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Nokona brand tries for baseball comeback

As the Texas Rangers gear up for the playoffs and baseball fever takes hold in North Texas, a venerable baseball glove manufacturer in this two-stoplight town about 100 miles northwest of Dallas is trying to bounce back from a near-death experience.The company began making Nokona gloves during...

As the Texas Rangers gear up for the playoffs and baseball fever takes hold in North Texas, a venerable baseball glove manufacturer in this two-stoplight town about 100 miles northwest of Dallas is trying to bounce back from a near-death experience.

The company began making Nokona gloves during the Great Depression, and went on to ship hundreds of thousands of mitts to U.S. servicemen overseas in World War II. The Storey family, the company's longtime owners, kept the factory in Nocona even after baseball glove production began shifting to Asia in the 1960s.

What nearly did the company in — and in some ways killed it — was an ambitious but ill-fated marketing effort created and led by a group of East Coast investors who bought a 50 percent stake in 2005. When the marketing expenses collided with the worst recession since the 1930s, the company ended up in the clutches of its bank.

Nocona Leather Goods Co., which did business as Nocona Athletic Goods, is now languishing in a Massachusetts bankruptcy court.

But that's not where its story ends.

In July, a Phoenix company called Cutters Gloves bought the Nokona brand and other assets from the bank. Cutters has established American Original Ballglove Co., with Rob Storey overseeing the factory as he did before. Along with two dozen employees in Nocona who cut, sew and shape leather into high-end baseball and softball gloves, they're mounting a comeback a test of whether American manufacturing can still supply the national pastime.

"The brand has always had a good following," Storey said. "We need to restore some financial strength to the company and get back to what we do best, which is to make gloves."

Can U.S.-made ball gloves still compete in today's marketplace? Nokona gloves occupy a high-end niche, catering to customers who are willing to plunk down as much as $300 for a baseball or softball glove.

John Golomb, who repairs and restores old gloves in Brooklyn, crafted custom gloves for 15 years. But he gave it up because profit margins were so slender.

"I think Nocona is going to be up against it that way," said Golomb, adding that he admires the quality of the company's gloves. "They're going to be selling an old-school item. But that might be an angle: getting a glove the way they used to be."

Indeed, a big part of what American Original Ballglove is selling is the sentimental appeal of premium, handcrafted gloves made in the U. S. of A. You might say the new company's future is based on the Nokona brand's long past.

"I think the future is really getting back to its core, which is world class, made-in-America gloves," said Jeff Beraznik, president of Cutters.

Nocona Leather Goods began in 1926, making purses and wallets. For years, the town was a center of leather goods production, from belts to boots.

Rob Storey's grandfather, Roberts Storey, introduced sporting goods in the 1930s, using "Nokona" with a "k'' as a brand. In addition to baseball gloves, Nocona also pioneered a new shape of football that played an important role in the development of the modern-day passing game, according to Roberts Storey's entry in the National Sporting Goods Association's hall of fame.

After World War II, the company signed endorsement deals with players on the Fort Worth Cats, which at the time was a minor league team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Big-leaguers who endorsed Nokona gloves included shortstop Chico Carrasquel, pitcher Carl Erskine and utility infielder/outfielder (and future manager) Dick Williams, according to a company history called 75 Years: Nocona Ball Gloves, a Texas Tradition , written by Dallas' Joe Phillips, who served as an outside marketing consultant to the company from 1976 to 2004. Nolan Ryan has said he prized his Nokona glove as a youngster in Alvin, Texas.

The 1960s brought significant changes. A lot of baseball glove production moved abroad, first to Japan and then to other Asian countries, Phillips said. Meanwhile, player endorsements became too expensive for smaller companies such as Nocona.

Roberts Storey died in 1980, leaving the company in the hands of his sons Jim, who died in 1991, and Bobby, 81, Rob's father, who remains the "ambassador of the brand." Rob Storey has been managing the factory since the early 1990s.

Nocona retained dealer and customer loyalty by focusing on high-end gloves, said Phillips, who collects old baseball gloves and is known as "The Glove Collector." Baseball and softball gloves account for most of the company's business today.

On July 18, 2006, Nocona's factory burned to the ground. As firefighters battled the blaze, Storey gathered all the company's employees and pledged to maintain their jobs.

The fire caused about $5 million in damage, nearly as much as the company's annual sales of about $6 million. But the factory was insured. It also had the backing of new investors, mostly from Boston and New York, led by a businessman named Buddy Lewis.

The group, known as Fenway-Nokona Associates, had bought half of Nocona the year before.

"We met the Storey family and pretty much fell in love with the business," Lewis said. "We felt we could build on the brand."

To tap what Lewis once called "the best-kept secret in sports," he and his partners forged ahead with a plan to transform the small-time Texas factory into a modern juggernaut.

After the fire, employees salvaged what they could from the factory and the company got production up and running again less than two months later, Storey said. Nocona presented the first post-fire glove to Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees at the time.

The company handed out gloves to ball boys and girls at Fenway Park. It struck up marketing deals with a handful of Major League Baseball teams.

It established a bat factory in Fall River, Mass., 45 miles south of Boston, and signed up big-league sluggers Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz as the "Nokona Wrecking Crew." It also expanded glove production in Worcester, Mass., 45 miles west of Boston, in a bid to marry the Nokona brand with advanced manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the company gave some equipment to a new baseball league in Israel . It was a sponsor of National Pro Fastpitch, a professional women's softball league, at one point producing a promotional video with stars Megan Gibson, a former Texas A&M University standout, and Angela Tincher.

"Nokona has a really good reputation with their gloves," said Cheri Kempf, president and commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch. "There are people who just want that Nokona glove for the feel of it. A lot of catchers love the Nokona glove."

In retrospect, the marketing plans looked good on paper. In practice, the company might have tried to do too much too soon.

"They over-advertised," said Bill Lee, a former pitcher with the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos who supplied wood for Nokona bats and says he's still owed $40,000. "They didn't have enough capital behind them, and they spent it poorly."

To some extent, Lewis acknowledges flaws in the plan.

"I think we spent too much for the size of company we were, and we spent the money too fast," he said.

On the other hand, Lewis had talked with potential buyers about selling the company. Had such a deal been struck at the right price, the marketing dollars might have looked like a smart investment.

When the economic crisis hit, interest in doing a deal evaporated. Orders from dealers slowed and cash became tight. The company had to lay people off. Its lender, Boston Private Bank, declined to renew the loan and instead took over the assets and sold them off.

Other creditors (not including Lee) pushed the company into involuntary bankruptcy, saying they were owed about $471,000. The case is pending in a Boston court.

Rob Storey declined to comment in detail on his differences with his former partners, saying only that "the marketing focus was more of a shotgun approach than a rifle approach."

Can the Nokona brand make a comeback?

That task now belongs to Cutters Gloves, its new owner, and to Storey, who owns a minority stake.

Cutters sells gloves aimed at football players, counting Miles Austin of the Dallas Cowboys and Randy Moss of the New England Patriots among players who use them. It also sells batting gloves and soccer and golf gloves.

At the factory in Nocona one recent morning, employees were busy crafting the latest batch of baseball gloves amid piles of cowhides and the whir of sewing machines.

They cut sides of cowhide and sheets of padding into glove components such as fingers and palms. They embroidered and embossed logos on the leather.

They joined palms and fingers into an outer shell, fitted the shell with lining, bound the whole package together and laced it up. They used mallets and a pounding machine to form pockets. After a spraying with petroleum jelly, the gloves were ready for shipping.

The factory is only turning out about 75 gloves a day, or roughly 20,000 a year, Storey said. But he and Beraznik aim to get production back up to 50,000 gloves a year within 12 months, with plans to expand employment from 25 now to 60 or 70.

That's just a sliver of the U.S. baseball and softball glove market, which amounts to 4.5 million gloves a year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Dollar volume dipped to less than $173 million last year, down from $185 million in 2008 and $184 million in 2007.

Storey says his core market consists of dedicated baseball and softball players looking for a glove that can last. High-end gloves don't make you a better fielder, but glove makers say their premium leather tends to last longer than less expensive gloves.

"I would say our market is 12- to 26-year-old male baseball players, and next would be the same age group of female fast-pitch softball players, and then finally adult slow-pitch softball," Storey said.

He's far from the only one selling at the high end of the price range.

Giants such as Rawlings, Wilson and Mizuno all sell premium gloves. There are a number of smaller players as well including Insignia Athletics, a Massachusetts startup backed by some of Storey's former partners, which aims to show that it too can carve out a business making gloves in the U.S.

"We're in an industry that is rife with competitors," Storey said. "We're very optimistic we can hold our own."

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