Offense and Defense: A Look at Two Texas Baseball Equipment Manufacturers

Both Nokona gloves and Warstic bats have made a name for themselves, but in different ways.

Nokona baseball gloves are not a secret. They have been worn by professional baseball players since the 1930s and have had a recent spat of articles published about them celebrating their stature as the last baseball gloves that are entirely made in America. However, if you find yourself standing in front of their headquarters and factory in downtown Nocona, Texas, you will find yourself in a different world than the bright lights of big league stadiums and internet hype.

Nocona is the sort of small ranching Texas town that Larry McMurtry has been chronicling for over 50 years. It has a several-block-long Main Street–technically Clay Street–and is a city that takes pride in its downtown area. As a result, it is more active than most other cities of comparable size. In addition to the usual barber shops and diners, it also has a hotel that hosts a concert series featuring larger country and western bands than casual readers would assume, art galleries, and the Horton Classic Car Museum.

This is a strip that on a summer night has the potential to feature a reunited Lost Gonzo Band playing down the street from enough vintage cars to fill a decade’s worth of calendars, yet there is no question what the draw is to any baseball fan–the Nokona baseball glove factory. Business has been good for Nokona, and some point soon the company will move to the old boot factory. It will still be nearby though. After all, everything in Nocona is nearby.

All of the company’s gloves are made in that factory, making it the only glove manufacturer with its  production completely in America. Not only are the gloves all made in that factory, they are all handmade. The company has several employees that are the second- or third-generation of their family to be employed by Nokona. Some workers began with the company as teenagers and now are eyeing retirement, with Nokona as the only line on their resume.

An employee at Nokona who was hired when Warstic was founded in 2011 would be low on its seniority ranks. Warstic, a Dallas-based bat maker, is set to begin work on its first physical location in early 2018. It will be located in the city’s Deep Ellum district, an area more known for loud rock bands, bars and artists than it is for anything sporting.

This spring, when Warstic created new promotional material, it was not a simple 30-second commercial; it was a “short film” named “Warcry” that was directed by company founder Ben Jenkins. It starred Warstic business partners Ian Kinsler and Jack White and featured White’s biggest and catchiest guitar riff since “Icky Thump.” This year’s surprise single by the rocker led to write-ups in Rolling Stone magazine and others that normally wouldn’t cover baseball news. This would not be the approach a company as steeped in its history as Nokona would make.

With even a casual glance, it’s easy to notice that these two Texas-based makers of baseball gear use Native American imagery in their branding, and yet their business approaches are about as similar as traditional and modern, lumber and leather, bats and gloves, offense and defense. However, if you listen to the owners or employees of the respective companies speak you will hear that they are excited about what they make and the approach each uses to make them.

Nokona has been on the defense since it started. The company began in 1926 when T.B. Wilkes left Justin Leather Goods, maker of Nocona Boots, to start his on endeavor in the downstairs of the local Masonic Lodge. He named his new business the Nocona Leather Goods Company and began making and selling leather billfolds for men and handbags for women.

That location lasted for only a year before it was destroyed by a fire, forcing Wilkes to move nearby to 208 Walnut St. The economic situation created by The Great Depression in 1929 hit the company hard, and by 1930 Wilkes had to give up the business he started, as local banker C. McCall took ownership due to unpaid loans. McCall then gave the company to his son-in-law, Bob Storey, to run. Storey had difficulty selling the company’s original goods because, as he said decades later, “people just didn’t have any money during the Depression to put in those purses and billfolds. And, thus, billfolds are only a good business in bonanza years.”

As for the confusion that has lasted for decades on whether it is Nokona is spelled with a “c” or a “k,” the city of Nocona is named after the Comanche band that had lived in the area. The glove maker changed its spelling and used a “k” for trademark reasons.

In the early 1930s, the company began transitioning to sporting goods, with a focus on baseball gloves but also making footballs and leather football helmets. The company grew regionally and was producing 50 to 100 gloves a day by the early 1940s. Beginning in 1934, Nokona would use professional players to endorse its products. The standard contract was for a player to receive two gloves a year, with nearly all of the endorsers being on teams in the Texas League. The Fort Worth Cats, the closest team to Nocona, received a high percentage of the company’s endorsement deals.

Nokona’s use of regional players to endorse its products was responsible for the Tony York–a journeyman with only 90 plate appearances in the majors compared to 9,423 in the minors–signature model G12 to become the most popular and worn glove model of the 1940s.

Dear Santa: Or, What I Want for Baseball Christmas (2018 Edition)
It's that time of year again, folks -- time to tell Santa what you really, really want.

After the start of World War II, Nokona received a contract with the U.S. Office of Procurement and was soon making 1,000 or more gloves a day to be sent to troops and sailors fighting in Europe, North Africa  and the Pacific to use during their down time. This contract was essential in helping the company survive through the war years.

Warstic is a company about offense. In talks with the company’s founder, Ben Jenkins–a former Mississippi State player and Phillies farmhand–he’ll repeat certain words. The most common are “design” and “focus,” but when it comes to what his company is about, it’s variations of “hitting” that are used. Our e-mail conversation was peppered with phrases like “a hitting brand,” “the art of hitting,” and “100 percent focused on offense.”

The Dallas-based business was founded in 2011, but its public profile didn’t heighten until several years later when second baseman Ian Kinsler first became involved. Then it crossed over into the world of pop culture when rock star Jack White joined the company as an investor.

At first, Jenkins was leery of bringing Kinsler on board because he didn’t want this to appear as just another pro endorsement. But his stance changed as he realized Kinsler this would give Warstic the opportunity to prove its products at the highest-level and make the products better. White provided an artistic voice for Jenkins to interact with to help further his design-based goals for the bats. White is also no stranger to the world of manufacturing, as he has opened Third Man Pressing, a vinyl-record pressing factory in the Cass Corridor of his native Detroit.

Jack White’s song “Seven Nation Army” may play in sporting stadiums, but now it is the bats Warstic makes being used on the playing field. The models being swung in the majors sport the conservative look that all bats adhere to, thanks to MLB style guidelines. It is in the custom-designed models where the company and Jenkins focus on design to create a visual look unlike what will be seen in a local sporting goods store.

The bats themselves often feature bold colors banded around the barrel in a way that makes them instantly noticeable as Warstic bats. It was these unique bats that initially attracted attention to the company back when it was just Jenkins’ show. Back then, he scored features in men’s fashion magazines and partnered with luxury fashion brands instead of the usual sporting outlets that were also beginning to notice the company. It was also a wild look that fans were able to see major league players use during the Players Weekend promotion in late August.

It’s easy to get folsky when talking about Nokona gloves. While rereading the opening of this article for some edits, I realized I was more prone to this than I had intended, but their reality makes it easy to do. This is an 80-year-old company that is family run and hand-makes gloves for America’s pastime, located on a small town’s Main Street. Nokona doesn’t just have employees who have been with the company for “a while,” but have been with the company since before a major league game had been played in Texas. This sort of story writes itself, and when combined with the visuals of of Nocona itself makes great imagery for a video segment.

Nokona’s longevity and All-American story tend to gloss over some of the difficulties the company has had in the last several decades. For long stretches, the company sold more football equipment than baseball gloves. In 2005, it formed a partnership with investors in Massachusetts and even opened factories in the Northeast, with high-profile visits from Red Sox players. This relationship soured and put the Storey family in a position that could have forced its Nokona factory to close and for the company to exist essentially as nothing more than a name a larger gear-making company owns.

In 2010, Arizona-based Cutters Gloves became majority owner of Nokona Gloves, and by all outward appearances it appears to be a successful partnership. The factory stayed in Nocona, Rob Storey still runs the show and works on the custom gloves himself, and the company has grown. A rebranding several years ago features the look of the company both simultaneously reconnected with its classic beginnings and modernized with a minimal take done by One Fast Buffalo, a Dallas-based creative agency that is lead by Christine Edgington and…Ben Jenkins.

The small-town charm is important to the company’s character, but once you step into the factory, it’s the craftsmanship that matters. I went on a factory tour last winter, and my first memory of the facility is the smell of leather that came through the doors of the factory into the business office/gift shop/historical display area in the front of the building. It was a earthy smell–strong, but not overpowering–that’s almost like its own perfume. I would be tempted to call it masculine, and that is an easy go-to description of anything with the scent of leather, but it’s not. It’s more natural than that.

The glove-making process itself is a very physical affair, with lacing that requires long strides of the worker’s arm, and plenty of machines that could mangle a finger if the person using it wasn’t giving it the proper attention. A pure visceral thrill was experienced as I saw someone put on a glove that is mostly finished and then hit it hard, very hard, with a wooden mallet that had a softball-sized wooden head. This was repeated dozens of times per glove. Think of the sound of a catcher catching a fastball but repeated 50-plus times in less than a minute.

My favorite step was watching an employee selecting the piece of leather that best fits a customer’s custom order, taking it to the die-cutting station, and then carefully laying out the necessary dies prior to the cut like a puzzle to maximize the leather while minimizing waste. It is a process that seems simple but is deceptively complex. After repeated viewings, it becomes more evident that the casualness of the craftsman is born from a years-long familiarity with the tools required and leather used for the gloves. His gaze was always focused, and his movements were deliberate. The dies were placed with a steadiness that recall the old military saying “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” and within minutes, what had looked like the side of a cow now had the making of a baseball glove.

While all the steps may not be as dynamic as this, they are all essential to making a Nokona baseball glove and are repeated around 250 times a day.

If Nokona comes across as a study in small-town tradition, then Warstic appears to be about modern image that at times can come off as a boutique hitting brand as much as the national brand it is becoming. This is easy to do when the company is owned by a graphic designer, a flamboyant rock star and a four-time All-Star who got national attention last season for his criticism of umpires.

In my email conversations with Jenkins, I was caught off-guard when he mentioned that the idea of traditional craftsmanship that is celebrated by both “back in my day” old-timers and maker-movement millennials was not something he adhered to. Yes, he does want to make quality products that are best suited to the individuals that use them. And yes, he does want Warstic bats to be made by a great craftsman, but what is important to Jenkins is design.

When Jenkins speaks on design, his athlete roots are evident, and he sounds more like a coach extolling the importance of training and teamwork to a group of high schoolers than he does a design partner in a field that refers to itself as creative. His words are confident in a way that could come across as cocky to those not familiar with jocks or native Texans — “I don’t really read books on good design, I just practice it” — or as a mixture of locker room inspirational quotes and advertising slogans — “I see no point in manufacturing a product that is not designed well.”

And as a coach’s mantra for a team can influence its players off the field, I have had Jenkins’ formula for good design of “including everything that matters but nothing more” pop up in my mind at random times while at my day job or running errands. It is responsible for me chopping several hundred words from this article.

If you watch Jenkins speak these words, you will see someone who is more self-effacing than just a transcript will make him appear. The speeches also show someone who is focused and direct, which  shapes Warstic and the bats the company refers to as a weapon for offense. It also imparts an individualistic stamp that is responsible for Warstic being a company that believes its products are not only the best at the function of creating offense on the baseball diamond, but also the best looking, as well.

The company has grown quickly in the six years since it was founded, and its bats are being swung by an increasing number of major league players, as well as youth and men’s league teams. In addition to its  original wood bats, Warstic also now makes metal bats and batting gloves modeled after the traditional kinds worn by ranchers and oil field workers in West Texas, an area that is an inspiration for Jenkins. Warstic shirts have not only been worn by the athletes one would expect but also on stage by rock star Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

In 2018, the company will open a location in the Deep Ellum entertainment district of Dallas. In addition to serving as the manufacturing headquarters, it will allow customers to come through for custom bat fittings, have the opportunity to watch the bats as they are crafted and have finish applied, and grab a drink or some food in its small bar and grill. For Warstic, the actual retail aspect is secondary to providing a place where customers can find and determine the right bat model and best fit for them and their size, shape, and swing style.

One thing Jenkins said about Warstic that I also feel applies to Nokona is that they are “more human than our competitors.” Both are companies that want to get to know their customers and to sell them either a bat or glove that becomes the one they keep for the rest of their lives, not the one they use this season before purchasing next year’s model the following spring. They both want to meet their customers and let the player who will  use the glove or bat see how it being made.

I have not purchased baseball gear in a long time, nor do I have any need to, but I am a baseball fan and spend hours reading about it, watching it, listening to its broadcasts, writing about it, and going to locations associated with the game via various sorts of minor to major connections.

One of those trips was to far North Texas where I visited the Nokona factory on a day the company was  giving tours. In 90 minutes in the factory, it becomes obvious that Nocona, in its own humble way, is   proud of not just its gloves but its employees, the city of Nocona, and the people who use the gloves. And it’s not just the professional players or celebrities who have worn the gloves, but the regular people who use them to play catch with their grandkids or on high school fields.

This past summer, I listening to an interview with White and Jenkins on Dallas/Fort Worth-area radio station. I was impressed when they talked about their company in a way unlike how other sporting gear companies talk about themselves. They talked about the cities they live in and why they like them, good design, and the non-celebrity players who use the bats.

I have no idea how their gloves or bats compare to those of other companies, but whether it is the small-town success of Nokona or the modern design-based thinking of Warstic, it is evident from being around them that they are fans of baseball and, more importantly, its players, no matter the level of play. Besides, even if one is playing offense and the other defense, they are both still playing the same game.

References & Resources


Eric Robinson is a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer, researcher, and presenter on baseball history and sometimes more. He is co-chairman of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee. For more information please check out his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
newest oldest most voted
87 Cards
Member
87 Cards

I still have my three Nocona gloves from my childhood; they are all in good shape after thirty-plus years.

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
I absolutely LOVE Nokona gloves! I still have my Nokona catcher’s mitt, and it is in great shape even though I am now in my mid-40s and not in nearly as great shape. My children all have their own Nokonas. My daughter (12U travel softball) just got a new Nokona (Alpha Fastpitch) for Christmas, and she has not put it down since she opened it. My 8 year old son has a kangaroo leather Nokona glove and a catcher’s mitt of his own. A Nokona glove is a work of art. I will check out Warstic. Never heard of them… Read more »