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Play ball! When it comes to baseball leather, not just any hide will do

Cargill beef plant supplies Rawlings Sporting Goods Company

July 27, 2016

The average lifespan of a baseball in a major league game is seven pitches. When that ball hits a bat or the dirt, it’s done—relegated to batting practice or sent off to a minor league team.

And so Rawlings Sporting Goods Company must keep the balls coming. As the official baseball supplier of Major League Baseball®, the company produces some 4,000 dozen baseballs per week—2.4 million balls per year—for use in games, practice and as memorabilia.

Animated baseball The leather that covers those balls comes from Rawlings’ wholly owned tannery operation, Tennessee Tanning, which gets the majority of its cow hides from Cargill’s beef plant in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.

“It’s pretty cool to know that the hides we supply them end up in the baseballs being used by our favorite major league teams,” said John Hochstein, assistant vice president of hides and skins, part of Cargill’s beef by-product business based in Wichita, Kansas.

When it comes to baseball leather, not just any hide will do.

“Baseball leather is aniline tanned; in other words, we don’t put any sort of finish on it,” said Mike York, general manager of Tennessee Tanning. “What you see on the baseball is actually the cow hide. We don’t cover up any imperfections, so it has to be perfect.”

Located in the heart of dairy country, Cargill’s Wyalusing plant is well situated to provide those perfect hides.

“Holstein dairy cows are traditionally the best for leather because they have thinner hides,” said York. “And we try to get our Holsteins from as far north as we can, where the winters are longer and the summers are shorter.”

Shorter summers means fewer opportunities for bug bites or other imperfections on the hide. “We are held to pretty tight specs by Major League Baseball,” York said, explaining that there are different grades of baseballs, but those used in the major league are the highest grade.

The leather is made at the tannery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, then shipped to a Rawlings facility in Costa Rica to be sewn onto baseballs.

York says he chooses to get the majority of his hides from Cargill not only because of the quality coming out of Wyalusing, but because the company understands that he needs a reliable supply.

“John and his team have done a good job understanding our business,” he said. “It’s a high-profile product, and Cargill helps keep our supply intact. We produce 20,000 square feet of baseball leather per week and hold zero inventory. If we miss a truckload, that’s a problem.”

To help ensure the quality is where it needs to be, Cargill works with dairy farmers around the beef plant to help them reduce hide defects. “They try to have as much influence as they can on how the cattle are raised and cared for,” said York.

For Cargill, supplying hides for leather is part of its philosophy that in animal agriculture, no part of the animal should go to waste. Wyalusing processes an average of 250,000 tons of beef annually, and the beef by-product business ensures that all parts of the beef cattle are put to good use. The same goes for dairy cows that reach the end of their productivity.

“We believe that this shows the ultimate respect for the animal, and ensures that we are getting the most out of the production process,” said Dan Schaefer, vice president of Cargill’s beef by-product business.

When the roughly 1,000 employees in Wyalusing go to a Major League Baseball game or watch one on TV, they can take pride in knowing they played a role in the game.

“I’ve visited the Wyalusing plant several times,” said York. “The local team understands our business. They know where those hides are going, and it means a lot.”