At one point in time, Major League Baseball had several stars that could sell sneakers.
Some of the sport’s biggest names throughout the 1990s — including Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Frank Thomas — were attached to shoes from athletic market powerhouses Nike and Reebok, with models that still resonate with consumers decades later.
But baseball’s biggest name in sneakers was Ken Griffey Jr. Backed by Nike throughout his Hall of Fame career, the brand delivered several beloved looks bearing the megastar’s Swingman logo.
Despite several stars of the diamond winning sneaker consumers over in the ’90s, there has not been a player since who has replicated the success of those before them. Sneaker media veteran Russ Bengtson believes Griffey was an anomaly, and was baseball’s one true footwear needle mover.
“I’m not sure whether ties between baseball and sneaker culture broke as much as that the tie was a very temporary thing primarily driven by one oversized personality,” Bengtson said. “Griffey’s success was unprecedented and impossible to follow. Other guys maybe got one shoe that hit for whatever reason, but Griffey got a whole line. He was a joyful player especially in comparison to some of his contemporaries who could barely even sell themselves.”
What’s more, Bengtson compared how MLB operates to the NBA, which continually produces stars who drive signature sneaker sales.
“Signature basketball sneakers sell off personality, which the NBA encourages. Professional baseball, at least in the U.S., is more about team and fitting in and actually stripping away individual personality. It’s hard to sell sneakers off that,” Bengtson said.
Nick Engvall, founder of Sneaker History podcast, believes there is a disconnect between baseball’s biggest names and the brands that back them.
“The relationship between baseball and sneakers at one point was undeniably important because of athletes like Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas and Deion Sanders. Each of them were important in the marketing of trainer style sneakers in the ’90s. It was a time when Nike and Reebok took market share from historically baseball-centric cleat makers like Mizuno,” Engvall said. “As those players moved on from the sport, brands like Nike and Reebok spent less on marketing the connection to baseball, which created an opportunity for other brands to jump in during the mid-to-late 2000s.”
He continued, “Under Armour, New Balance, Adidas and a few smaller brands all signed a number of players. I think in a sense, this actually hurt the trajectory of baseball’s connection with sneakers. Players didn’t get massive budgets pushing their name off of the field, which meant the next generation was even more removed.”
Sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache said he noticed a shift in baseball’s importance to sneaker culture around the start of the steroid era of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
“I don’t think it was directly linked, but I feel like it was just an evolution in the cycle of how people fall in and out of love of sports. I just feel like there just weren’t really big personalities like [there once were],” Gamache said. “Bryce Harper, he has a good personality, and there have been other guys, but it’s weird to see that the shoe part of it hasn’t translated the same way.”
However, the sport has several stars today with bold personalities who are resonating with baseball fans on a deeper level, slowly becoming household names. With MLB’s opening day here, Engvall, Bengtson and Gamache reveal the players they believe could become needle-movers in the world of sneakers.
“In today’s world, players like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge or Bryce Harper, in theory, would be the best players to break through and connect with sneaker consumers. However, Trout’s Nikes don’t have much off the field appeal. Harper is fighting an uphill battle to make Under Armour important to sneaker enthusiasts. Judge has the best chance being in New York, but Adidas is pretty disconnected when it comes to their internal categories working together. Mookie Betts is about the only one who has a good chance. Being a Jordan athlete gives him an advantage but until there is a connection between the retros he wears on the field and the colorways that release, he’d need some sort of tunnel wall photo coverage the way the NBA has with their athletes as they enter the stadium in street clothes.”
“Fortunately, modern baseball seems to be becoming more open to individuality and personal expression. Some of the newer superstars — Fernando Tatis Jr., Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto — are absolutely engaging enough to be the face of a sneaker, if that’s something they want. It would still take a herculean effort by a company to make it work, again seeing that the product they wear on the field wouldn’t be exactly the same as the product they hope to sell. It’s almost more equivalent to NASCAR than the NBA. For baseball to become a player in sneaker culture, they need to embrace the quirks of their biggest personalities. Baseball needs to market those guys, and they need the multiplying push of signature product and memorable commercials — maybe even cross-promoting them with athletes in other sports. It’s not just a matter of pushing the absolute best guys. Nike has tried some things with Mike Trout, and well, he’s essentially the J.J. Watt of baseball — he’s credible enough for actual training gear but nothing has shown he is capable of the effortless effervescence of a Griffey. Ditto for Bryce Harper, who has been on the Under Armour roster for years with little to show for it. Find the fun guys with the big talents and bigger personalities and amplify them. Help us get to know them off the field as well as on. Create product that can resonate with people who don’t know a double play from a triple double. Then? Then maybe you’ve got something. Tatis, Soto, Lindor — guys who play every day and bring a Griffey-like joy to the game as well as tape-measure homers. Sure, they haven’t actually won anything at the professional level yet, but when Nike launched Air Jordan, Michael Jordan hadn’t either. And they still sold a hell of a lot of sneakers.”
Dan “Mache” Gamache
“I feel like Mookie does. I think he’s a connectable athlete, and him going to L.A. certainly helps. He’s a Jordan [Brand] guy, but I don’t see Mookie having his own signature model. And Harper has his line, but I hate to say it: he’s with Under Armour and the sneaker community does not see Under Armour as cool. I don’t know if he’ll break out unless he goes to another brand — if he ever did. I think he’s pretty happy there, they do a lot for him. Tim Anderson, too, he’s definitely one. I worked with him last year, he’s got a great personality, he has that swagger that could do something. He was with Adidas but he is with Nike now. And then you’ve got Clint Frazier who is a sneakerhead, he’s into all that stuff.”