing catch leads to a lot more than just throwing a ball back and forth. I wouldn’t know my dad as deeply as I do if it weren’t for playing catch together.”
The Storey-Nokona family, of course, has long known the benefits of such simple social and personal therapy. In 1953, for instance, The Nocona News honored Big Bob in its “Flowers for The Living” column when Mr. and Mrs. Storey treated 20 boys from the Nocona High School baseball team to dinner in Fort Worth, followed by attendance at the Fort Worth-Tulsa minor league ballgame. “What a splendid way to defeat juvenile delinquency!” marveled the paper.
Nor has the company ever forgotten the bigger, historical picture and the long sundown walk of their town’s namesake and its people. In 2014, to mark the 80th anniversary of the company’s baseball glove production, they held the first Nokona Iron Jacket Select Baseball Tournament, named for Peta Nocona’s father, Iron Jacket, a Comanche chieftain and medicine man, at Bob Storey Field. Iron Jacket (1770-1858), who probably acquired his name for wearing a Spanish-style coat of mail in battle, was believed to have the power to blow on approaching missiles and change their course, a magic knack that would have come in handy on the baseball diamond. Big Bob’s son, 84-year-old Bobby Storey, threw out the first pitch. “In naming this tournament after Peta’s father, “Rob Storey told The Nocona News, “we want to honor the heritage of Iron Jacket, Peta and Peta’s son, Quanah Parker.”
Major leaguers, of course, appreciate that heritage as well. All-time MLB strikeout leader Nolan Ryan remembers the day he got his first Nokona glove at age seven, what seems like a couple of lifetimes ago. “Yeah, that was the first thing I remember as a kid, picking out any mitt I wanted at the Alvin Hardware Store [in Alvin, Texas],” Ryan told an interviewer in 2009. “That was about the time they were making a transition to the more modern-day gloves. Being a kid who collected baseball cards, I remembered seeing some of the old-time players’ pictures with an older-style glove, so that was the one I picked. It was outdated fairly quickly! I still have it to this day.”