How Design Changes Saved American Made Gloves
In 2002 at the age 78, Rollie Latina, a.k.a: Glove Doctor, the glove designer for Rawlings Sporting Goods Company in St. Louis, MO passed away. Within a few short years, Rawlings would terminate their mass production Made in the USA glove operation, which they began in 1887. Rollie took over for his father Harry the original Glove Doctor at Rawlings and together they designed and innovated much of the classic features in gloves today, such as The Playmaker, the Fastback and the Basket Web to name a few. Their combined contributions to Rawlings spanned nearly eighty years. Their legendary “Mark of the Pro” gloves were used and treasured by countless ballplayers. Beginning with their Bill Doak model in 1919, which revolutionized the fielder’s glove, the hallowed practice of oiling and wrapping a ball in glove to break it in just right, became a rite-of-passage ritual for nearly all boys and girls playing ball.
The popularity and dominance of Rawlings gloves throughout the 20th century can certainly be attributed to their fine design and supreme quality, but most of all, to the Latinas. When Rawlings stopped mass-producing gloves in the USA and mothballed their factory, it marked the passing of a unique operation of talented crafts persons and particular supply sources. Furthermore, it punctuated a remarkable success story of resistance to an ever-mounting force from overseas manufacturing.
Gloves made in the Orient looked good and offered a tremendous margin of profit to the companies electing to go the way of the import. An entire glove could be imported to the USA fully assembled and packaged for the cost of the domestic labor costs alone for a comparable glove. Glove companies like Mizuno, Zett, SSK, Easton & Louisville Slugger could offer gloves that had more bells and whistles, looked more fantastic and significantly undercut the Rawlings Made in the USA retail cost. Major brands like Wilson, Spalding and MacGregor closed their domestic operations in the 1980s and opted to import solely. Regardless, Rawlings maintained their domestic operation albeit even as they had to concede by supplementing their glove lines with imports from the Orient. From the late 1970s, they were able to continue to make gloves in America until the early 2000s largely by the clever and innovative design and engineering of Rollie Latina and his partner Bob Clevenhagen. Together, they instituted labor saving assembly techniques and designs that reduced the labor costs without reducing the overall quality of the finished product. With “Heart of Hide” leather top professional gloves they were able to keep their market edge on the competition. This strategy sustained their huge dominance in the market they had fostered since World War II to the end of the century. Even though, the other glove manufacturers cultivated professional ballplayer endorsements, seducing them principally by supplying free gloves and in some cases payola to use their products, Rawlings still attracted the majority of players because their gloves were simply preferred.
So what changed? As it is, since the beginning of the new century, year after year the factory crafts persons were naturally growing older and hence more expensive. Perhaps the cost of replacing retiring older skilled personnel with younger laborers was too difficult or plain impossible. Even as the glove designers and factory engineers instituted automated operations instead of the handmade skills, there was only so much they could do to reduce the overall labor costs. However, there comes a point when factory overhead and ever increasing labor costs combined with ever rising material costs for gloves is just not sustainable.
I believe that Rawlings was marketing their Made in the USA gloves at a loss. Because imported gloves were flooding the market and driving down the general retail cost of baseball and softball gloves, Rawlings management feared losing sales. The retail cost for their top of the line Made in the USA gloves was between $150 and $200. This would mean that the factory would have to make the glove for $30 to $40 each, which was probably implausible. Regardless, Rawlings management would not give up design, material supply and production control to imports. In the end, Rawlings’ rising costs would force them to cease domestic mass production. However, within a short period of a few years a spike in direct Internet online sales offered a new opportunity for Rawlings to get back into American production.
Since 2011, Rawlings has introduced custom premium made to order gloves, which retailed directly to the customer for, at the time, an unheard of $450 each. Because the gloves are not sold through distributors and brick and mortar stores, less of the cost is shared with middlemen resulting in greater margin of profit to American crafts people and production overhead. Now the gloves can be made profitably. They are made to order, so there is much more production efficiency, less sales forecasting issues, production overhead, distribution and stocking costs. Moreover, the high retail prices for these custom gloves reflect a more realistic cost for a Made in America product. Even more importantly, Rawlings can control the future of baseball glove manufacturing right here in the USA—a smart sustainable business strategy.
Note: Generally, the price of Rawlings’ custom high quality gloves has lifted the entire market, generating a whole new ceiling. Now all the glove manufacturers are marketing high-end production gloves in the same price range. The market for Made in the USA vintage gloves made in the 20th century has seen a market increase, recently fetching prices as high as $500+. A small market of American glove makers still exists including Goldsmith, Nokona, Roy Hobbs and Capire. Perhaps there could be a renaissance.