“Soft as an old baseball glove.” Is there any higher compliment that can be paid to an item, leather or otherwise (with the obvious exception of my midsection)? I think it’s fair to say that just about everyone who has ever worn a glove has formed a relationship with it, even a decidedly non-sports person like myself. (Believe it or not, I was once a boy who played “catch” with other children, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.)
I have the memories, though much less of my own glove and much more of my dad’s…he played bar league softball for most of my childhood. His glove smelled of leather and sweat and Rolling Rock and some strange liniment he would rub into the pocket, and it likely still does in some musty box in a basement deep in the bowels of coal country Pennsylvania.
After all, a baseball glove’s most elemental function is to serve as an extension of the wearer, so it’s no surprise that many feel such an intimate connection to theirs. As I was doing research for my vintage-style baseball cap article, I read a number of baseball blogs, and there were plenty of people who waxed poetic about their old gloves. And I got to wondering—how many gloves are there languishing in attics and basements all over America, and how many of them have been doing that languishing for the better part of a century?
Turns out I wasn’t the only guy wondering. My research also revealed the story of Jon Brong, who took his wondering to the next level by founding Fielder’s Choice Goods (FC). FC takes those wonderfully beaten up old gloves and turns them into billfolds, card cases and the like. The results? These old gloves are given a second life, but instead of ending a batter’s dreams by snagging a ball out of the summer sky, they keep your Visa and library card safe and secure.
I reached out to FC to get a bit more information on the how’s and why’s of their business, and was thrilled to connect with Brand Manager Luke Bockenstette. Luke was not just nice enough to send along a few choice FC pieces, but he also laid out the whole story of how Fielder’s Choice grew into a real player in the leather goods game.
H: This is a great idea, and one I’m guessing has crossed the mind of more than a few with an old glove that’s beautifully broken in, but no longer sees playing time. How did this grow into a business?
Luke Bockenstette (FC): Our founder, Jon Brong, is the brilliant mind that started this brand back in 2012. Jon was passionate about baseball and had an appreciation for premium quality, handcrafted men’s accessories. Jon decided to deconstruct a few gloves by hand in his studio apartment in Long Beach, CA. He had a knack for it and found he could use the same holes from the glove, a few cuts, and some new stitching to create really cool, really unique wallets. As friends of his started asking about the wallets he’d carry around, what started as a hobby turned into a brand, and now we are really proud of what we’ve created together.
H: Considering that gloves are full of curves and the items you make are not, how much leather does the average glove yield?
FC: Each glove is unique in its shape, shade and story. Bigger gloves such as catcher’s gloves or first baseman’s gloves can create full glove leather billfolds (like the ones in our “Limited” series) by themselves. Other gloves can make smaller, full vintage glove leather wallets too.
But we never want to waste any piece of any glove, so if we can’t make a full wallet out of a glove, we’ll complement the vintage glove leather with full-grain U.S. steerhide to make our “Classics Series.” Our tagline is, “The Legacy Is In The Leather,” and we really believe in that, so we’re serious about cherishing and repurposing every piece of every vintage glove we come across.
H: Is deconstructing a glove as labor intensive as I’m imagining?
FC: At first, our founder Jon only trusted his own hands deconstructing the gloves and crafting each wallet. While some gloves have similar styles, each glove has to be handled with extreme care, because a vintage glove can never be replaced or repaired. Whether the glove is from the 30s or the 80s, they all have unique markings that we highlight in every wallet.
H: Where do you get the gloves anyway? Are you afraid that at some point, you’ll run out of supply?
FC: There’s no question that our source material is scarce by its very nature. We’ve started by sourcing all of our gloves from our close relationships with some of the top glove collectors in the country. For our first Limited Release, we worked with Brett Lowman, the foremost authority on vintage baseball gloves in the country. Brett has also connected to us to other collectors.
But it’s true—the supply of vintage baseball gloves is not limitless so we are constantly on the lookout for more as we grow. We understand that vintage baseball gloves are a scarce commodity, but we are committed to repurposing them as long as we can find them. However, we are proud of the fact that every single product we have ever made is one-of-a-kind and will never be sold again.
H: Do collectors ever think what you’re doing is heresy…do you get the occasional, “How dare you!”
FC: We get the occasional upset collector but their respect for the game is often reconciled with our ability to honor the legacy of the game. Brett Lowman was really enthusiastic about our project. He spent years collecting these gloves, so he loved the fact that more people would get to appreciate the gloves in this whole new way. We believe that each glove tells a unique story of the individual who wore it and our process allows for those stories to live on.
H: You’ve just recently launched a program where someone can have their old glove given the Fielder’s Choice treatment, correct?
FC: Yes! It’s called the Pastime Custom Program and we were really excited to roll it out. Customers are able to send us their own gloves to be handcrafted into custom wallets. Each wallet is a personal memento that they can carry with them or give as what we believe the greatest gift ever. We’re already getting lots of stories of fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, wives, friends—all kinds of people—who have gloves that mean so much to them but collect dust on a shelf somewhere. We’re really honored to be trusted with this part of their story and the feedback we have gotten back from our community solidifies our notion that every single glove has a story that matters.
H: You have two “lines” of products…what distinguishes them from one another?
FC: The “Classics” line is our line of wallets that starts with vintage glove leather that is too small for a full wallet so we reinforce those pieces with full-grain U.S. steerhide (the same leather that modern gloves are made from). In the “Limited” Series, each wallet is almost entirely made from vintage glove leather. These are unique releases attached to really specific stories surrounding the legacy of the game.
H: Any other noteworthy product lines in the planning? Other products?
FC: A few months back we sold a wallet to someone and realized that the glove leather for the wallet was from a 1930s era glove. That got us thinking: what if we could figure out the release date of each of these gloves and create a series around a particular decade of baseball? This resulted in our latest Limited Series called The Fifties which included 29 billfolds that sold out in under 24 hours.
Obviously, gloves from that far back are particularly hard to find with consistency, but we think that makes for an even more remarkable wallet. We’re already working on our next Limited Series story to bring some new one-of-a-kind wallets to light.
H: Your Limited Series wallets sell out every time you make a new batch (and they ain’t cheap)—what is it you think that resonates so powerfully with people when they discover Fielder’s Choice products?
FC: We think it’s two things: first, we really stand by the beauty and craftsmanship of the wallets. They come out looking amazing, and since customers can pick their exact, preferred wallet and end up with something totally unique, it’s just a really satisfying purchase. Beyond that, we put a lot of time and thought into telling the stories behind the wallets in each series.
Our most recent series, for example, is all gloves from the 1950s, so we had beers and talked to some guys who watched Hank Aaron play live in that decade and can still recite the lineup of the ’57 Milwaukee Braves. That’s a pretty relatable conversation for anyone to whom baseball has meant a lot.
H: Might Fielder’s Choice evolve into a brand that sells more than leather goods…what’s the future of the company look like?
FC: As mentioned, the supply of baseball gloves isn’t limitless so the future of FC Goods will extend into the retelling of other Americana stories. We’re passionate about telling stories by repurposing well-used items, whether that be within baseball or not. So much of the other stuff we all buy is mass-produced and devoid of character and story. We’ll keep growing and building as long as we can celebrate authentic stories by repurposing vintage goods.
We recognize our own, and with all his talk of “story,” unique break-ins, and preserving history, Luke Bockenstette (and founder Jon Brong) are clearly as obsessed with their baseball glove business as we are about first soaks and fades. And I can tell you from experience that disassembling a baseball glove by hand is way, way harder than you’re thinking.
I gave it a stab for this article (pun intended) on a crappy thrift store find, and literally bled for my art. Given that all the gloves FC uses are taken apart by hand, the resulting wallets are a steal. (In my failed attempt, I alone must have used $286 worth of Band-Aids, gauze, and medicinal tequila.) So, are FC’s resulting wallets and such worth the blood, sweat and dollars?
I tried out a Classic and Limited Series Billfold, as well as a Classic Card Case and Money Clip. Me and my ass have been working hard on softening up a Tanner Goods billfold for years, but she’s now been benched in deference to these new old beauties.
The Classics Card Case ($105) uses vintage baseball leather on the front pocket for maximum visibility, and premium steerhide for the rest. The stitching is tight and uniform, unlike the cut marks of the vintage leather, where you can see the perfectly imperfect line, clearly cut by hand. Since I wear shorts most of the time–I’m now in San Diego, where during the polar vortex it was over 100 degrees warmer than most of the country–this fits well in a front pocket and lets me carry my card essentials without the bulk of a billfold in my back pocket…especially great since my shorts don’t have a back pocket.
The Classics Money Clip ($85) uses vintage leather on the entire outer surface, and features the strongest magnets of any money clip of this style I’ve tried. It firmly handles a fold of cash and a couple cards, and stays put nicely in a front pocket. This and the card case have become fixtures of my short pants EDC (SPEDC?)
When I want to get all “fancy” and wear long pants, I go to one of the billfolds—first, the Classic model ($145). This features mostly steerhide, with the vintage leather reserved for the inner card pockets. Arguably, this is the least awesome of the lot, as it’s the most like other premium leather wallets. I’ve used this mostly when wearing non-denim and non-shorts (and that leaves either naked or fatigues, so I’ll let your mind’s eye choose its own adventure). Hell, if my wife can have 631 purses, I can have two wallets.
The pick of the litter is certainly the Limited Series Billfold ($295) I was lucky enough to get, number 47 of that batch of 50. The vintage leather is buttery soft, and is only getting butterier softer. Like an old face, the lines and creases of this wallet—crafted almost entirely of vintage leather—tell a story, and usually so do I.
What I mean by that is, I quite conspicuously hold my FC wallet out during the entire time when paying for something, and more often than not I get asked about it. The comments are usually along the lines of, “Cool wallet…did you make it?,” and most of the time I tell the truth that I did not, and send the inquiring mind FC’s way. Other times I’m a part-time leather artisan/bullfighter in town from Buenos Aires. But almost everyone, and not just men, says something, and it’s universally glowing.
As for break in, the non-vintage leather in these wallets is full-grain, so it should soften just as nicely as the vintage stuff, which yielded immediately to the curve of my butt. Since most premium leather wallets are more similar than different, it’s fun to be able to have something you truly don’t see everywhere. Honestly, isn’t that what most of us here are looking for? And it’ll be exciting to see how these pieces fair in their second lives.
The FC site offers lots of videos and stories of people who love and cherish gloves, as well as the ability to sign up for new Limited Series release dates (they get snapped up quick, and you can reserve the exact wallet you want). I’m even thinking of trying to find my dad’s old glove to have made into something via the Pastime Program. But that would mean traveling cross country back to coal country Pennsylvania and digging through musty old boxes? And bullfighting season is right around the corner…