BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
The journey that Kevin Howell took to become a glove doctor may seem like it’s been a short one. That sojourn, however, was nearly 40 years in the making and it’s still one on which the Fishers, Indiana resident is traveling.
Howell, 46, has recently carved out a niche in the booming world of baseball glove repair, establishing himself as one of the go-to glove fixers throughout North America. He has clients from the northern reaches of Canada to Mexico City and from coast to coast in the United States. While his reputation has grown by leaps in bounds over the last few years, his ability as a leather worker dates back to his days as a youngster on his grandfather’s 120-acre farm about an hour north of Indianapolis.
“My grandparents were dairy farmers and I grew up working on the farm,” Howell said. “There was not a lot for expenditures or extra purchases, so if we were playing ball we had a five-gallon bucket worth of old mitts. We just couldn’t go out and buy new stuff; so I learned the schematics of some of the older mitts and taught myself how to relace them and repair them just to keep them in the game. So, I’ve been working on gloves since I was young.”
“After I got out of college and into adulthood, I began working on other projects. I started to work on softball gloves and other people’s mitts and before I knew it, it was, ‘Can you work on my dad’s old McGregor or whatever.’ So, I picked up the hobby again, and in the last three or four years I’ve been working on vintage pre-90s and pre-80s stuff and older mitts, establishing how to clean them and what works best, honing in on the leather work. I started charging people and before I knew it, I had a following.”
That following took off when his 19-year-old daughter, Jillian, coaxed Howell into posting photos of his work on Instagram [at hoosiervintagegloves]. He began to work on photography and branding and his business grew. While he works on the gloves for upwards of 25 hours a week, his full-time job is as a human resources rep for an Indiana hospital.
Howell usually charges between $60 and $160 for his repair work, but says that he’s also done work on other gloves that needed between $300 and $400 worth of attention. His work can be found on his Etsy page.
“I like the artistry and the history and evolution of mitts,” Howell said. “I appreciate the leather work and I shy away from bulk. I am a shop of one but I do a fair amount of high-end work.”
Kevin Howell in his workshop (Courtesy of Kevin Howell)
The oldest mitt on which Howell has worked, a full-web crescent, is one that is in his personal collection. That one, which has the crescent-shaped padding after which the glove is named, dates back to the late 1800s. Howell has also worked on several one-inch web mitts from the early 1900s. Many of these mitts actually contain asbestos so he has to be careful.
“Some of it is pretty delicate work as you can imagine,” Howell said. “The older the better, though. I love the grime; I love the asbestos. When I have those, I have to do them in my shop and not on the kitchen table. My shop is mobile, I work out of one box and can do it anywhere.”
“When I am working on a glove with asbestos it’s like anything else; I have PPE [personal protection equipment], rubber gloves, and masks if I have to open something up. I don’t want that being fanned around with family and pets. So, I will replace it and hazmat it and then use a poly foam to replace it. You just have to be smart with it. The asbestos is usually pre-1920s.”
Howell said the process by which he cleans and repairs a mitt is “pretty refined”. It takes him between three and four hours, including drying time, to clean and relace a standard fielder’s mitt. The cleaning process involves hot water, white vinegar, and environmentally friendly dish soap. He gets the soap to a nice lather to remove all the “surface DNA and grime.”
“The farm had a lot of leather, whether it was a saddle or whatever – so I work with saddle soap pretty well,” Howell said.
Courtesy of Kevin Howell
While many people want the old gloves refurbished, Howell said there are also many people who want to keep the glove looking old and beat up because it once belonged to someone famous or has a signature on it or it belonged to a relative. The amount of work he will do also depends on whether the glove will be displayed somewhere or be put to use.
“There really are varying levels on which the customer is focused, for sure,” Howell said. “There is a vibe when it comes to the one piece of equipment that is as personal as a glove. You play with it, but there are those that are relics or have family history and that’s a big responsibility to dive into that. It’s a responsibility I take seriously because it means a lot to people.”
Howell currently has close to 80 gloves in his personal collection, but that number is fluid. He trades them or repairs them and flips them so the number is constantly changing. Howell’s favorite piece is the crescent full web from the late 1800s that he says is pretty cool and is one with which he “will be buried.”
He also has many Nokonas – he is known as a Nokona guy – that were issued around the time of World War II. Howell is also working on his collection of Wilson A2000s, first produced in 1957.
“If I come across Nokonas of those ages, I try to buy them,” Howell said. “Anything USA-made or anything pre-1960s. They started to get mass produced after that. I’m trying to gain every year Wilson made a variation of the A2000. Some I have are like new, others have been doctored up by me.”
Courtesy of Kevin Howell
Howell’s holy grail, though, is the Draper and Maynard Babe Ruth left-handed model, which can be very expensive. They sell for several thousand dollars on the secondary market, though Howell said that even replicas of that particular glove can sell for thousands.
“The hobby is so expansive and there is a lot of cool stuff, but it is so expensive,” Howell said. “I’m not a big baller like some of those guys that get into the collecting side.”
Unless some things change, Howell likely won’t be spending big buckets of cash on that Ruth glove. He won’t be dedicating much more time to his “side work,” either. His wife of 20 years, Michelle, is a registered nurse and she is also quite busy; so the couple looks forward to spending time together.
“She’s pretty supportive of it because she knows I love the game,” Howell said. “But I’m pretty good with time management and I’m doing fewer private orders. I can crank out mitts all day or I can make it mean something and hone in on making it a brand.”