One Sunday morning in 1984, Rufus Hayes was driving to Detroit's Word of Truth Baptist Church, where he is an associate minister. Thirty years earlier, Hayes had attended Texas Southern University on a baseball scholarship, and now in the car his mind wandered back to the diamond. He recalled a jarring collision at home plate during a sandlot game when he was in high school that had sent his catcher's mitt, with the baseball in it, flying from his hand. As he thought about the incident—one most catchers have experienced—a light bulb suddenly glowed. He had the solution to the problem of the lost mitt.
Hayes's brainstorm was this: If he extended the conventional strap on a catcher's mitt several inches up his arm, then attached an additional strap to the first strap and wrapped the second strap around his arm, it would be almost impossible to lose his glove. As he mulled over the idea, Hayes realized that the innovation didn't have to be limited to mitts. What a boon the strap system would be, for example, to an outfielder who, jumping high to snag a ball that appears to be going over the fence for a home run, loses his glove after he makes the catch.
Hayes, 48, a former Detroit auto worker, mentioned his idea to Charles Edison, Word of Truth's pastor, who encouraged him to seek a patent and begin working on the glove. Using a hot-glue gun and leather from his wife's old purses, Hayes experimented with various designs. In 1988 he went to Taiwan to explore manufacturing possibilities, and Edison appealed to the Word of Truth congregation for a "faith investment" to get the project going. More than half of the congregation's 1,700 members responded, contributing $100,000 in start-up funds. Since then, Hayes says, more than $300,000 has been invested.
In 1991 Hayes began full-scale production and distribution of the WOTE glove—the brand name is an acronym for Word of Truth Enterprises. WOTE Inc. now makes 10 models of mitts and gloves, ranging in price from $27 to $90. The gloves, which are called The Edge, are manufactured in Taiwan and are sold in K Mart stores, through Sears catalogs and by more than 50 sporting-goods stores across Canada. Sales topped $200,000 in 1991, and Hayes expects WOTE to gross $1 million in '92.
Although the line includes professional-quality models, Hayes thinks that the WOTE glove is especially well suited to youngsters, who can gain confidence in their fielding skills, knowing their gloves won't be knocked off by hard-hit balls. However, the fact that some of today's kids are tomorrow's pros is not lost on Hayes, who points out that many innovations in sporting equipment started at the youth level: "When we played ball as kids, we had the batting helmets that came down over our ears—the pros didn't have them. But now they do."
As one might expect with a new business, WOTE has had its share of setbacks. In June '91 the company signed a three-year lease on an old Rawlings plant in Haiti, which had closed the previous December when Rawlings moved its baseball-manufacturing operation to Costa Rica. By putting a WOTE operation in Haiti, Hayes hoped to gain greater quality control in gloves and also to begin making baseballs. Those plans came to an end with the military coup in Haiti in September and the ensuing U.S. trade embargo.
And WOTE, like many small businesses, suffers from limited financing. To keep expenses down, the company has only two traveling sales representatives, and its office in Detroit has a staff of two—Hayes and a secretary. The staff does everything from answering telephones to shipping to billing to dealing with the factory in Taiwan.
"Many people have advised me to sell the rights and let someone else have the headache," says Hayes. "But I want to produce some jobs in the community. It's not so much that I want to keep it an African-American enterprise, but I think that a lot of times we have sold out when we shouldn't have because times got a little tough. Eventually I want to make this a full-fledged minority-run sporting-goods company. I'd like to see us manufacture and distribute a full line."
For now, Hayes is content to plug along one step at a time, convinced that his invention will some day revolutionize fielding. "This glove becomes an extension of your hand," he says, "and since you don't have to worry about losing it, you're not restrained by the concern of holding it on. Therefore you can reach a little further. It gives you that little extra edge."
Hayes chopped up some of his wife's old purses to develop a prototype for The Edge.
Jay Feldman, a free-lance writer in Davis, Calif., has often written for Sports Illustrated.