The Last American Glovemaker
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but in Nocona, Texas, it’s a way of life. That’s a common refrain in small-town America, but here of all places it’s true. Noconans craft their identity on more than ephemeral high school seasons or the glory of a former star. Known as the “Leather Goods Center of the Southwest,” generations of its residents have worked at Nokona, the eponymous company that’s made baseball gloves in the city for nearly a century. Yet behind the craftsmanship and storied legacy, Noconans like Kim York recognize the somber truth: Nokona is the last glovemaker in America. “It still really shocks me,” York said. “We think about it all the time.”
For nearly 150 years, baseball was the quintessential American sport, yet almost every piece of the game is now produced overseas. American-made products are “few and far between,” said Nokona president Jeff Beraznik, and Americans no longer make the balls, cleats, and protective equipment needed to play the game. Most bats aren’t produced in the U.S. either, and when it comes to gloves—the game’s most sentimental item—Nokona is the only company left.
Nokona’s competitors began offshoring production in the 1960’s, replacing unionized American jobs with lower-paid workers in Japan and Southeast Asia. Today, Beraznik said glove production is “very concentrated” among four third-party manufacturers in the Philippines, where labor is 8-10 times cheaper than America. Not only do its competitors’ labor margins “create a big challenge” for Nokona, but so too do their deceptive practices. The largest brands use the factories to mass-produce gloves abroad, stitch them with American flags, and sell them in the U.S. “People just assume companies like Rawlings or Wilson, which are strong American brands, also make their gloves here,” he said. “They don’t—but a lot of people are left with that false impression.”
Indeed, championing “Made in America” isn’t just patriotic, it’s lucrative. Some 80% of Americans say they’re willing to pay more for products that aren’t made in China, while over a quarter say they won’t buy goods from Southeast Asia at all. Still, Beraznik recognizes most consumers are ultimately constrained by price, and he believes tariffs would “certainly level the playing field” in that regard. Though a resounding majority of Americans agree, his is a peculiar position for an American executive—precisely because it stands against the corporate consensus that decimated domestic manufacturing over the past half-century.
Unmade in America
America’s industrial decline crystallized in 1962, when Chicago economist Milton Friedman argued that the “only social responsibility” of a business was to “increase its profits.” A decade later—in what would become one of the most cited business papers of all time—two finance professors posited that stock-based compensation provided executives the incentive to do so. Shareholder primacy theory was hurriedly embraced by corporations and the financial sector, and by the 1980s, it was considered sacrosanct.
In the rat race that ensued, firms offshored American jobs, closed plants and factories, slashed domestic investment, and lobbied lawmakers to facilitate short-term profit-chasing. The changes were a “good thing” for American workers, they argued, as higher profit margins would make well-paying jobs more accessible. Yet “that theory has not matched reality,” said Dr. Sridhar Kota, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight. Indeed, a growing number of experts contend the idea was a colossal mistake.
Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs and closed nearly 90,000 plants. “Forget stealing by China,” Kota said, “we’re putting it on a plate and handing it to them every day.” Automation “didn’t decimate the industrial Midwest” and “wipe out the middle class” either, but decades of conscious decisions by politicians and financiers did.
Though small and medium-sized companies like Nokona “are the backbone of our manufacturing,” Kota argues forces across the political spectrum have eroded their strength. “One party thinks that if you give tax cuts to the rich, it will trickle down to help the economy, and that hasn’t worked. The other party thinks that if we just invest in science, it will trickle down to help the guy across the street. It hasn’t.” Massive research and development spending has proved fruitless to American taxpayers, since the U.S. now lacks the innovation capacity to create prototypes, run pilot productions, and finish products. “Writing papers is not a product. That’s not giving you anything in your hand,” he said. “If you think of the innovation cycle as a baseball diamond, we barely get to second base.”
Still, America’s power centers continue to champion free trade, despite mounting evidence that it’s proved ruinous for large swaths of society. While free-market fundamentalists declared for decades that a rising tide would lift all boats, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found net job creation has “yet to materialize.” Instead, trade-related job loss produced living conditions in industrial areas “which had not been seen since the Great Depression,” and caused surges in government poverty assistance, divorce rates, violent crime, and opioid overdose deaths.
A separate set of NBER researchers concluded this month that members of Congress “had accurate information” to predict these effects, but “placed a relatively low weight” on the plight of the most vulnerable Americans. Two decades and multiple financial crises later, and taxpayers are routinely asked to bail out firms that upended their lives, while leading financial publications proclaim more globalization is the answer.
“Wall Street will tell you that if you don’t offshore we can’t afford things—really?” Kota said. “They’re lying. The financialization of the manufacturing industry has decimated this country, yet they continue to tell us these things.”
Nokona’s employees say they’re blessed to work for the Texas glovemaker, perhaps because they’ve seen the false promise of globalization firsthand. Kim York—a mother who operates the flash cutter at the company—counts herself among them. When asked if the tradeoff between a secure income and cheaper goods was worth it, York said it wasn’t, “not in the big picture.” “Because of that mentality, the job market is very slim for people in rural America,” she said. “I can’t go to Walmart and buy your goods in the first place if I don’t have a job.”
Were it not for Nokona, York said she’d have to drive more than 40 miles to search for decent employment. “If you make more than minimum wage and you work in your same town, you have a really good job,” she said. “So having this here—a Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week, holidays and vacations—it’s awesome. It makes me really sad that there’s hardly any places like this left for people to work.”
The American Spirit
As Nokona’s competitors began offshoring in the 1960’s, Nokona founder Bob Storey distilled the company creed that endures today. If ever faced with the pressure to import baseball gloves, he said, he’d “rather quit and go fishing.” Indeed, Storey cherished the value his company brought to American workers—not only through a paycheck, but through a livelihood for generations.
From its domestically sourced leathers to its third-generation employees, the Texas mitt-maker prides itself on high-quality craftsmanship, and contends its gloves belong in your family will. “There’s no other baseball company that can say that,” York said, because “there’s not that many people who repair them anymore.”
Glovemaking in America used to be a family trade, York explained, one that sustained entire communities’ way of life. Yet when smaller glovemakers couldn’t compete with offshore competitors, their founders retired or sold the corporations their businesses. Factory doors began to close, and with them, the chances that generations of Americans would experience local, dignified work. It’s a future York wants available for her children, and its dearth across the country “should be everyone’s concern.”
“When you watch somebody learn how to do something—and they get to see the result of what they did with their hands—there is nothing else in the world that can beat that feeling of pride and fulfillment,” she said. “It’s handmade, high-quality work; it’s the craftsmanship that really this nation was founded upon—and we’re losing all of that. You’re not going to get that at Walmart.”
As it turns out, maybe baseball still is the quintessential American sport. Eager to cut costs, the front office closed its affiliates and traded its most reliable players. The home team is trailing in the bottom of the ninth, and it seems like the whole league is stacked against them. Through it all, Nokona’s president keeps the faith. “I hope that we can get back as a country to being proud to make things that are important to our economy, but also to our culture,” Beraznik said, “and baseball is a great example of that.”
Indeed, if there was ever a brand that embodies the American spirit—kind-hearted, resourceful, and fiercely determined to run against the grain—it’s here, in a rural Texas leather town. Nokona is a cultural steward that refuses to die, and for that, its community is eternally grateful.
“We need more companies like Nokona that are bound and determined to keep jobs here for their people,” York said. “I love this company. They’ve been wonderful to me.”
Colin Martin is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative and a 2020 graduate of Boston College. Contact him on Twitter @ColinMartin98.