Hollywood meets reality in '42' MLB unis
April, 11, 2013
By Paul Lukas | ESPN.com
Courtesy of Warner Bros.For the MLB uniforms in "42," Sports Studio balanced complete authenticity with movie aesthetics.The Jackie Robinson biopic "42" is set to open nationwide tomorrow. But Uni Watch readers, ever observant, have already spotted a historical inaccuracy in the film's uniforms.
The issue involves the Brooklyn Dodgers' caps. If you're into collecting game-worn gear (or if you're just a serious uniform geek), you may know that the Dodgers' cap logo from the 1940s era had lots of subtle variations -- sometimes thick, sometimes thin, sometimes attached as a separate patch. As you can see in those photos, however, one thing remained constant: The "B" logo was always rendered in white embroidery thread.
But if you look at stills from the movie, the logo on the Dodgers' caps appears to have been rendered in sewn-on felt, not embroidered thread. That impression is confirmed by a photo of the cap that was posted on the Facebook page of Sports Studio, the California company that made the major league uniforms for "42." (The minor league and Negro League uniforms for the movie were made by Ebbets Field Flannels. You can read more about that here.)
The distinction between an embroidered logo and a sewn felt logo may seem small -- and it is! -- but it's still somewhat surprising, because movies like this one usually strive for 100 percent authenticity. I figured there had to be a good reason for the discrepancy, so I got in touch with Sports Studio president and CEO Mark Koesterer, who discussed the situation regarding the Dodgers' caps and the other uniform elements shown in "42." Here's the story:
First, tell me a bit about Sports Studio, how you work with movie productions, and other movies you've worked on.
Sports Studio was founded in 2007 with the purchase of Sportsrobe, a 40-year-old sports wardrobe and prop house. If you count our Sportsrobe heritage, we have provided wardrobes for some of the most iconic sports films ever made, going back to the original "Bad News Bears" franchise. We've also worked on "The Natural," "Field of Dreams," "Eight Men Out," "61*," "The Bronx Is Burning" and "Moneyball." In addition, we've worked on football movies like "Any Given Sunday," "We Are Marshall," "The Express" and "The Longest Yard."
Let's talk about this situation regarding the Dodgers' cap. It looks like you used a felt logo, instead of an embroidered one, which would have been historically accurate.
That's correct, we used felt. It was a joint decision between the costume designer, Major League Baseball and our company. Obviously, we knew what the Brooklyn Dodgers' caps really looked like. We even had access to some of Jackie Robinson's game-worn uniforms and caps from the L.A. Sports Museum. We made a number of cap samples -- different weights of wool, different stiffness on the bill, different leather sweatbands. And we did try an embroidered logo, but it didn't have the sense of depth and dimension that everyone wanted. When all was said and done, the felt seemed to show up best on camera.
Within reason, there are certain liberties taken in Hollywood, and we all felt that this was a minor one. We always strive for authenticity, but we have to live in the real world, and that means it has to look good on camera.
Another thing about the cap logo is that the little triangular notch on the left side of the "B" looks much smaller on your cap than it did on the Dodgers' real caps.
I know exactly what you're referring to. Again, that's a function of using felt -- some of that detail isn't going to be as fine as it would be if we had used embroidery. If we had opened up that hole a bit more, we wouldn't have had enough felt surface to sew onto the cap. It's another one of those small compromises.
Did these compromises feel like a major sacrifice to you? Like, did it pain you inside to make a cap that wasn't 100 percent historically accurate?
You hate to compromise, but sometimes it's necessary. We do things like this with all of our projects. Sometimes new fabrics are made to look like old fabrics, for example. I think in the big scheme of this project, the felt lettering on the cap is a very minor concession, especially compared to all the standards we did uphold on the rest of the uniforms.
Did you expect someone would pick up on the logo issue, and that you'd eventually be having a discussion like the one we're now having, or did you think nobody would notice?
We're worldly enough to know that someone like you or your readers would pick up on some of these nuances. But you know -- no offense to you or your readers -- that's a small minority compared to the number of people who are gonna see the film and say, "Boy, that was awesome!"
[Laughing] Are you suggesting that the vast majority of the American movie-going public isn't obsessed with uniform minutiae?
[Laughing] I know that's a shock to you. Seriously, though, I want to make it clear that authenticity is very important to us. And while we may have to compromise on certain things, we do fight to maintain those standards. It's really a matter of picking your battles.
OK, there's one more thing about the cap that I want to ask you about. If you take a close look at the poster for "42," it looks like the cap logo in the poster doesn't match the one in the movie stills. What's up with that?
I know we made several versions of the cap. [Looks at poster.] You know, I don't think that's the hat we made.
It's a different logo altogether.
Yeah. That's not one of ours. I don't know where that came from. [Looks like they used a throwback replica, which has a different logo. For more background on the confusing history of Brooklyn Dodgers caps and the largely inaccurate attempts to replicate them for the retail market, look here and here. — PL]
So we won't be seeing that logo in the film.
Warner Bros.Sports Studio recreated seven vintage MLB team uniforms for the movie, including the Phillies.
No, you shouldn't be.
OK, that's enough about the cap. Let's talk about the rest of the uniforms. Obviously, you did the Dodgers. Which other teams' uniforms did you have to create?
We did the Reds, Pirates, Giants, Braves, Phillies and Cardinals. For all of those teams, we manufactured custom caps, pants, belts, socks, shoes and undergarments, all to 1947 specifications.
What was the biggest challenge on this project?
The weight of the wool fabric. The costume designer wanted the uniforms to flow a certain way on the players. Our standard fabric did not meet those expectations. We had to source several fabric samples from overseas and make sample uniforms to show how they would hang and drape on a player. The most important aspect was the color of the fabric and the trims. We dyed several yards in different tones before finding what the costume designer was looking for.
One of the more difficult operations was to bend the blue braid around the neck of the Dodgers uniforms. The trim that was selected ended up being a little stiff, and it didn't want to bend evenly around the turn of the neck. So we had to tack it by hand and then go back and sew over it with great detail. I don't think these types of problems are anything people would think about.
That's why it's great to hear you talk about them, so people can learn about this kind of stuff. Any other behind-the-scenes details you want to share?
We submitted both zipper-front and button-front jerseys for Jackie to use in the film. As I was told, the 1946 uniforms were zipper-front, and then they changed to button-front in 1947. When Robinson first arrived at spring training in 1947, he may have been given a zipper-front jersey from the previous season before he was given a 1947 button-front later on. So we had to provide both.
A final neat tidbit is that we sent the Cardinals jerseys back to St. Louis to have the chest embroidery done. The application is quite complex, and it was done by a St. Louis company called R.J. Liebe.
They're amazing! I visited their plant and did a story on them back in 2007.
I was told that much of the embroidery work has been automated, but the fine blue stitching on the outside of the cardinal was done by hand. This had to be done before we finished the garment and completed the sewing operation, which added to an already tight schedule.
If I could go back in time and compare your reproduction Brooklyn Dodgers jersey to the one worn by the real Jackie Robinson, would I be able to tell the difference?
I hope not -- that was the goal. However, I'm sure that there have been advances in sewing techniques, so some of our seams may have been straighter, because they were sewn with newer equipment. But our goal was to replicate the old style 100 percent.
To learn more about Sports Studio, look here. "42" opens nationwide on Friday.
(Special thanks to Jim Lonetti and David Ziembra for their research assistance.)
Paul Lukas is still somewhat shaken by the news that not everyone cares about cap logo nuances, but he'll find a way to carry on. 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.