Paul Cunningham spent 15 years as a photo editor for Major League Baseball and lived a fan’s dream life. Today, Cunningham is honing his skills as a leather craftsman and the founder of Leather Head Sports in Glen Rock, making baseball gloves, balls of various sorts and other athletic equipment.
“I had done everything I wanted to do in baseball,” Cunningham said. “From a fan’s perspective, I went to the All-Star game every year and World Series every year. I did not need to do that anymore. What was very exciting to me was having my own business.”
After leaving MLB, he worked as the senior baseball glove craftsman at a small baseball glove importer. Cunningham started Leather Head Sports in 2006 and says the business has been growing.
“I have had my peaks and valleys. We are attracting more attention and rebuilding our business,” he said. “The first 10 years of my business was about figuring out supply chains and executing supply chains and figuring out how to make stuff. We are at a point right now where the product is really doing well. We are executing at a very high level.” Cunningham employs five people including himself.
During the early years, he bought leather from suppliers and learned what kind of product and what quantity he needs. Cunningham learned from his mistakes of buying too much leather at one time.
“I still have an affinity for craftsmanship and making things,” Cunningham said. “I figured out how to streamline the production process. Then the question occurred to me. I have got this product. See if I can create branding. See if I can create something. That is what Leather Head Sports started.”
Cunningham introduced Lemon Ball baseballs and Leather Head footballs after beginning them as a branding experiment. “I have got this ball and it is really well made,” Cunningham said.
The founder is expanding his product line to include basketballs, rugby balls, soccer balls, medicine balls, and accessories. He makes his products in New Jersey using the finest leathers and materials. He is making a soccer ball featuring 12 panels.
“It is one of our newer things,” Cunningham said. “It is a close replica to the 1930s style.”
Cunningham said Leather Head Sports’ balls can be customized with a monogram or logo and additional personalized options include thread choices and leathers ranging from cowhide, bison, python and shark.
Cunningham does not have a manufacturing background. As a result, he learned about from whom to buy leather and other supplies.
His clients are style-conscious sports and craftsmanship enthusiasts.
“When I first started expanding the business around 2008 and 2009, there were a handful of style blogs that I reached out to,” Cunningham said. “I sent them notes about what I was doing and nice notes. Ten, eleven, twelve years ago, it was a different world: the blogosphere was a different place. I was able just by getting some solid attention on blogs to get instant brand awareness. These blogs were really highly trafficked.”
He has learned that his success comes from daily adjustments, including in marketing and sales.
“When I first started, my product was so compelling and so unusual that I got so much press instantly,” Cunningham said. “It was falling in my lap. I did not have any PR representation. I was just organically getting a lot of press. That sustained me for a long period of time but like anything else that story was told.”
As a result, he learned how to do sales, public relations, social media and to use LinkedIn.
“In the last six months I have found that it is better for me to do all the work myself to promote myself rather than trying to find individuals who are going to generate organic web traffic,” Cunningham said. “They promise the world and just do not deliver. My point is that it’s a daily individual effort that can only come from me. We have to do that every day in order to stay relevant and stay in front of people.”
Debbie VanderWiele sews baseballs at Leather Head Sports, her employer for more than 10 years. She manages the production of inventory, coordinating with a colleague who also sews baseballs. She reminds Cunningham to order leather and threads.
“I think it’s a great product,” VanderWiele said. “I like working with my hands.”
She deals with challenges of managing workflow. For example, she receives multiple orders in close succession and assigns priorities. The second order may take priority over the first order.
“We are always juggling what orders have to get done first,” VanderWiele said. “We are actually pretty good at it.”