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Remembering Carl Erskine

Carl Erskine was one of those people who are unforgettable in every encounter.  I first met him in the mid-1980s on a balmy June afternoon at a "Welcome Back to Brooklyn" event organized by the late Marty Adler, a junior high school principal at a school near where Ebbets Field used to stand. 


I was in the early years of hosting WBAI Pacifica's rare regular sports show, "Seventh Inning Stretch", and Marty Adler was my kind of guy. He loved baseball to the fullest and on his own dime he founded a Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame. The shrine was open to opponents of the Dodgers too so as an oldtime New York Giant fan I felt very welcome in his company.


Erskine was being honored that day and the lifelong resident of Anderson, Indiana located about 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis, told the crowd that he and his wife Betty still called for advice the Brooklyn pediatrician who cared for his children in Brooklyn. 


So it brought great sadness when I learned that Erskine, the last of the Brooklyn Dodger "Boys of Summer" immortalized by Roger Kahn in the book of the same name, died on Tuesday April 16 at the age of 97.  He won 122 games in his career and pitched two no-hitters at Ebbets Field. In the 1953 World Series, he won an 11-inning complete game against the Yankees, setting a WS record at the time of 14 strikeouts.


During the 1959 season, the Dodgers' second year in LA, Erskine retired at the age of 32 because of a nagging shoulder injury that the cursory baseball medical treatment of the day couldn't address.  When I was working on my Branch Rickey biography, I learned from Carl that Rickey tried to enlist him for the Continental League, Rickey's abortive attempt at a third league (which in retrospect would have been a great idea if it had succeeded).  


Erskine turned down the offer, eager to return to his home town. But he remained a lifelong admirer of the man who explained the connections between baseball and religion like no other.  When he was in a jam on the mound, Erskine remembered Rickey telling him that the stitches on the baseball are like your belief in God that runs through your life.


Back in Anderson, Erskine made his mark in both the insurance and banking businesses while also for a time coaching baseball at Anderson College, now Anderson University.  When one of his children Jimmy was born with Down syndrome, Carl, his wife Betty, and their other children welcomed him as their own.  They became leaders in the movement to support all children born with handicaps.  Their efforts turned Indiana from one of the worst states in aiding the afflicted to one of the most progressive ones. 


Jimmy Erskine became a functioning member of society, holding a job at Applebee's and competing in many events in the Special Olympics.  Last fall, he died at the age of 63.  Betty and the rest of the family survive.  


My last encounter with Carl Erskine was in 2011 when I was on a panel in Indianapolis discussing a production of "Jackie and Me," based on Dan Gutman's realistic fantasy about a youngster who gets to play with one of his heroes.  I will never forget seeing Erskine's genuine tears when watching a scene where Jackie Robinson gets to play as an equal on the same field as Babe Ruth. 


I am glad that Carl Erskine got to enjoy the acclaim last year when he was given the Buck O'Neil award from the Baseball Hall of Fame for service to baseball. I'm also happy that Carl got to share some of the acclaim brought to Ted Green's marvelous documentary, "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story," which is now widely available on DVD.   


There is a consoling thought I often turn to in times of sorrow:  "No voice is ever fully lost."  Just a couple of hours after I learned the sad news about Carl's passing, I ran into a neighbor of mine while we were both walking in Riverside Park near where I live. 


My friend is not a baseball fan but a retired classical cellist.  He is 93 and needs a walker but mentally he remains very sharp.  He told me he was

the child of two missionaries from the Church of God and traveled to Kenya at an early age and then when spent high school in Whittier CA (Richard Nixon's home town). I asked him where he was born.  He replied, "Anderson, Indiana." Cue "Twilight Zone" music.


These last few days have seen many notable baseball passings.  Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, 92, passed away on Apr 15 iin St. Louis where he won the 1982 World Series as Cardinals manager. I remember watching on TV in the latle 1950s when Herzog, chasing a hard-hit liner, ran into the low right field wall at the original Yankee Stadium. 


The injury hastened the end to his playing career but he found his niche as scout and player developer for the Mets and then as successful pennant-winning manager for the Royals and the Cardinals.


RHP Jim McAndrew, a contributor to the 1969 Miracle Mets, died on Mar 14 at the age of 80 in Scottsdale, AZ.

RHP Pat Zachry, who became a Met in the infamous Tom Seaver trade of 1977, died on Apr 4 at the age of 71 in Austin, TX. 

Jerry Grote, the great defensive catcher on the 1969 Mets who also played on three World Series LA Dodger teams, died on Apr 7 at the age of 81 in Austin TX.


I close with John Ruskin's immortal comment:  "There is no wealth but life." As always, I remind you:   "Take it easy but take it!" and "Stay positive, test negative." 

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