icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

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." 

Post a comment

Baseball Banquets Provided Nice Prelude to Spring Training (with corrected spelling of Darrel Chaney)

Football is finally over except for the Super Bowl which I will watch.  But the daily news revelations about scofflaws and felons on teams already eliminated reminds me that the violence of players on the field too often extends to their off-field life. Not to mention the auto accident deaths and domestic violence charges that have plagued the University of Georgia college football champions since their easy win over Texax Christian U. 


The embattled romantic in me still believes that "pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training" remains the greatest phrase in the English language.  By Valentine's Day, it will be true. 


I devoted some of the last days of January to attending my two favorite baseball banquets, the 56th annual New York Professional Baseball Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard's of Great Neck and the 17th annual Portsmouth Ohio Murals banquet, this year for the first time at Shawnee State University.


In New York, the very able broadcaster Sweeny Murti was a last-minute substitute for David Cone as guest speaker and he delivered a memorable talk. 


Murti recalled his first visit to a MLB clubhouse in 1990 as a Penn State intern. The San Diego Padres had been blasted by a then-contending Pirates team, 10-2, and the awed Murti could not think of any question to ask the players. 


But as they were heading into the hallway, he mustered enough courage to say to Tony Gwynn, "You

hit it hard today." As he walked away, Gwynn said simply, "Tomorrow is another day."   


Some time later, Sweeny looked up the box scores and discovered that the next day in St. Louis, the future Hall of Famer had gone 3 for 4 on his way to a Hall of Fame career. 


I myself never talked to the late outfielder who played his whole career with San Diego, but I'll never forget that when Gwynn came to play at Yankee Stadium in the 1998 World Series, he was the first Padre to visit Monument Park. (Such a shame that his addiction to chewing tobacco ended his life at the age of

54 in 2014.)


What made Sweeny Murti's remarks particularly memorable is that he delivered them on the same day Jan 20th that he made his last appearance as a regular on WFAN.  Station brass wanted him to take a pay cut and it was an offer he could refuse.  Here's hoping he'll reappear soon on the air waves. 


I have never been an addict of sports radio to say the least, but I have also enjoyed Kimberly Jones'  work on WFAN on both baseball and football. Her WFAN appearances will likely be cut back because she has now become the New York football Giants reporter for Newsday. She's another Penn State graduate bringing honor to a school that is rivaling Syracuse for producing major broadcasting talent. 


Here are some highlights from award winners at the New York scouts dinner:


**Phil Rossi currently a Marlins scout gave props to the Red Sox for whom he started scouting as a 24-year-old.  Their next youngest scout was 58 but he learned from all of them. 


**Mets scout Tom Tanous, a product of a Rhode Island community college, wryly noted that the

Ivy Leaguers and business school graduates peopling all MLB front offices these days may say

they agree with you when they really mean, "Please go out on the road and don't come back for a long time."  


**Reds scout John Morris, winner of the coveted Turk Karam Award as the NY region Scout of the Year,

said that Whitey Herzog, his manager in St. Louis, convinced him that his future in baseball was in

a utility role.  "You do more in one AB than you do in four," Herzog advised  - Morris had 7-year career

with Reds, Cardinals, and Angels. 


Speaking of Cincinnati, it is less than 100 miles from Portsmouth where the Portsmouth Murals banquet has always been one of my favorite gatherings.  It is the Scioto County seat, the home area of Branch Rickey who grew up on a farm not far from the port city that endured a devastating flood in 1937.


A flood wall was erected on the Ohio River across from Kentucky but after several years it became an eyesore.  Enter the gifted artist Robert Dafford who from 1993 through 2002 painted nearly 100 murals that covered the fascinating history of the region and included many of the region's famous people like

Branch Rickey, cowboy star Roy Rogers, and Jim Thorpe who coached and played for the 1927 Portsmouth pro football team that a few years later became the Detroit Lions. 


Recent athletic heroes from the area have been added to newer murals including three notable future major leaguers from the 1960s, Larry Hisle, Gene Tenace, and Al Oliver, possessor of 2743 career hits who is now a pastor in Portsmouth and usually delivered the dinner's opening prayer but was not available this year. 


I am happy to report that in my new book out in April BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES there will be a chapter on the prolific and beloved scout Gene Bennett, a Cincinnati Reds lifer as minor league outfielder and longtime scout, signer of Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill, among others.  Bennett also

graces one of the murals. 


The opening prayer this year was delivered by pastor Acy Gibson, father of Greg Gibson who just retired after a career of over 20 years as a National League umpire. The Gibsons hail from nearby Boyd County across the Ohio River near Ashland, Kentucky. 


Greg delivered a few heartfelt remarks.  He said that after 200 nights a year on the road and enduring many injuries, it was time to let younger umpires take over.  Closing on a religious note, he said: "Some day you'll meet your Maker and I hope He calls you safe." 


Former Big Red Machine utility infielder Darrel Chaney was the main speaker this year. He delivered a very effective combination of humorous story-telling and statements of his own strong religious and moral beliefs.  Originally from Hammond, Indiana where his father supported the family as a pipefitter in an oil refinery near Chicago, Chaney now lives in the hills two hours north of Atlanta.


Like John Morris, Chaney had to adapt to being a utility player behind such stars as Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose.  Manager Sparky Anderson told him, "I want you to be ready in case the game comes to you."


As for Rose's permanent banishment from baseball, Chaney expressed sympathy for his former teammate but he sighed at his inability to come clean:  "If you tell the truth, you'll never have to remember what someone else said." 


One more word on muralist Robert Dafford.  His work has won plaudits all over the world from British Columbia to Belgium to France to many other American cities - from Steubenville Ohio to Paducah Kentucky to his home town of Lafayette Louisiana where he is now working on murals commemorating that area's fascinating history.


When I asked him some years ago if he knew Ron Guidry, the local hero who became the great Yankees

pitcher, he replied, "I ran track with him in high school, . . . far behind him." 


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


Post a comment