Nike Missteps On Josh Gibson’s Shoes

By Kevin Kirkland
Updated: May 4, 2007

PITTSBURGH — In the sneaker business, Nike is the major player, the power hitter, the leader by style and reputation.

So it seemed like a natural partnership when Nike released a line of shoes and apparel this week bearing the name of Josh Gibson, “the black Babe Ruth,” along with those of fellow Negro Leagues stars Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil.

Though Mr. Paige played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords for several years, Mr. Gibson is Pittsburgh’s best-known Negro Leaguer, having grown up on the North Side and played for both the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.

So why is there only one store in Western Pennsylvania selling only one of the three styles of Gibson shoes?

The answer is a combination of good intentions, bad color choices, poor communication and limited marketing.

On Tuesday, David’s Shoes in East Liberty received 21 pairs of the Air Max 90 UTT LE, priced at $90. Mostly white with red and green detailing, they have the word “Veracruz” on the tongue and a tiny “A” on the heel, representing the Veracruz Blues (Azules), the Mexican (winter) League team Mr. Gibson played for in the 1940s.

The Veracruz name is the only one that area retailers heard when they were deciding whether to carry the shoes or an accompanying jersey months ago.

“I never heard anything about Josh Gibson,” said Brandon Quarles, manager of David’s Shoes, 6017 Penn Ave. “I would have ordered more. I’ve always tried to support the Negro Leagues.”

Ace Athletic in East Liberty, which a Nike representative believed was carrying the line, does not. The line was offered exclusively to Footaction, but none of the four stores at Pittsburgh area malls has it.

Footaction, a division of Foot Locker, is the national retailer for what Nike calls its Latin Legacy collection, part of the larger Untold Truth collection it created in conjunction with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. The Latin Legacy items with the ballplayers’ names are no longer being produced. They were made based on orders from retailers taken last year.

Kejaun Wilkins, a Nike spokesman in New York, said the problem is “an isolated incident” for a company that prides itself on effective marketing.

“We have salespeople all over the country. We had sales tools that communicated the history of the Negro Leagues and the connection to the Latin leagues. We’re trying to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

“They said they didn’t want to flood the market with it, that it was only being sold in premium stores,” said Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and head of the Josh Gibson Foundation, which granted Nike license to use Mr. Gibson’s name, for an undisclosed sum.

“Pittsburgh has a lot of history with the two teams and with Josh Gibson. It doesn’t need to be in 20 stores, but it should be in more than one store,” he said.

Josh Gibson’s name appears on only one of the three shoes, the Dunk High Premium UTT LE, and on the back of the matching throwback jersey, which has a $75 manufacturer’s suggested retail price. But if you want to buy either one, you’ll have to do some sleuthing.

On Nike’s Web site, ( ) the black, red and blue Dunk high-top ($90) was mistakenly identified as representing the Memphis Red Sox, another Negro League team. The company was working to fix that mistake late Monday. The Veracruz/Gibson No. 20 jersey couldn’t be found there or anywhere else on the Web, but the Nike site did have a Veracruz Azules T-shirt for $40.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum plans to offer the Latin Legacy collection along with other Untold Truth items on its Web site, ( ). Bob Kendrick, director of marketing, said Latin Legacy was intended to show the connection between the Negro Leagues and Latin America, where there was never a baseball color barrier and players like Mr. Gibson and Mr. Paige were the biggest stars, and were paid as such.

“A lot of people don’t understand the synergy between the two [leagues],” he said. “With the number of Latin players in the major league today, this is their story as well. All roads lead back to the Negro Leagues.”

Unfortunately, that history wasn’t communicated well to retailers or consumers. The Latin Legacy and Untold Truth merchandise has no historical information on it.

Gary Schmitt, owner of Ace Athletic stores in East Liberty, Oakland and South Side, said he would have ordered Veracruz shoes and jerseys if he had known of the Gibson connection. He sold out of shoes that Nike introduced last year bearing the Homestead Grays logo.

The Gibson Dunk High shoe, which has baseball-style stitching and leather, appears to be striking out as a fashion statement. Web sites, forums and blogs devoted to athletic footwear indicate the shoe’s “colorways” haven’t won many fans.

“I’d get shot wearing these. Shouldn’t put blue and red together. BAD IDEA WHEN U LIVE WHERE I LIVE,” wrote a contributor who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown.