Disabled breathe new life into old baseballs

An employee sews together a recycled baseball at Union Social System Co. in Shinjo, Yamagata Prefecture, on July 28. (Mainichi)
An employee sews together a recycled baseball at Union Social System Co. in Shinjo, Yamagata Prefecture, on July 28. (Mainichi)

SHINJO, Yamagata -- A company here that actively employs the disabled is bringing new life to old worn-out baseballs, supplying refurbished balls back to high schools around the nation at a fraction of the price of new ones.

Around 300 workers at Union Social System Co. create some 10,000 of the recycled balls a month under the brand name "RETRY." The corporation actively hires the disabled to help them become financially independent. The completed balls are sold at around one quarter the price of new baseballs to 400 to 500 high schools around the nation.

The company's president, Hideyuki Kato, 63, began the ball-recycling program in the fall of 2011 after a conversation with the former manager of the baseball team at Shinjo-Kita High School. The recycling process starts with the removal of the surface leather of the balls and the applying of new yarn to the balls. This part of the process is the most important, since it affects the shape and hardness of the balls. Two layers of new, white cow leather are then applied on top before being sewn together with red thread. The entire process is done by hand.

Union Social System Co. Director Aoi Kato, 26, says, "It is simple work, but it demands a high level of seriousness, accuracy and the ability to repeat."

Worn-out baseballs, like the one in the back left, are refurbished into new ones, like the one in front, at Union Social System Co. in Shinjo, Yamagata Prefecture, in this photo taken on July 28. (Mainichi)
Worn-out baseballs, like the one in the back left, are refurbished into new ones, like the one in front, at Union Social System Co. in Shinjo, Yamagata Prefecture, in this photo taken on July 28. (Mainichi)

A new baseball such as that used in high school games costs from around 400 to over 1,000 yen, but the recycled balls cost only 230 yen each, plus shipping. Furthermore, Union Social System Co. accepts the old balls for recycling for free. The savings are a boon for schools, which operate on limited finances.

The company has received orders for its balls from high schools in every prefecture except for Okinawa. Its customers include Nihon University Yamagata Senior High School, which was one of the final four teams in last summer's national high school championship tournament, as well as Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School and Aomori Yamada High School, both of which have also participated in the tournament. Two other schools using the balls -- Koryo High School and Iwakuni Senior High School -- have earned spots in this year's tournament.

Yasushi Onuma, 35, manager of the Shinjo-Kita High School baseball team, buys around 500 to 600 new baseballs a year. He says, "Until now we taped up the balls ourselves to reinforce them (after they started to fall apart.) I'm thankful we can (now) use recycled balls that are cheap and good quality."

In addition to the disabled, Union Social System Co. actively hires the elderly and others who have trouble finding work. It currently has nine workshops in Yamagata Prefecture and Kanagawa Prefecture. An 18-year-old male youth with a disability who works at the workshop in Shinjo said, "I want to make the balls as good as I can for people playing baseball. I'm happy when schools that use the balls do well."

Director Kato said, "I want the employees to feel that they are being helpful to baseball players."

August 03, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

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