What do you do if you can't bear to retire your tattered high school baseball glove and you don't want to spend 150 bucks for a new glove of equal quality? You send the old one to The Gloveman in Fremont, Calif. the only shop in the country specializing in the repair, restoration and reconditioning of baseball gloves. For "no more than $34.50," The Gloveman, a.k.a. Lee Chilton, promises to rebuild your glove and even guarantees his work for one year. "We rebuild them the way they used to make them," says Chilton.
He begins by breaking the glove down—cutting all the laces and turning it inside out. "Once you get on the inside," he says, "you can tell what you've got." Where required, he glues and sews in new leather. Next, the old padding is discarded, and new horsehair-and-cotton padding is inserted. Fresh leather trim is added, and the glove is restitched with nylon thread. Finally, it's rubbed with The Gloveman's special conditioner and hung in a 150� conditioning room for several hours.
The restoration of old gloves, however, makes up only a small fraction of Chilton's business: Of the more than 500 gloves he and his five assistants rebuild every month, 90% are less than a year or two old. Chilton, 37, is a large and passionate man, and when he gets started on the subject of baseball gloves, he's got a lot to say.
"For the most part, the gloves they're making today are just plain garbage, mass-produced garbage. The quality of the leather is lousy, and it hasn't been properly aged," Chilton says. "With the modern chrome tanning process used today, they can tan a hide in no time, but it clogs the pores of the leather. The old alum tanning process took time, but you got quality."
Chilton reaches into the mound of gloves on his workbench and digs out an old catcher's mitt. "This mitt is 30 years old. You can look at the quality of the leather as compared to what we have on the market now." He pulls out another glove. "This glove is no more than a couple of months old. You go out and you spend $80 for this glove, and you don't get a guarantee. And this glove is falling apart already.
"You got a rip there, you got another one here, you got one starting around this hole, and the laces are about to go," he says. "And that's standard on new gloves. Why? Why should a glove rip out like that? It shouldn't. It's improperly tanned, that's why it's ripping," Chilton says.
Those involved in the manufacture of baseball gloves see things a little differently. They insist that gloves aren't what they used to be because the buying public has changed. "Our experience and our surveys show that the players don't want to go though the break-in process anymore," says Jacque Hetrick, the director of public relations for Spalding. "The leather isn't as thick as it was in the past, but that's what the consumer wants."
George Ruzicka, a buyer for Wilson Sporting Goods, agrees. "What the Sunday player wants is to be able to pick up a glove and play with it right away," Ruzicka says. "The tanning process has changed over the years to where a lot of the oils can now be added in the tanning. Because of this softer leather that you can just pick off the shelf and use, something has to give, and it's going to be durability."
But Chilton says the quality of the leather and the tanning process are only two of the problems with today's gloves. Another is the use of Naugahyde to replace leather interiors. "It's the same with padding," he says. "Many gloves are filled with Styrofoam instead of cotton and horsehair. It's 'cost-effective.' And I'm not just talking about inexpensive gloves."
To illustrate his point, Chilton goes into his office and returns with two foreign-made gloves cut from the same pattern; one sells for less than $50, the other for more than $100. The cheaper glove has cotton-and-horsehair padding, the more expensive one just has thin cotton; the first has a thumb spoon (a piece of plastic inside the thumb which keeps the shape), the second does not. The message is simple: One glove is not necessarily better than another simply because it costs more.