42, the new movie about Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball, was the box office winner last weekend. The film earned about $27.3 million, the best opening ever for a baseball movie.
And every single baseball uniform worn in the movie, including Robinson's famous number 42, was made by Seattle company Ebbets Field Flannels, located a baseball's throw away from Safeco Field.
"We offer 400 historic baseball shirts on our website right now. They're all done one at a time, we don't inventory any of them. Made to order and also made in the USA," says Ebbets president Jerry Cohen.
Cohen is a baseball history fanatic and his company has been reproducing defunct team uniforms for the past 25 years.
"We wanted to make accurate jersey and cap reproductions, wool, which it was until 1971, and tell stories we feel have not been told in baseball. Specifically, the focus was on the negro leagues."
Which is what drew 42's costume designer to Ebbets. Cohen says they made about 200 uniforms, representing six teams, for the movie.
"For a customer, they get a jersey or a hat, and they want it pristine and it's new. But the costume designer, she wanted to rough them up. It was interesting working with her because she had very specific ideas about close-ups and details. I mean, we did one jacket for her where she was talking very specifically about the pocket trim. Nobody in a million years is going to notice this but she had looked at her pictures and done her homework. She said, 'Make sure that this pocket trim is exactly the same as it is in this picture.' You know, that's what we do."
Cohen appreciates accuracy. He liked the movie, which he watched at the Hollywood premiere, but was annoyed by one thing.
"There's one historical fact that they changed and I'm not quite sure why. In 1947 they took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Havana, Cuba to train. Part of the reason was because they wanted to get Jackie Robinson out of the situation in Florida, where it was still segregated, and Cuba obviously had a long tradition of integrated baseball. In the movie they changed Cuba to Panama and I have no idea why they did that."
A fan of accuracy and aesthetics, Cohen isn't a fan of modern baseball uniforms, calling them overdesigned and corporate.
"When people get a lot more technology, sometimes they tend to want to use it all. A lot of the old designs were done very informally. They had maybe the wife of the manager design the hat logo or the uniform lettering. Or usually the local sporting good company that made the uniform did it. It was done very simply and there's an elegance to that, that I really like. Soccer is the worst because the corporate name on the jersey is bigger than the team or city."
His business is a sentimental one, and he never gets tired of helping people piece together their family history.
"I think yesterday I had a guy, 'My grandfather played for this team, we don't have the uniform anymore. I'm just going to describe it to you. Can you make it?' Or they find it in the attic and they want us to make a reproduction of it. Nobody else does that."
Making the uniforms for 42 dug into his own sentimentality and personal history.
"The whole reason I started the company and named it Ebbets Field Flannels was because I was born in Brooklyn the year the Dodgers left. My dad was a big Jackie Robinson fan, so I grew up hearing those stories of him. The fact that we're doing Jackie Robinson in the movies, a 100 years after the opening of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the ballpark, it's kind of a neat confluence of dates and events for us."
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