One stitch at a time… Droke crafts old baseball gloves into collectible baseballs
Published 2:48 pm Wednesday, July 13, 2022
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Don Droke creates treasures — and a little bit of baseball magic — from discarded gloves.
About five years ago, the Carter County resident sat down and began teaching himself to stitch baseballs by trial and error. He was inspired by the methods used by Civil War soldiers more than 160 years ago.
Today, those hand-stitched Civil War baseballs sell for $3,000 to $4,000, and the balls created by Droke are proving priceless to many of the recipients.
“One of the favorite ones that I have made was a tribute to a dad who had passed away and hadn’t take the time to sign a baseball,” Droke said. “If your father is still alive or whoever instilled the love of the game in you — go get a ball and have them sign it for you. Even if you are a dad or mom — sign one for your child because they will be sure to cherish it.”
Droke told of a customer who sent a picture of his late father’s autograph. Droke replicated it perfectly on the ball while also adding his father’s favorite team, player, and his father’s nickname. That custom ball is now the centerpiece in a large baseball collection.
Droke developed a love for baseball at a young age. His father, Jimmie Droke, played outfield for ETSU in the 1950s, while his grandfather, Pete Droke, pitched in the old Sullivan County League in the 1930s and 1940s. He was wearing his grandfather’s old uniform top recently when interviewed about his hobby. And he still regrets never having his father or grandfather sign a ball. “(I) didn’t get my dad or papaw to sign a ball for me, which is so sad,” Droke said. “If your father is still alive or whoever instilled the love of the game in you — go get a ball and have them sign it for you.”
Droke spends six to eight hours making each baseball. He often works on the balls while he watches baseball games. He created many of the tools he uses out of necessity, adapting tools used generations before for carpentry or other tasks.
Droke starts with a glove and disassembles it and then arranges the leather into the ball as he tries to save as much of the glove’s stamping as possible. This process takes Droke about two to three hours because it makes the sewing and final product look so much better. After shaping the ball, he then sews the ball and adds whatever it is the customer might want on the baseball — from the player awards and accomplishments to a team’s logo, number, or any other design requested.
“I made a ball from a Johnny Bench store model catcher’s mitt and asked Mr. Bench if he thought he might like it,” Droke said. “He replied that he would, but it cost him signing another baseball that I had made for myself. Being a Cinncinati Reds fan — that was way too cool.”
Droke’s baseballs have found homes all across the country from Maine to Hawaii to Puerto Rico, where a Roberto Clemente fan displays one. “I try to stay humble, as the friendships I have made making these baseballs is priceless to me,” said Droke.
One of those friendships is with the Bleacher Creatures of Yankee Stadium, who took time to sign a baseball for Droke. He has been invited to the Hamptons in New York to catch a few games at Yankee Stadium and meet those individuals.
“As a simple East Tennessee farm boy, I had an idea that had never been done before and it has exceeded my expectations,” said Droke. “To have something I made from a worn out glove be a prized keepsake of people from all over America; to be appreciated by members of the baseball Hall of Fame … I never thought that would happen. “
Droke’s work will be on display at the next Hall of Fame induction as Gil Hodges’ daughter, Irene Hodges, will be taking one of his baseballs to her father’s induction ceremony. It’s been a humbling experience, Droke said. “She called me personally to thank me.”
Despite the popularity of his baseballs and the reach of his craft, Droke said he remains a simple Carter County man with a hobby.
“The good Lord blessed me with an idea, the skills to do it, and the patience to not get in a hurry. I make each baseball as if it were going to be mine.”