While collectors are scrambling to get their hands on baseball memorabilia of every type and from every era, Joe Phillips is offering collectibles they can get their hands in. In the fall of 1989, Phillips began reissuing baseball gloves from the 1930s, '40s and '50s through his Dallas-based company, the Glove Collector.
The gloves are made by the Nocona Athletic Goods Co., a modest firm in Nocona, Texas, that manufactured the original gloves under the Nokona name (the k replaces the c because the company couldn't trademark the name of the town). The leather for Phillips's gloves must be cut by hand because all the old dies were sold for $60 as scrap metal before Phillips struck the deal with Nocona.
Phillips goes back a long way with the company, though not as far back as the gloves, which were first manufactured in the 1930s. A former semipro ballplayer, he had done some marketing and p.r. for Nocona in the mid-1970s, so he felt comfortable approaching the company with his idea of recreating the old gloves.
Although his business is off to a slow start, the deal could turn out to be a good one. "I'm doing better in the newsletter business than in gloves," says Phillips, a Greenville, Texas, native and a die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan. "And that's encouraging. At least I know the interest is there." A bimonthly, The Glove Collector Newsletter covers all aspects of vintage gloves.
So far Phillips has sold about 70 of the, reproduction gloves. One of his popular models is the Carl Erskine G-57, which costs $139.95 and comes with a certificate of authenticity signed by Erskine, the former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher who in 1953 set a record for most strikeouts in a World Series game (14). For only $79.95, you can purchase the genuine article—a mint-condition glove endorsed by Jim Lemon, who played outfield for the Indians, Senators and Twins in the 1950s and early '60s, or one by Don Mossi, a pitcher for the Indians, Tigers, White Sox and the Athletics during the same period. Phillips found the old lefthanded gloves stashed in a trailer truck at the Nocona plant. He labels the people who collect gloves "closet collectors," because the mitts aren't as popular as bats or uniforms and are "certainly not comparable to cards."
Of course some collectors would rather play with their gloves than display them. Paul Maheu, an office manager in a San Francisco municipal-bond brokerage firm, had never heard of Rudy York, the former Tiger first baseman, when he bought a York glove from the Glove Collector. York, who played 13 years in the major leagues, began endorsing the Nokona G-30 model—the one with the novel FieldRite pocket—back in the 1930s. The mitt predates finger lacing, reinforced webs, and thumb and finger loops.
The 38-year-old Maheu, who plays second base in a senior league in the Bay Area, uses the stubby-fingered York glove in practice. But he switches to a modern glove for games. "It brings you back to the art of catching with two hands, which is kind of a lost art today," says Maheu of the old glove. "You can get the ball out of the glove a lot faster."
The price of a Rudy York G-30 was $8.50 in 1942. Today, it costs $140, $150 with the autograph stamp. "That's right in line with the real good gloves made by manufacturers now," says Maheu. "But I guess a lot of people are buying them just to hold them and smell the leather."
Rob Nelson, 41, a baseball junkie who has played on at least three continents in the 19 years since he made a brief appearance in the Cardinals' organization, bought a 1950s model from the Glove Collector that had been endorsed by Chico Carrasquel, the former White Sox, Indians and Oriole shortstop. Nelson gave it to himself for Christmas in 1989. "My parents thought I was crazy," he says. "But I always wanted a stubby-fingered glove."
Nelson has coached eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds in summer camps in Oregon and on Long Island. "It's always fun to show them the glove I used when I was their age," he says. "When kids forget their gloves—and it's typical for these kids to forget their gloves—I let them use mine. For them it's like watching a bunch of clowns getting out of one of those cars at the circus. They can't believe it's a real glove. They think I got one miniaturized."
Nelson feels about his new glove the same way he felt about his glove when he was eight years old, "which means I have to get a new one in two to three years time." Of Phillips's venture, Nelson says, "I'm sorry I didn't think of it myself. I tip my hat to him. He's obviously in love with the game. I don't think you have to be a fanatic to appreciate what Joe has done."
The Nokona line of nostalgia gloves is limited, and Phillips becomes irritated when people ask, "Do you have a Joe DiMaggio or a Ted Williams?" Says Phillips, "You need a tie-in to celebrities, and Nocona didn't sign any big-name players. If I had hooked up with MacGregor or Rawlings, I'd probably be selling more gloves. A lot of the guys in the card market only want Mays or Mantle or Clemente."
Phillips has explored the possibility of getting reissue rights from other glove manufacturers and from famous former ballplayers. He has also contacted the major league baseball players alumni associations about acting as the middleman for players who are dead or who never had glove contracts. Until then, he has the Nokona gloves.
"If it weren't for Joe, nobody would hear of Nocona," says Jim Storey, president of the family-owned firm. In the '30s, Jim's father, Bob Storey, transformed the company from a billfold manufacturer—"remember, billfolds didn't sell real well during the Depression," says Jim—into an athletic-equipment company. Bob didn't want to fork out a lot of money to sign big-name players, so he recruited Texas League players. For every 25 or 30 he signed, he was lucky to get one who made it to the majors.
Erskine, now a bank president in Anderson, Ind., was with the Fort Worth Cats, the Dodgers' AA team when he signed. He agreed to endorse a Nokona glove for two free gloves each year. Erskine even helped modify the design of the glove because he thought it was too wide in the heel.
When Erskine was called up by the Dodgers in 1948, Bob told him, "Carl, I'm not going to hold you to the contract. You'll probably get a chance to sign for money."
"They had always been so nice to me," says Erskine. "I said, 'Bob, you signed me when I didn't have a name of any kind, so I'll stay with you.' "
That was lucky for Nocona, for Phillips and for Erskine. "As a kid I dreamed of being a major league player," says Erskine, who played in five World Series. "That dream came true. I never thought that 30-something years later that dream would still be so much alive."
This spring Phillips signed Elroy Face, pitcher for the Pirates and Expos from 1953 to '69, to endorse a glove, and is considering reissuing gloves with the signatures of such Nocona standbys as Don Hoak, Billy Hunter, Billy Loes, Karl Spooner and Dick Williams. The movie Field of Dreams inspired Phillips to send out feelers among his friends to see if there was any interest in an Archie (Moonlight) Graham commemorative glove from the early 1900s. "I had only one vote for Moonlight," says Phillips sadly. "If I brought it out, I might be the only guy to buy it."
But he may try to tap into the Dreams roster. Phillips is bringing out a Joe Jackson model ($144.95), which appeared in a Nokona catalog from the 1940s. But he doesn't know if the Jackson was Shoeless Joe or just an ordinary Joe. "We didn't know whether Mr. Storey actually made contact with [Shoeless Joe]," says Phillips. "But the glove was issued."
The Jackson glove could be a standout for eager collectors. "Anything connected with baseball is selling nowadays," says Ralph Horton, former publisher of The Sporting Goods Dealer, a trade magazine published by The Sporting News. "I don't think it will be a deal where he'll sell thousands of them, but he'll sell some."
Storey isn't interested in selling thousands of nostalgia gloves, Nocona makes about 20,000 gloves a year, mostly for softball, and could handle only a few hundred more. "We sell almost all the gloves we can make," says Storey.
So far Phillips orders only five gloves a week from the company. And because there isn't enough demand to make new dies, which would cost $2,000 to $4,000 per set, Nocona veteran Ab Lemons has to make do with scissors. It takes him two or three days to cut out the 28 to 30 pieces of leather used in each glove, which is about 10 times longer than it takes to make a modern baseball or softball glove using dies.
Lemons has worked for Nocona since 1950. Three women employees, all nearing 80, have worked for the firm since the 1930s, and probably sewed some of the original gloves. The factory is a nondescript brick building, 60,000 square feet in area, and all Nokona gloves are stamped AMG: AMERICAN MADE GOODS (most baseball gloves are produced in Asia). The company is small and aims to stay that way.
The Glove Collector catalog, which can be obtained by calling 1-800-729-1808, also includes premium gloves, which are modern models made with exotic materials. The popular Buck-A-Roo model ($135) has a supple kangaroo palm front with a cowhide backing. Then there's the ostrich glove ($425), of which only one has been made. "I have not had a call on it," says Phillips. "Maybe I was slightly off-track on it. If somebody doesn't want an ostrich glove, maybe they want a silk-screen picture of Ebbets Field on a glove. You've got to see what works."
Karen Rosen is a sportswriter for "The Atlanta Constitution and Journal."