There's Only One Baseball Glove Factory Left In The United States — In Nocona, Texas
About 100 miles northwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, after passing untold pastures of crops and cattle, sits the town of Nocona, Texas, population 3,000. It’s home of the Nokona baseball glove factory — the only one still operating in the United States.
Inside, stacks of tanned and dyed kangaroo, steer and buffalo hides are piled at one end of the 20,000-square-foot, single floor facility.
“We literally bring leather in through one door and magically, ball gloves come out the door at the very end,” says Rob Storey, Nokona’s executive vice president. "That, and about 45 labor operations, and you’ve got a ball glove.”
Storey says start to finish, making a glove takes four and a half hours. Typically, though, it really takes a day, maybe two.
'We're not about easy'
This is the family business for Storey. When the Great Depression of 1929 hit, his grandfather decided to add baseball gloves to the family's leather purse and wallet business, called Nocona Leather Goods. His relatives also founded Nocona Boots and Justin Boots.
The first Nokona ball glove hit the field in 1934. Today, out of 6.5 million gloves a year worldwide, Nokona says they make up to 50,000 a year, but won’t be more specific.
Through the decades, every U.S. competitor has left the country. Storey’s grandfather, who died in 1980, said he’d rather quit and go fishing than import Nokonas.
“In some ways, we see it as a competitive advantage,” Storey says, “because we have people that understand the game of baseball. Our competitors are making them in factories. A lot of those factories, people have never even seen a baseball game or know what it is. Sure, it would be easy to go over there and do something. But that’s not who we are. We’re not about easy.”
Nokona and its 75 employees are about making, marketing and selling the mostly handmade gloves. Last year, they moved into the current factory, part of 1940s-built Nocona Boots building. Before that, Nokona endured a 2006 fire and even struggled with bankruptcy.
Nokona, like the town it’s named for, honors the Comanche chief Peta Nocona. The company couldn’t legally use the city’s spelling, so Storey’s grandfather changed the "c" to a "k," and it’s been spelled that way ever since.
Since 2000, Martin Gomez has been Nokona’s glove turner, an important task because every single glove is first sewn inside out.
"It’s not that hard,” Gomez says. “It takes time to learn, to get used to, like the first time you start to work. It gave me a blister all over my hands, but you get used to it."
Storey says Gomez is modest. If he’s not careful, he can tear the leather and hand-stitching. Gomez slides a rod in each inside-out finger, pushes it hard against a wooden dowel and turns each leather finger back the right way. Before all that, Storey says, Gomez sprays leather softener and heats the stitched, inside-out glove on a 250-degree metal form.
“It’s very critical to do that,” Storey explains, “so that you don’t rip out any of the seams while we’re going through this process, because this process in some ways is more difficult on the glove than the game of baseball.”
Gloves for generations
The game of baseball, after all, is what Nokona’s all about, even if the brand’s barely known, compared to giants like Rawlings and Wilson. In the youth market though, it’s been big and respected for decades.
“I grew up using a Nokona glove,” says Robby Scott, a Boston Red Sox pitcher. “My first glove that I ever really remember was a first baseman’s mitt that was a Nokona that I actually used to share on the same travel ball team with Eric Hosmer."
Scott talked to KERA on his cellphone during a break in the World Series. Eric Hosmer is now the San Diego Padre’s first baseman. He and Scott played on the Cooper City Diamond Kings while growing up in Florida 20 years ago.
When Nokona searched the majors a few years back for player endorsements, Scott was an easy yes. “I will never wear a different glove,” he says. “It’s a special bond I have with them. They could have 200 players wearing their gloves. But to me it seems special because they make it seem like I’m the only one.”
"The only one." That matters to Scott for another reason.
“However long this game’s been a part of this country, this is the only glove company that makes their gloves in America,” Scott says.
And, Storey adds, Nokona’s the only maker that will refurbish its old gloves, no matter the age. He’s seen gloves handed down — and used — generation to generation. He says try that with a glove made overseas.
Videos: History of Nokona gloves and how they're made