It's a chilly February morning, but Jay Goldberg is focused on the greener pastures of opening day. He's busy getting the clubhouse in order: ordering equipment, looking over his lineup, and ensuring the video system will be piping in baseball highlights throughout the season.
No, Goldberg isn't affiliated with the big leagues -- but he is a baseball man through-and-through. The horsehide is so central in his life that he opened Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in early May, a home in the heart of New York to showcase his one-of-a-kind collectible baseballs.
Goldberg started out in politics, working for local luminaries like former mayor Ed Koch, before becoming a sports agent for players like Phillies great Mike Schmidt, and both Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." After 15 years, however, Goldberg realized he enjoyed the marketing much more than the negotiating. "The industry was changing, and the young guys were a pain in the ass," he says.
Goldberg founded Bergino Baseballs (a mash-up of his name and creative director Tony Palladino's) in 2000, even though, admittedly, he knew nothing about manufacturing or the gift industry. Undeterred, he set out to make custom leather baseballs featuring images like a New York map or personal messages like "It's A Boy!" He assumed men would be his primary customers, but learned early on that women buying gifts were in his wheelhouse. Later balls got more esoteric, featuring designs like a New York Times crossword puzzle written by Will Shortz, and the "Star-Spangled Banner" in Francis Scott Key's original handwriting. One thing Goldberg doesn't sell? Licensed big-league products. "My driving force is the game of baseball, not MLB," he says. "I'm just as happy watching 10-year-olds play Little League in the Village or Sunday afternoon softball in Central Park."
Befitting Bergino's successful "Ballparks of America" offering, the baseballs use California leathers cut in Manhattan and embroidered in Queens (the stitching is done in China). Goldberg went the typical vendor route and says a big turning point for the "six-figure" company was when the baseballs were featured on the cover of Saks Fifth Avenue's corporate magazine. Bergino's found success in places such as the gift shop at Chicago's Field Museum and stores like Neiman Marcus, but poor displays always irked Goldberg. He decided to open a hangout to show off the collection of $20 to $25 Bergino baseballs, but it isn't an overstuffed retail store and it isn't the beginning of a chain. The Bergino Baseball Clubhouse is a place where fans can linger while talking Cy Young candidates, check out unique items like the mini-glove business card holder, admire the baseball-themed artwork that adorns the walls (a muscle-headed Mark McGuire "Got Milk" ad amuses) and revel in the sport that's enabled Goldberg to fulfill his boyhood dreams.
"I know for a fact Sandy Koufax has a 'Mensch' ball, and in a weird way, I feel connected to him, because I still touch every ball we make," Goldberg says. "By opening the clubhouse, I'll finally get to see the enjoyment and people's love of baseball firsthand."
Fits Like a Glove
Fans may be the metaphorical lifeblood for the game, but there are plenty of guys and girls for whom baseball is a game to be played. Thousands of miles from downtown Manhattan -- geographically and culturally -- is the small Texas burg of Nocona. Population 3,200, it's an oil town along the Red River, near the Oklahoma border, that's been home to Nokona Athletic Goods since 1926, a leather goods company that's been making baseball gloves since 1934. Nokona's best years were during the heyday of slow-pitch softball, and the company survived as American glovemakers fell by the wayside, but it was treading water until entrepreneur Jerry O'Connor bought the company in 2008.
From the outset, O'Connor felt Nokona's greatest advantage is the fact that the gloves are made in America. He's the inventor of the "Moses Miracle" system of delivering flowers from the growers to customers' doorsteps, in water, within 72 hours of harvest. So he understands supply chains and believed Nokona could use local manufacturing to its benefit. First thing he did was turn Nokona into a sales-and-marketing entity that has an ownership stake in the manufacturing and product development, but isn't required to handle management or day-to-day operations. He also knew that to innovate and expand the product line, the company needed a new facility. Expansion in Nocona was impossible due to the limited workforce, so the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, native converted a Wooster, Mass., plant to augment the product line, while still keeping things humming in the original facility.
Nokona now offers a number of premium gloves, ranging in price from $160 to $330. The gloves are sold throughout the country at retailers like Dick's Sporting Goods and the Sports Chalet. O'Connor says making the gloves in the United States allows the company to test out models quickly, which is a huge competitive advantage in terms of order turnaround, or in matching various team color schemes. Plus, the "Made in America for the Home Team" slogan packs a bit more punch with consumers focused on the "national" pastime.
"There are costs to making things in the U.S.A., but I wonder if some people don't look at the advantages," O'Connor says. "Too often managers dismiss the idea out of hand." Nokona offers one line, the Buckaroo series, made from Australian kangaroo leather, but everything else is made here, including O'Connor's "next logical step," the wooden bats manufactured in Fall River, Mass. The under-$20 million company backs up the patriotic bent with the "American Defender" glove, which helps support the Military All-Stars and their annual "Red, White and Blue Tour."
Nothing to Spit At
A quality mitt is essential, but baseball can be a languid sport for both the players in the field and the folks in the stands. Fortunately, Dakota Natural Foods has everyone covered. Peanuts and Cracker Jacks be damned, everyone knows the primo ballgame snack is spits. And Guy Huus' company has been producing them since 1976. "When you think baseball, you think sunflower seeds," he says.
After many years at Cargill, Huus decided he wanted a company of his own. He bought Dakota Natural Foods in 2004, moving it from its original location in Fargo to his home in Detroit Lakes, Minn. That area of the country is America's sunflower seed basket. Dakota Natural buys the seeds from farmers, packages them, and sells them to wholesalers and retailers like Wal-Mart and QuikTrip.
Huus says consumption is growing, owing in part to the development of flavored sunflower seeds. Like its salty cousin the potato chip, Dakota Natural Foods seeds now come in Ranch, Salt & Pepper, and Dill Pickle versions. In 2003, the company introduced larger grade seeds in the "Jumboz" size, which are a favorite in the baseball community.
Cast of Characters
It's clear that baseball isn't just fun-and-games -- it's billion-dollar industry, after all -- but the line gets mustardy when the job at hand is producing 10-foot tall foam hot dog costumes. At Olympus Flag & Banner, there is no shame in knowing how the sausage gets made.
The Milwaukee-based Olympus first opened in 1893, producing banners, pennants, and American flags, which it still makes today. Forty years ago, Olympus began making McDonald's characters, creating the original Grimace and Hamburglar costumes. Today, mascot production comprises about 20 percent of the company's $18 million revenue, with corporate characters like Tony the Tiger, the Geico Gecko, and Yogi Bear, ensuring bulk mascot orders and recurring refurbishing. Mascots range from $500 to $8,000 with an average of around $2,500. The detail work is so intricate and specialized that Olympus couldn't outsource the work, even if it wanted to.
"We're the largest producer of mascots in the U.S.," says owner Brian Adam. "It's an exciting market where we get to make cool creative characters." And Adam knows a thing or two about giant furry getups. He spent his formative college years as Bucky Badger, mascot of the University of Wisconsin. He says his personal claim-to-fame, and consultation with the current Badgers, has actually helped in the development of Olympus's mascot technology. For instance, Bucky's head weighed 25 pounds, which limited movement, so it's now carbon fiber and 15 pounds lighter. His background has helped expand Olympus's college circuit, and now some of the most well-known costumes they produce are the Florida Gator, the UCLA Bruin, and Alabama's "Big Al" the Elephant.
January through April is the mascot busy season, as amusement parks and minor league clubs get geared up, so Olympus ramps up production and shifts some of its 100 employees to costume duty. Every year, a few of the lucky workers will be in charge of spiffing up the company's famous hometown heroes, the five Klement's Racing Sausages that compete at every Milwaukee Brewers game under the watchful eye of Bernie Brewer, which is also Olympus's handiwork.
The Bratwurst, Polish, and Italian sausages, and the Hot Dog, began racing in the 1990s -- the Chorizo was introduced in 2006 -- and became a phenomenon, drawing worldwide interest and landing in their own ESPN SportsCenter commercials. The mascots were so successful, other teams sought out Olympus, and they now produce the Pittsburgh Pirates Racing Pierogies and minor league versions featuring potatoes and beer bottles.
The 10-foot tall, 15-pound sausage costumes are top-heavy and can be rather unwieldy, but they are durable. In 2003, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Randall Simon smacked the Italian Sausage across the head with a bat, sending the mascot -- and subsequently the Hot Dog -- to the ground. Miraculously, the wiener didn't need emergency repairs. "We take pride that the Italian Sausage survived the beating unscathed," says Adam.
To which we say, "Play ball!"
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 5/18/10.