Achievement Award in Business – Reunion 2014
The chance to play baseball in a liberal arts college brought Paul Cunningham to Drew. Who would have guessed that years later he would start a new career making unique balls?
Paul grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so you might say that baseball was in his blood. He played baseball for three years at Drew, and his summer break job at the Hall of Fame’s library related well to his American studies major.
After graduation, Paul worked as a photo researcher with FPG International, in the days when stock photography was in great demand. His experience in photography and baseball allowed him to move to Major League Baseball Properties in 1995, as a photo editor.
By 2006, Paul was yearning to make something tangible; he enjoyed working with his hands, having worked for many years with leather as a hobby. He began to make baseballs, “Lemon Balls,” named for the lemon-shaped cross-stitched balls used in the 19th century, and they sold well. But could he base an entire business on a unique baseball?
He started to think hard about the NFL’s official football. It was too large and too firm for Paul to enjoy throwing. What would happen if he made a new football? So he designed a ball that was smaller and easier to grip, using soft leather that was a joy to work with and to handle in play. It was an immediate success. By 2011, Paul’s Leather Head Sports company came to the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which featured it just before Christmas; so many orders came in that Paul was unable to fill them all in time for Christmas.
How many of us would have voluntarily left a steady job in 2008, when Paul did, to become an independent craftsman and create a unique business? Lehman Brothers vanished, real estate foundered, Wall Street was crumbling. But Leather Head Sports meshed with a renewed craft movement and a worldwide appreciation for sports. Paul provides unique products—some with exotic leathers—and continues to expand his line, which now includes basketballs, medicine balls, rugby balls and baseball gloves. He sees his products as boutique items, not just sports equipment, and his public appreciates them (President Obama has approved their sale in the White House gift shop). He now has five employees and several part-timers. He is delighted that he can create jobs, and that he and his staff can take pride in their work.
Paul and Michelle Cunningham, and their daughters Grace, 15, and Lucy, 11, live in Glen Rock, N.J. The demands of Leather Head Sports keep Paul busy, but he has volunteered in local baseball, while Michelle works at Bayer Corporation and coaches their girls’ softball teams.