Jackie Air Max 1 sneaker a perfect fit for MLB's ultimate game changer

April 15th, 2024

NEW YORK -- If you’re going to release a sneaker as a tribute to Jackie Robinson, as Nike has for the past three years, it can’t be just any shoe. That’s why this year’s choice, the Air Max 1 ’86, works so well. It’s iconic, it’s historic, it was a game changer. And the Jackie Robinson Day AM1 -- which releases at Nike.com on Monday at 10 a.m. ET -- serves perfectly to celebrate a man who shook up the baseball world like nobody before or since.

As the legend goes, an aspiring Nike designer named Tinker Hatfield took a trip to Paris in 1985, seeking inspiration. An architect by trade, Hatfield specifically sought out the Centre Georges Pompidou, a groundbreaking structure engineered to allow people to freely see inside.

From the plaza on street level, you could gaze up and see people going up and down the escalators, exhibits from the building’s modern art museum and the brightly colored duct work. As Hatfield put it in a 1997 documentary, the Centre was “spilling its guts out into the world.”

“It really inspired me,” Hatfield added, “because it really shook the world of architecture, it shook the world of urban design, it really changed the way people looked at buildings.”

And ultimately, it changed the way we look at sneakers. A year after his Parisian pilgrimage, Hatfield manifested the Air Max 1, the first sneaker to make Nike’s patented polyurethane air bag visible via a window in the midsole. Like the Pompidou Centre, the shoe was polarizing at first – even internally at Nike – but ultimately it captured everyone’s imagination.

Nearly four decades later, the Air Max 1 has inspired dozens of descendants and even a holiday of sorts. The version made for Jackie Robinson does not have a ton of bells and whistles, unlike last year’s Air Force 1. But the inspiration and respect here is unmistakable.

“The details don’t hit you over the head necessarily. It’s like, they’re more subtle [than the previous Robinson Nikes],” said USA Today’s Michael Sykes, II, writer of the Kicks You Wear newsletter. “But the subtlety doesn't really take away from what the shoe was trying to do, which is to pay homage to one of baseball's greatest legends.”

The sneaker, which will be worn by a host of MLB stars on Monday before they don their No. 42 jerseys, has a Dodgers blue upper made of perforated nubuck, offset by an off-white mudguard and a classic gum outsole. The shoe also features gold accents, most notably the ubiquitous No. 42 gracing both the lace charm and a baseball diamond-shaped patch on the tongue.

If the previous releases had more details specific to Robinson, the high-end nature of the materials here appropriately connote his place among baseball royalty.

“It's just a really good mix of stuff that makes the shoe pop out for me as far as the luxurious feel of it,” Sykes said. “Would this shoe be an everyday wear for me? No, it would be something special that I pull out for special occasions. But connecting that back to Jackie Robinson, he is a special guy, and if you want to give him a shoe, it has to be special too.”

Intentional or not, the shoe is also a fitting choice because of its disruptive origins. Hatfield -- who went on to become inarguably the greatest sneaker designer ever -- said at the unveiling of the Air Jordan XXX in 2016 that when he creates something, he almost hopes people don’t like it initially because it means he’s pushing them past the boundaries of what they’re comfortable with. In that sense, the Air Max 1 is a great match for Robinson, who changed the world through sheer force of will.

“When you do something different, you have to have a pretty thick skin,” Hatfield said of the AM1 in the documentary. “People are going to take shots at you. They’re going to criticize what they don’t understand.”

For people who already know all about how Robinson helped integrate baseball, the AM1 is an instant classic. But perhaps it holds even more value for the people who don’t, serving as a potential catalyst to expose the younger generation to his achievements. Nike has contributed to that storytelling effort in far more ways than just the shoes, donating millions of dollars over the years to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and helping to fund the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York.

That fits well with the occasion, because paying it forward has always been a key part of Jackie Robinson Day.

“Every year I get this question about Jackie Robinson and what has he done for me, and I finally looked back last year on it and realized, what can I do for the kids coming behind me?” Marlins star Jazz Chisholm said during a visit to MLB Headquarters in New York on Wednesday. “For me, [April 15] is a great day about someone who did a lot for me, but I also want to do something for all the other kids.”

Chisholm specifically cited his Jazz Chisholm Foundation, which helps support young athletes in high-need communities, as a way he can “follow in [Robinson’s] footsteps.”

“I haven’t said [anything] about it yet,” Chisholm said, “but I want to give back, at least, 42 of something -- to the kids in Miami and in the Bahamas.”

Nike, too, is undoubtedly thinking of what future Jackie Robinson Days will look like. Sykes, for his part, brainstormed a couple shoes he’d like to see in the years to come. (We already know the Air Jordan IV looks good in blue …)

And on a bigger scale, he offers a personal suggestion: He'd like to see hands-on activations in the future to allow people to experience Robinson’s influence first-hand, inspiring them to spread the gospel and apply it to their own lives.

“I feel like the most important thing with Jackie is just teaching that history,” Sykes said, “making it interactive and bringing that social component into it.

“It definitely seems like there’s a clear path forward, and I’m all the way here for it.”