How '42' nailed authentic vintage uniforms

An Ebbets Field Flannels employee works on uniforms for the Jackie Robinson biopic "42." Ebbets Field Flannels

Jackie Robinson is in the air this time of year. Next Monday, April 15, will be the 66th anniversary of Robby's big league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and all MLB uniformed personnel will once again mark the occasion by wearing No. 42. Three days prior to that, this Friday, the highly anticipated movie "42" will open, telling the story of Robinson's route to becoming the first African-American to reach the major leagues.

Judging by the trailers and clips that have been circulating, "42" is one of the most authentic-looking baseball movies ever made. A lot of that comes from the uniforms that appear in the film. Interestingly, those uniforms were produced by two different companies: The major league unis were created by a California operation called Sports Studio, which has a long history of providing uniforms for major motion pictures, while the minor league and Negro League uniforms were made by Ebbets Field Flannels, the Seattle-based company that pioneered the retailing of reproduction throwback jerseys in the late 1980s and still offers the most wide-ranging selection of throwback gear.

We're going to feature Uni Watch interviews with the heads of both companies, beginning today with Ebbets Field Flannels founder and owner Jerry Cohen (who was the subject of a Uni Watch column back in 2008). Working on the uniforms for "42" was a personal milestone of sorts for Cohen. "The very existence of Ebbets Field Flannels comes from my birth in Brooklyn and hearing my father tell me stories of Jackie Robinson's exhilarating style of play and his moral courage," he said. "The initial mission of my company was to tell the stories of the minor and Negro leagues, which were not generally known when we started back in 1988. So this film really brings it all together for me: Jackie, vintage uniforms, the Montreal Royals [Robinson's minor league team] and the Negro Leagues."

Cohen recently shared some behind-the-scenes details about the film's uniforms in a wide-ranging interview. Here's the scoop:

How did Ebbets Field Flannels end up working on "42"? Like, did the studio contact you, or what?

We got a call from the production company. The timing was very fortunate, as Caroline Harris, the film's costume designer, is based in the U.K. and I happened to be going to London for a trade show. So within days of the first contact, I was meeting Caroline and discussing the movie.

How early in the process were you brought in, and how long did your involvement last?

We were brought in pretty early, in February of 2012. But it was a tight schedule, as shooting of the baseball scenes started in May. Our involvement was completed when the last of the uniforms were delivered, which I believe was in April.

Did you work with the costume designer, or with someone else on the film's staff?

We worked with Caroline, as well as with someone from the production company staff who was based in Los Angeles.

Have you supplied uniforms for other Hollywood movies?

We generally don’t get the Hollywood films, but we have done projects like HBO’s “Soul Of The Game," which was about the Negro Leagues. We worked on an episode of "The X-Files." And we have done several plays, including a recent revival of "Damn Yankees."

How many different team uniforms did you have to create for the film?

We did all of the minor league and Negro League uniforms. The teams were the Montreal Royals, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Jersey City Giants, the St. Paul Saints and the Indianapolis Indians. We generally did about 20 to 30 full uniforms for each team, though there were a number of duplicates, particularly for the main actors.

Why did you only do the minor league and Negro League uniforms? Who got to do the Brooklyn Dodgers uniforms and the other big league unis shown in the film?

Actually, the production company asked us to do all of the uniforms for the movie. But as you might expect, Major League Baseball has a special license category for film and entertainment. We don't have an MLB license, and those rules are strictly enforced. So a very good company called Sports Studio did the MLB uniforms. They have many years of experience doing sports uniforms for motion pictures.

Did you provide the caps, stirrups, undershirts and belts, or just the pants and jerseys?

We did everything except the undershirts. That particular type of undershirt is something we make, but there wasn't enough time to do them for the film.

What did you use for reference when creating these reproduction uniforms -- photos, vintage jerseys or what?

Fortunately, given what we do, almost all of the research -- primarily photos -- was readily at hand. One interesting thing is that the Kansas City Monarchs had a navy-and-gold color scheme on the road in 1945, which we would not have known had we not seen a color photo of that uniform several years ago. The Monarchs were normally navy and red, and a black-and-white photo would have led us to assume that that's what they used for their 1945 road uniform, as well.

The one team that presented a bit of a challenge was the Birmingham Black Barons. We had research for 1947 and 1948, but we couldn’t assume that the 1945 uniforms were the same. A good thing, because we finally found a photo from 1945 -- a very poor-quality newspaper picture -- and it was a pinstriped Black Barons uniform we had never seen before.

Did you take the actors' measurements, or were the measurements supplied to you, or something else?

The sizes and measurements were supplied to us. That's one of the distinctions between working on a movie and doing jerseys for retail. The uniforms have to be perfect on the actors, particularly in close-up scenes. It’s not like just sending out a certain amount of "Larges," "Extra Larges" and so on.

Did you use the same fabrics and materials that would have been used in the 1940s -- heavy wool flannel, felt lettering, etc. -- or did you use fabrics that just look like the old fabrics?

Well, for one thing, by 1945 the flannel was already lighter than what was used through the 1930s. Our regular wool baseball flannel that we use for our retail jerseys worked perfectly. The felt used for lettering these days has less wool content than what was used in the 1940s, but that's not something visible to the naked eye.

There was a lot of discussion about which white flannel to use, as Caroline [the costume designer] wanted to rough up the uniforms and wash and dry them to get a certain look. We had a choice of using 100 percent wool or a blend that has about 50 percent wool. We were concerned about shrinkage if she tried to heat-dry the 100 percent wool, so we went with the blended white. This wasn’t an issue with the gray or pinstripe fabrics, which are a blend of wool and synthetics, mostly nylon. That's still historically accurate, because synthetics started to be blended into the flannel baseball fabric as early as World War II.

What was the biggest challenge in re-creating these old uniforms?

The stirrups were a challenge, because the type of woolen stirrups used back then have a very different look than today’s nylon variety, which have a sheen that wouldn’t have looked correct for that period. Caroline was very insistent on using the older style, but those are no longer being made and it simply was not going to happen in the time frame we had available.

We solved the problem by using ribbed hockey socks, cutting off the bottoms, and sewing on a stirrup. We thought that was a good solution, but they were less than thrilled with it. I think for the close-ups they found some original old woolen stirrups and used those. In hindsight, I think we would have been better off making low-cut stirrups in the current nylon fabric and roughing them up to remove the sheen.

Another thing I noticed is that the sleeve length on the Montreal Royals' jerseys was a little longer than our standard 1945-era pattern. I had a couple of sleepless nights over this until I decided to re-do all the Montreal jerseys we had done and lengthen the sleeves.

Did you or anyone from your staff visit the set while they were filming the movie?

No. I thought about going but decided I would be too nervous. I'm a bit superstitious about these kinds of projects. Also, movie sets are very busy places where talented people are trying to work. I didn’t want to get in the way.

I'm sure many of the actors had never worn heavy flannel baseball uniforms before. Did you hear anything about their reactions?

We heard from several actors and extras who wanted a uniform or jersey for themselves. We didn’t hear any negative reactions, and there were no emergencies from the set, which is always your worst nightmare when working on a project like this.

If I could go back in time and compare your reproduction Montreal Royals jersey to the one worn by the real Jackie Robinson, would I be able to tell the difference?

I honestly don’t think so. Keep in mind that there were many baseball uniform manufacturers around in 1945, so there are minor differences to the patterns from each one -- things like underarm gussets, for example. It is not possible to replicate, or even know, all of those minor details, so some “averaging” is necessary to do what we do. An expert on each of these potential minor differences would be able to pick them out. But as far as lettering, trim, fabric, number styles and so on, what we do is about as close as you can get. I have seen just about every major motion picture made about baseball, and I would put our work up there with anyone’s.

Cohen hadn’t yet seen "42" when we conducted that interview, but he was preparing to fly to Los Angeles to attend the premier on April 9. The film opens nationwide on April 12.

Tomorrow: An interview with Mark Koesterer of Sports Studio, which produced the big league uniforms for "42."

Paul Lukas loves seeing all the players wearing 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.