Brooklyn Brownstone Block Brings “42” to Life
A brownstone block in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant is playing a pivotal role in the filming of “42”, the major feature currently in production about Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson.
Just as it did in 1947 when the baseball legend became the first Black player to join the Major Leagues in the 20th century.
This week, Ebbets Productions filmed exterior scenes in front of 526 McDonough Street, between Patchen and Ralph, where Robinson (starring Chad Boseman) resided, just at the cusp of his heyday years.
During July 9 pre-production week, slight changes returned 526 to its young 1940’s self. Nearby towering streetlights, large planters and other signs of the contemporary were vanished. Costumes and props, from perambulators to milk crates, scooters, Studebakers, Hudsons, Olds, metal fold-out tables, wooden crates, telephones and even replicas of old New York Times newspapers with the exact dates and news took observers and block residents back to another time.
Boseman’s portrayal of the young Robinson embracing his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), holding hands, running, walking, swinging an imaginary bat in the air and on the verge of something great drove home the importance of his brief stay on McDonough Street. It was a haven, a break from the whirlwind of forces – good and bad, sweet and bitter – that came at him like a hard ball that groundbreaking year.
Prior to the McDonough Street shoot, other locales in the U.S., from Alabama to Georgia, doubled for Brooklyn sites, including the memorable Ebbets field where Robinson deftly stole bases. But no other place can steal the Jackie Robinson presence on McDonough Street. He and Rachel still live thee – in the stories and memories of people who played stickball with him and walked to the park with her.
“You want to know about Jackie?” advised a chorus of McDonough Street resident solo voices, among them Sarah Brinson and Valerie Durrah. “Talk to Ray Robinson – no relation!” “Talk to Henrietta Toliver!”
The legacy of Mr. Robinson, who rests in Cypress Cemetery, very near Central Brooklyn, is alive and safe and sound on the block where he once lived, and people knew him as a man, not an icon. Here are just some of them followed by more from a reprint of a 1997 Our Time Press story.
Raymond “Ray” Robinson
Mr. Robinson (no relation) lived with his parents, in the apartment just below the Robinson’s at 526. But he’s quick to remind that the couple lived in one-room of Mrs. Brown’s apartment on the second floor. “They didn’t have a whole apartment.”
And there were a couple of reasons he really liked the Robinsons being there.
“I earned some change minding Rachel Robinson’s baby in the carriage in the front yard when she had to go to the store. Kids were different, then. Anybody could tighten you up. I did what I was told. And back in those days you made pennies anyway you could.”
“I don’t recall people around here really knew how famous he was. He came on the block during the Big Blizzard of the winter of 46-47, “where all you could see was the heads of people. That’s how I remember when the Robinson’s lived upstairs. They also had family, the Quentins, on Macon Street right around the corner.”
Mr. Robinson says he and his friends played stickball with Jackie Robinson. “He would throw balls to us and bring us gloves and balls and other things. Homeplate was the sewer cover right in front of 526. The first dent in the Cadillac they gave him was put there by a football thrown in the air, but I don’t remember who did it.”
At the moment, Henrietta Toliver lives next door to 526.
Back in 1947, she and her family lived with her parents Victoria and Allen Lawrence’s at 522 – a property which is still in the family and has been in the family since 1943.
“There were few black people on McDonough Street, so it was natural that Rachel and I would get together.
“We strolled our Victory carriages made of framed wood over to Saratoga Park. It wasn’t an everyday thing. Just something to do together with our children.When she moved away, I don’t recall seeing her until a couple of years ago when she came back to the block looking for the building where she and Jackie lived. She didn’t remember where the house was, but we showed it to her.”
Jabali Sawicki, the founding principal of Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford Stuyvesant, lives with his wife and child on the block.
He also told us that one day a little girl was caught playing stickball back in 1947 and Jackie Robinson came out and played with her. “After that the story goes, kids were allowed to play stickball.”
He also shared the story of a very important connection of the Robinson family to his life. Jackie and Rachel Robinson’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, the author and professional midwife, delivered Mr. Sawicki as a baby.
In May 1997, Our Time Press drew from personal relationships to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson achievement as the first Black player to sign with the Major Leagues in the 20th century. At the time we wrote about how Jackie’s achievements began shaping long before he barnstormed in the Negro Leagues. The foundations on which he stands are rooted, we wrote “in the red clay of Grady County in Cairo, GA, and in the strength and courage of down-home people from another place and time.” We offered quotes from various people who knew him. Following is an excerpt of that story. Here, Ken Weatherspoon Sr., then of Brooklyn, N.Y., now Harleyville, S.C., recalls a 1949 parade in his cousin Jackie Robinson’s honor.
Kenneth Weatherspoon, Sr. ,Brooklyn, N.Y. Being in the Boy Scouts of America in Cairo, Ga.was a very big deal back in 1949. Among other things, the Scouts were in charge of the parades for large social events. Funerals, included. Playing stickball in the Grady County fields, where flour bags filled with Georgia clay soil served fine as bases, was also a big thing to school-age boys on hot Saturday afternoons. So it was probably the biggest thing that ever happened in the lives of every manchild in the southwest region of Georgia when it was announced that Jackie Robinson, along with Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and other baseball legends would stop through Cairo.
“They were barnstorming with the Eagles through the South,” says Weatherspoon, “and it was decided to make a detour from Columbus, Ga. en route to Florida, to visit Jackie’s birthplace. They played in nearby Thomasville, and arrived in Cairo on the Eagle baseball bus. It was a red-letter day. And people came from miles around forming the longest stretch of a parade Grady County had ever seen. It was at least four miles of people from Fourth Avenue, across Broad Street, down to First Avenue, over to the Legion Home, a one-room ball for social events. The Legion Home was the only deal in town. So the event took place right outside of it.
“Since we were the parade coordinators, the Boy Scouts had the best seats in the house,” says Weatherspoon. “We got to see the Cairo legend in the flesh.” That was young Ken Weatherspoon’s first face- to-face meeting with his mother Grace’s cousin Mallie’s son. “The white folks simply watched from a distance.”
“Back home, people were generous, giving,” continues Weatherspoon. “Extended family had meaning. It was not just two words. Extended family had life and legacy. It was real. My mother was related to Mallie through my grandmother Susie King Smith, and she sometimes told me how she would take care of Miss Mallie’s children, including her baby Jackie, who was about age three when Miss Mallie left Cairo. Mama and Miss Mallie were very close even in later years,after my mother and father took the family North to Brooklyn.
“They tell me Miss Mallie always kept in touch with her roots, and visited Cairo as often as she could. In fact, before we left Cairo, I remember Miss Mallie coming to visit us. That was a couple of years after the big turnout. She brought a Jackie Robinson – comic book with her, and gave it to us as a gift. Mama put it in the piano stool with the music sheets, and it was left behind when we moved to Brooklyn. We left the piano because it was too heavy, and forgot the comic book was still in there.”
But that warm day in 1949 was Jackie’s day. The townspeople – some of them family he never knew – offered him gifts of money. “That was the way it was back then. Jackie was a hero, and he was an extension of those people: They wanted to show their appreciation by offering money. He refused it,” says Ken. “So they brought him a dump truck-full of food they had grown or smoked themselves.”
“Tom Cornell’s wife was Mallie Robinson’s sister. She met Jackie at the door of the Legion Home. When she ran to hug him, she surprised him.” And he surprised her by reaching out and lifting her up. “I’ll never forget that scene: I was standing right there next to him. I had heard so many stories about him, knew his mother through my mother. We were cousins, but he didn’t know who I was. It didn’t matter to me. I was sharp in my Boy Scout’s uniform, and just wanted to do my job. That experience really had an impact.” So much so that Ken began improving his game on Cairo’s makeshift baseball lots.
Years later, Ken played in the minor leagues—Triple A ball in Jersey City for the “Jerseys,” a farm club for the Cincinnati Reds. He also played pickup games on Saturdays in Charleston, S.C. for the Chicago White Sox. In the Air Force, he was attached to the All-Air Force teams in the Far East. Ken was a second baseman. After his discharge, he says, “The Yankees were at my door.” Ken stayed with the minors, playing ball with such famous fellow barnstormers as Don Newcombe, Joe Black and Larry Doby against such teams as the Kansas City Monarchs and the Minneapolis Clowns in the East Orange Oval Stadium.I have no regrets. I have banked a lot of good memories.”