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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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"Drunk On Analytics? Sober Up!" and Other Thoughts On Baseball and The Arts - Mid-June edition

I've never been a master of the sound bite. I did come up with "It's a big book about a big man" to describe my 600-page Branch Rickey biography. 


i surprised myself at the beginning of June when, as the trailer for the 1951 comedy-fantasy "Angels in the Outfield" was being loaded into a DVD player for my talk about that movie at the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, I blurted the above advice to those drunk on analytics, Sober Up! 


I went on to mention that when Branch Rickey was once asked how much of baseball he really knew, he replied, "No more than 55%." Yet baseball now is overwhelmed with Ivy League and elite business school grads who think their new-fangled statistics will provide answers for baseball's eternal imponderables. 


Too often these young guns dismiss the opinions of eyes and ears scouts with a lot more experience. 

I've often wondered how Branch Rickey - who died almost poetically in December 1965 not long after giving a speech on "Courage--Physical and Spiritual" - would have responded to the wave of high-powered technicians who have taken over virtually every franchise. 


He would have loved new information I am sure of that, but he also would have warned about relying too much on data and forgetting that the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.


One of the things I learned in researching "Angels in the Outfield" was Rickey's role during his first year as Pirates president and general manager in bringing some of the filming to Forbes Field early in the 1951

season.  It was the honeymoon period for Rickey in Pittsburgh after losing the power struggle to Walter

O'Malley for control of the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1950 season. 


With the encouragement of Rickey and talented producer-director Clarence Brown, Pittsburgh minority owner Bing Crosby was one of four people who made cameo appearances in "Angels," speculating on if angels could possibly help a team.  The other three were Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and songwriter Harry Ruby.


With partner Bert Kalmar, Ruby wrote such immortal tunes as "Who's Sorry Now?", "A Kiss To Build A Dream On," and "Three Little Words," which was the title of the 1950 bio-pic starring Red Skelton as Ruby and Fred Astaire as Kalmar.  Ruby also wrote "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" for his good friend Groucho Marx, a song that appeared in the movie "Animal Crackers" and later was a theme song on Groucho's quiz show "You Bet Your Life".  


Yet Harry Ruby loved baseball more than anything on earth. Ruby was a so-so infielder who once actually gave up a movie gig to play in an exhibition game for the Washington Senators.  Albert von Tilzer, composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," was not a baseball fan and he signed his copy of the song "to Harry Ruby who should have written this song."


An autodidact who never finished high school in NYC, Ruby became an avid collector of original classic editions. it was said that his favorite evening would be spent reading the works of Thomas Aquinas and the latest edition of the Sporting News.   


**Among the highlights of the Cooperstown Symposium was a sweet tone-setting keynote speech by Tyler Kepner, New York Times national baseball writer. Like most of us, he fell in love early with the glass-enclosed bulletin board next to the Hall of Fame that always lists the results of the prior day's games. He added that the difficulties of reaching centrally isolated Cooperstown - 70 miles west of Albany - matches the difficulties of the game of baseball itself. 


**Lipscomb University profs from Nashville, Tenn. Willie Steele and Mark McGee, presented fascinating papers on the genuine baseball love of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and country singer Conway Twitty, respectively.  Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins, Twitty was a star HS baseball player in Helena, Arkansas and had he not been drafted for the Korean War, he might have signed with the Phillies. 


**Judith Hiltner, co-author with Jim Walker of the outstanding Red Barber biography, gave an informative talk on the writings of the memorable broadcaster after he left the radio booth.  As early as 1969 he was calling for baseball to broaden its interest among women and the younger generation. 


**Chris Bell, English professor at U. of N. Georgia, explained how he used the terse and crisp text on the back of baseball cards as a tool for getting students to appreciate clear writing.  In an effort to demystify hallowed texts, he said that he also suggested edits to the awkward language of the Second Amendment!


Next year's Symposium will be held from May 29-31 at the Hall of Fame. For more info, contact either Cassidy Lent at clent@baseballhall.org or Professor Bill Simons at william.simons@oneonta.edu 


And now for news about the high school and college baseball playoffs. Congrats to the PSAL baeeball champions, Hunter winners over Metropolitan, 2-1 in the AA final, and Tottenville conquerors of Luperon, 7-4 in the AAA final. 


Both games were played on M June 12 at Yankee Stadium earlier than schedules because of threatening weather. 


The Final Eight is set for the College World Series starting in Omaha on F June 16. The winners of each

double-elimination bracket will square off in a best-of-three series June 24-26. 


For the first time in recent memory, there are two heavy favorites, #1 seed Wake Forest, seeking to match their only title of 1955, and perennial contender #2 Florida. But the Joaquin Andujar Rule applies to college baseball as well as pro baseball, Youneverknow!   All games to be televised on ESPN/ESPN+ with times listed as EDT.

Fri at 2p Oral Roberts vs. TCU followed at 7p Virginia vs. Florida

Sat at 2p Stanford vs. Wake Forest followed at 7p by Tennessee vs. LSU 


Before I close, here is a tip on an excellent play closing Su June 18 at the Manhattan Theater Club's home in the historic City Center on 55th St between 6-7 Aves in Manhattan.

Rajiv Joseph's absorbing and humorous two-character play "King James" set in Cleveland from 2008 through 2016 during the years of Lebron James' arrival/departure/return. 


Without ovedramatizing the black-white differences in the characters, playwright Joseph and director Kenny Leon drive home salient points but the love of basketball exudes throughout. Excellent performances by Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis, the latter artistic director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater where the play originated. 


Su Jun 18 Father's Day PBS Channel 13 and other areas of the country will get to see Ted Green's documentary, "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story".  Narrated by Charley Steiner, Long Island native and former Yankee/now Dodger broadcaster, this is must-see fare.


The first half is devoted to Carl's emergence as a Brooklyn Dodger pitcher and proud teammate of Jackie Robinson.  The second half is the story of Carl and Betty Erskine's devotion to their son Jimmy who was born with cognitive challenges.


Thanks to the efforts of the Erskines, both of whom are still with us, Jimmy and others have led full lives, competing in Special Olympics and holding down jobs. Indiana, once a state that lagged miserably in the area of support for the challenged, is now a national leader. 


That's all for now.  Always remember: Take it easy but take it,  and stay positive and test negative. 









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