Turns Out There’s a Difference Between a Baseball Mitt and Glove

It takes up to 25 pieces to make a baseball glove. And all of them are touched by hand–the only machines are die punchers and sewing machines. “America’s Pastime. American Made.” So says the Nokona company, based in Nocona Texas. Why the different spelling? At the time, you couldn’t incorporate a company with the same name as an incorporated town–change the letter, make up an Indian heritage, and away we go!

Still a two-stoplight town, Nokona opted not to export production when their competitors did. To stay in the marketplace, they depended on football helmets, which only recently retired from assembly. Now they only make baseball and softball gloves–and the occasional order for thousands of military satchels to carry night vision goggles.

Football Hall of Fame

The company’s roots are leather–whatever can be made, they gave it a try. And with that, they are included in the Football Hall of Fame. Before uber standardization, the host team chose the ball; and then the offense chose the ball. Texas teams came to Nokona for a narrow ball to help with passing. Once the NCAA regulated the ball, the efforts Nokona made to slim the shape and impact passing were noted, incorporated, and honored.

A Low Key Factory

In one room, there’s a clanging that’s migraine-inducing; enhanced by florescent lights. Two people take their posts at die machines, stamping out pieces of a baseball glove–the mitt and each finger. The side of a cow can produce five gloves and by the time the cookie-cutting is done, there’s nothing left but fringe.

On the other side of the room, two guys whack the hell out of finished gloves, using both a machine and a hand-held torture device. It pounds like an in-rhythm jackhammer. They’re putting the “pocket” in the glove–the perfect cup to catch a ball.

I’ve been in basements bigger than this room. There’s no disrespect in that statement; merely perspective.

Two rooms of sewing machines battle for sound against the many blowing fans. It’s not a constant, soothing hum; the work is complex, making the machine compressors start and stop like a car on a cold morning. It takes one year to train how to do the most complicated sewing: welting. This is where the fingers are connected together, inside out, and attaching the fingers to the front and back of the glove. It’s more than a skill; it’s an art to watch the sewing, the maneuvering, the step completed.

The sewing is an assembly line, and as they complete the gloves, they’re stacked like pastries. Colorful, full, ready.

Inside Out

Just like clothes, the gloves are sewn inside out, so the seams aren’t visible. Now…how do you flip a leather baseball glove right-side-out?

The leather is heated on a hand-shaped iron set at 250 degrees. Then a man puts a glove finger on one wooden rod and with pressure against another, flips it. One at a time. Amazing.

It takes 4.5 hours to make a glove; and each is manually inspected. Think you’ll encourage the kids in your life to be more respectful of their gear now that you know what goes into it?

Where Does Leather Come From?

Sure, it comes from cattle, but also buffalo and kangaroo (the strongest there is). And each animal has different textures. The leather thickness is also based on the animal’s age–so a belt is likely from one who was four or five. Think about that thickness. Blech. All three of these leathers are used in a glove, for different parts.

An animal is skinned (stay with me), then defurred (that’s the color we see: black for angus, brown for whatever it is); and the skin is grayish. Then it goes to the tannery, where it can be dyed any color. We may think that browns are natural for leather, but it simply doesn’t matter. Everything for leather is unnatural. At the turn of the century there were roughly 500 tanneries in the U.S.; now there are less than 5–with all the chemicals there’s a lot of restrictions. So these gloves made in Texas, using Texas cattle (but not Texas kangaroo), and sent to a tannery in Maine!

A Glove for Every Position?

Some say yes, some say it doesn’t matter except for the pitcher–he needs a closed glove so the TV cameras can’t see what he’s throwing next. And catchers are special: they have a mitt while everyone else has a glove.

Nokona Baseball Factory

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What’s the most interesting factory tour you’ve been on? Or if not a tour, share a tidbit that you know about how something is made.

3 Responses

12.09.12

“Two rooms of sewing machines battle for sound against the many blowing fans.” Fabulous description!

I’ve seen numerous production lines including ribbon, gift wrap, bottling coke and milk (separately), car assembly, potato chips, cotton tote bags and assembly of pens, cups, and imprinting methods. But a trip to Williamsburg, VA with demonstrations making paper, candles, butter, weaving, and the other chores that are now automated was equally fascinating.

Raye — ohh gift wrap. Tell me more. The most wasteful and wonderful thing!

12.09.12

My recollection of the gift wrap…humongous machinery printing the paper so fast that the eye could not see any detail…only a blur of color. But there was a special magnifying glass that somehow “froze” an image so that the design and color could be checked at various stages of production, though I’m clueless what they’d do if someone actually spotted a mistake. By that time so much would have been wrapped up in the process. (Yes, a deliberate bad pun.) I believe my children were with me; clueless as to what they recall of some of the manufacturing places we visited together, which included the cars, chips, and even a doll hospital (not manufacturing but still interesting).

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