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Mudville: February 7, 2023 2:45 pm PDT
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A Stitch in Time

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Some gifts are perfect in their craftsmanship and design.

In this Christmas giving time of the season, let me tell you about a new/old wallet I received five months ago from my daughter Kelly for my birthday

This is not just any wallet. It’s a wallet crafted from her well-worn softball glove, a wallet with history.

The memories of the games played with that glove at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego 25 years ago, and her Hall of Fame college career, come flooding back whenever I open the wallet. Kelly’s maiden name is written on the fine leather on the side of the Easton glove, an Ex-130 13” – and I think back not only to her high school games but to when she first started playing baseball (the only girl on most of her Little League teams); and to Kelly’s later four years of being captain of the Ramapo College softball team.

You see, this is not just a fine-crafted wallet; it’s a talisman, a time machine.

The artist behind the work is Robbie Harper, and his journey of learning how to create such work is a story in itself. At The Story we love to highlight those who bring baseball (or softball) to life in different ways, and Robbie Harper does just that with his talented hands and creative mind.

Robbie is a crane dock foreman at the Georgia Port Authority in Savannah, Georgia, a working man. When work slowed during Covid he had the time to take on the challenge of learning a new skill, making handmade custom leather goods.

This man can run one of those humongous cranes you see at the ports that move shipping containers like Legos, so he knows how to figure things out. His Instagram page @harperinternationalleatherllc says it all: “Imagination is only limited if you are looking for what someone else already has!’’

Harper, 49, creates all kinds of quality leather goods that are not only beautiful, practical, and will last forever – but there is love stitched into every item. In this Amazon world that we live in today, this is a story of American ingenuity and craftsmanship; but most of all it is a story of a small business with a big heart.

“Right before Covid started my wife Sarah signed me up for this thing called Stitch & Brew, where you went to a guy here and you pretty much drank beer and made a wallet,’’ Robbie told BallNine. “I used to fool around with art and sculpting and stuff and I hadn’t done it in almost 30 years and I said, ‘You know, that was pretty fun’ and it kind of got the creative juices flowing.’’

Did it ever. Robbie and his wife Sarah, a middle school English Language Arts teacher, have two grown children. One is a tax attorney living in Arizona; the other, as Robbie said, “is living his best life in Colorado.’’

With the kids grown and out of the house, Robbie dove headfirst into his new labor of love.

“I went on Amazon and ordered me a couple of tools and got ahold of one of the hide companies and just ordered me a hide, had it delivered, and I watched a ton of YouTube videos and I decided I want to make more than wallets – and I started making women’s purses,’’ Robbie said matter-of-factly.

“I made Sarah a bag for school,’’ noted Robbie, “and some of the teachers were like, ‘Where’d you get that?’”

“‘My husband made it.’”

“It kind of went from there.’’

“I’m going to tell you right now,’’ Harper said, “baseball gloves are some of the best made products, they are hell to take apart.”

Kelly Kernan's high school glove - note the name.

The creative juices flowed and so did all kinds of leather goods, belts, lined bags, purses, wallets, cell phone holders, holsters, rifle straps, flip flops, belt tool holders, backpacks, cup holders, duffle bags, shaving bags, carry-on bags, briefcases, and red, white, and blue wallets –  and all handmade of the finest leather.

By repurposing baseball gloves, Harper brings life to an old glove and turns it into something that is needed every day, bringing back diamond memories.

Robbie Harris at work

Robbie Harris at work.

“I got the idea from friends whose kids played travel ball,’’ Robbie said. “Making wallets from old gloves to make them a piece of memorabilia from when their kids played ball.’’

A simple, yet genius idea.

My wallet still has the Easton E on one side, Kelly Kernan in red marker on the inside, and on the other side the model name of the glove. To top it off, the hand stitching on the outside of the wallet resembles the stitching on a baseball.

“I’ve seen some leather workers fool around with this before but nothing to the extent of full wallets,’’ Robbie explained.

He’s made wallets from all types of gloves; and he remembers when he figured out the Mizuno emblem, the perfect pocket, was perfect to use in the wallet.

These wallets are not easy to make because the gloves are so difficult to break down.

“I’m going to tell you right now,’’ Harper said, “baseball gloves are some of the best made products, they are hell to take apart. And then I have to wet the glove down and everything that has been rolled for years, like all the fingers, and roll it out and then I have to stitch the fingers together to make it big enough to do things with.”

“When I saw Kelly’s name I made sure to keep that so you could have her childhood name.’’

Remember what I said about small business, big heart? That’s a perfect example.

The process.

“I was so excited when she brought me the glove because it meant something more,’’ Harper said of the project. “I told Kelly I dumped probably a pound of sand out of the glove, and she was like: ‘I can tell you everywhere that sand came from.’’’

Every field. Every dig at first base.

A true first baseman works on digging the ball out of the dirt on throws. That hard work is represented in the wallet as well, the dedication to being the best you can be as a softball player.

Robbie Harper isn’t just making a wallet. He makes memories come alive. He’s saving a bit of family history with each glove wallet he makes.

“For me,’’ Harper said, “it’s things like that. When I took the glove apart it was scraping the rosin out of it where her palm was, all the sand that was in it, and having just enough leather left over after making the wallet to make Kelly a little card holder for when she rides her bike, so she has something she can stick in her front pocket.’’

Again, small business, big heart: Harper Leather International, LLC.

Making something for both dad and daughter. Here is more inspiration behind his work:

“I’ve been working at the port for going on 26 years now,’’ Robbie said. “Working at the port we work 24/7 and there’s not a lot of time at home. And there’s a lot of things I missed with our kids growing up. Seeing these younger guys coming in and knowing you are missing a lot of sentimental moments that you can’t get back, I was like, ‘Man there’s got to be some way to honor that.’ And hearing them talk about how passionate they were, trying to get off to see their kids’ travel ball, saying ‘He’s growing out of this glove’ or he needs this or wants that, I’m like, those things can’t go by the wayside.’’

No they can’t, and working fathers and mothers who have those games can relate.

“I try to think about unique or different things,’’ Robbie said of his artisanal approach. “I have a couple of catchers’ mitts that I am going to take apart and make ladies’ wallets out of them. I just designed a pattern for a miniature bat bag that will be a shoulder bag for baseball moms and where the bats go, I got it for like an umbrella to slide down in there.’’

Creative and functional and keeping memories alive all at once.

And here’s another thing, Robbie Harper understands how difficult it can be to pay for such quality leather goods. “A couple of other leather makers are kind of aggravated with me for my prices,’’ Robbie said. “To me it’s more about making something that people can keep forever.”

“When I sit there and I’m designing a new item and then cutting out the pieces of leather and putting it all together and it’s becoming something you can hold in your hands, a real item, I’ll go in the leather room at 6 o’clock in the morning when Sarah goes off to school and there are a lot of times when I realize it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t ate breakfast or lunch,’’ Harper said.

Their two boys, Chandler and Zack, did not play baseball. “They were lacrosse players and Olympic weight lifters,’’ he explained. “My cousin is Cheryl Haworth, the Olympic weightlifter. Both our boys got scholarships in lacrosse.’’

Cheryl Haworth was inducted into the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame in 2015.

The finished product, inside and out.

Robbie Harper said this is part of his retirement plan and that he is about a month and a half out on current orders because his work is in such demand, even though it is only promoted through word of mouth.

“I have no advertisement besides my Instagram page,’’ he said.

“I like dealing with all types of leather and thicknesses of leather,’’ Robbie said. “And of course being down South here, everybody wants rifle straps and now everybody wants belts. The belts that I make, I guarantee you, their kids will be able to wear them when they pass on.’’

That is quality, lifetime belts. People get their money’s worth and Robbie Harper is doing this for the love of the craft.

A women’s bag can easily go for $450, but if a teacher wants that bag made, “It’s $150,’’ Harper said.

“I know a teacher can’t afford what a crane operator can. It’s more so them enjoying what they are getting and understanding that if anything were to happen, just bring it back to me and I’ll take care of it.’’

Trust and handmade quality made in America, made in a room in Georgia, his hide-away.

Robbie Harper is an artist who runs a small business with a mighty big heart. This is not only a baseball/softball story, this a story that exemplifies American craftsmanship, caring, and dedication.

In fact, taking out my wallet and paying for something has never been so much fun.

Merry Christmas to all.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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