The Boys of Summer never really grow old.
If you are lucky enough to have a conversation with one, like I was this week with Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine, one of Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer, you realize they remain young at heart as if they are still going out to play a ballgame.
In an instant they are back at Ebbets Field and life with Jackie, Gil, Campy, Newk, Pee Wee and the Duke.
Memories come alive with every word.
You are transported to a time when baseball offered so much more than a game. Erskine, at the age of 94, offers us the great gift of his love for the game and of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And his baseball knowledge, plus the understanding of the human condition.
Erskine is the last living member of The Boys of Summer, but those players will forever live on in Kahn’s 1972 classic.
Erskine’s game is the game you want to remember, the Golden Age of New York City baseball. It is why baseball had such a hold on America. And if you’re not old enough to remember what that game was like, let “Oisk’’ – as he was known in Brooklynese – and Baseball or Bust take you there.
Let’s begin on October 3, 1951. Erskine is warming up in the visiting bullpen of the Polo Grounds. In just a few minutes, Bobby Thomson will come to bat in the sudden death game for the pennant.
Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen calls down to the bullpen to speak to coach Clyde Sukeforth as Erskine and Ralph Branca throw.
A three-run ninth-inning lead is evaporating for Don Newcombe, who told Dressen before the bottom of the ninth began that he was gassed.
“Which one is throwing the best?’’ Dressen asked Sukeforth.
“They’re both throwing okay, Erskine is bouncing his curve occasionally,’’ the coach answered.
The Dodgers went into that ninth inning with a 4-1 lead and were three outs away from the National League pennant. One run had already crossed the plate and there were runners on second and third. The runner at third, Don Mueller, sprained his ankle on the slide and had to be taken off on a stretcher, giving Dressen time to consider the situation. Up 4-2 with one out and Bobby Thomson coming to the plate, a decision must be made.
Here is where Erskine tells BallNine what might have been the deciding reason, something you have not heard through the years. Read and learn.
Dressen chose Branca.
“The story behind the story,’’ Erskine told me, “is that Campanella was not catching that game.’’
Roy Campanella, who hit .325 that season with 33 home runs and 108 RBI, was injured and was replaced behind the plate by Rube Walker for the last two games of the season.
“Rube was an outstanding catcher,’’ Erskine said, “had a great throwing arm, had a lot of power at bat, but …’’
Walker was not fast afoot. He was once described as being “slower than pond water.’’
You get the picture.
Brooklyn Dodger players go fishing, Florida. Left to right with their coach Carl Furillo, Karl Spooner, Dixie Howell, Carl Erskine, Randy Jackson, and Roy Campanella, March 1956
“The Polo Grounds had the longest distance from home plate to the back stop,’’ Erskine explained. “It was never asked or written about that I read, what was the deciding factor of bringing in Branca, but Rube Walker was catching, an excellent catcher, but he was slow afoot. That may have been the only reason that I can determine why (Dressen) didn’t want any wild pitches and with me bouncing a curve occasionally he said, ‘Let me have Branca.’ ’’
It all makes sense.
On the second pitch from Branca, a fastball, Thomson lined the home run, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.’’
“Campanella was my principal catcher for 10 years,’’ Erskine said. “My overhand curve ball was only at its best when, as Campanella used to say, ‘You bury it Carl, and I’ll get it.’ The best part of that curve ball had to be down, so a real good overhand curve ball passes through the strike zone but if it has a good break on it, it’s almost in the dirt when a catcher gets it.
“You really did have to bury it,’’ Erskine said. “It meant that you followed through. A young pitcher said to me one time, ‘I’m working on my follow through.’ I said, ‘Son, let me tell you a secret. The follow through is not a goal, it’s a result. You do things right before the follow through and you cannot help but to follow through.’’
That is platinum pitching advice for all young pitchers who are spending good money to increase their velocity by throwing a med ball against a wall.
“If you do it right,’’ Erskine repeated, “the follow through is a natural finish.’’
Here is more pitching advice on how to throw the curve.
“You don’t look where to start it, but where you want to finish it,’’ Erskine said. “It’s easy to hang a curve ball if you start it at the hitter but if you look at where you want to finish it, you have to follow through.’’
Pitching is an art.
BRONX, NY - 1950's: Pitcher Carl Erskine #17 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for an action portrait prior to a 1950's World Series game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. The Yankees and the Dodgers battled for the Championship four times in 1952, 53, 55, 56. (Photo by Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
When Erskine watches today’s game he notices how pitchers too often rely on a slider that doesn’t slide. “There are more sliders hit now into the upper deck than any other pitch, it slides into the upper deck mostly,’’ he said with a laugh. “A slider not only has to have a good break to it, but it must be away from a right-handed hitter, righty to righty. There are a lot of bad sliders out there. All pitchers claim to have a slider but I’d say two or three out of 10 have a quality slider. It’s not easy to control, but that is one pitch you have to have control. You have to throw a slider in a teacup.’’
Erskine was teammates with Sandy Koufax and offered this bit of information on Koufax’ development into a Hall of Fame pitcher with some advice from a veteran player named Norm Larker.
“Norm Larker told Sandy one day, ‘Sandy you are working too hard, when you throw about 80 percent of your best velocity, your ball moves more,’ ’’ Erskine recalled. “ ‘I think you are working too hard, you are trying to throw it through the backstop and you are overthrowing. Take about 80 percent of your best fastball and it moves more.’
“That’s when Sandy, overnight, became the dominant pitcher that he was,’’ Erskine said. “If a guy throws hard it’s almost impossible to tell him to take something off of it. That’s the art of pitching instead of throwing.’’
Larker joined the Dodgers in 1958. From 1955-58, Koufax was 20-21 with a 4.21 ERA. For the rest of his career from 1959-66 Koufax was 145-66 with a 2.49 ERA, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, five ERA titles and was twice the World Series MVP.
Less is more and Norm Larker, who played six years in the majors, knew that and passed it along to Koufax. Now you know.
Erskine is in rare company in the history of the game. He is one of only 35 pitchers to throw multiple no-hitters. He threw two. And he has to be the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter that included a serious game of bridge.
Roogie's Bump, US lobbycard, from left: Russ Meyer,Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella, Billy Loes, Robert F. Simon, 1954. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)
“After the third inning it rained pretty hard,’’ he said of his first no hitter against the Cubs at Ebbets Field on June 19, 1952. “Bridge was a game that caught on real fast with our team back in the ‘50s. So as soon as there was a break in the action somebody would say, ‘Deal ‘em,’ ’’ Erskine explained.
This was back in the day when clubhouses were not the houses of grandeur and technology that they are today.
“We’d sit around equipment trunks and play,’’ Erskine said. “That day I just made four hearts when they called us back. Changed my uniform, re-warmed up and finished the no-hitter. My wife is a bridge player and she thinks that is pretty remarkable to play bridge in the middle of a no-hitter.’’
Betty Erskine is so right.
The second no hitter also occurred at Ebbets Field, this time against the Giants on May 12, 1956. From 1913 to 1957 Ebbets Field was home to seven no-hitters. Erskine owns two of them.
Erskine’s big pitch was that overhand curve ball and he had to fight through shoulder problems most of his career.
“My curve ball went straight down,’’ the 5-10, 165-pound right-hander said. “It was just the same for the right-handers as the left-handers.’’
It sure was. Over his career Erskine faced 4,301 right-handed batters and struck out 584. He faced 2,978 left-handed hitters and struck out 397. Right-handed batters slugged .419 vs. Erskine. Left-handed hitters slugged .387.
“In the game I have the record for 14 strikeouts in the World Series, 11 of them were for left-handed hitters,’’ said Erskine of the 3-2 win over the Yankees in 1953. That was the year Erskine put up a 20-6 record when wins meant something for starting pitchers. His World Series strikeout record was broken by Koufax 10 years later with 15 Ks, also against the Yankees.
Mickey Mantle struck out four times against Erskine as did Joe Collins. Gene Woodling, Don Bollweg and Johnny Mize were the other strikeout victims from the left side. Mize was Erskine’s nemesis and that was the final strikeout of the game, which made it extra sweet. Mize pinch-hit for Vic Raschi in the ninth.
BRONX, NY - OCTOBER 5: Pitcher Carl Erskine #17 of the Brooklyn Dodgers kicks at the rubber before facing Gene Woodling #14 of the New York Yankees (not pictured) during Game 6 of the 1953 World Series on October 5, 1953 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)
Here was the secret to Erskine’s curve ball, something he perfected while pitching in Cuba in Winter Ball in the winter of 1947-48. “Mr. Rickey insisted I go to Cuba that winter, I was quite young, 20 years old, and he wanted me to go to Cuba for the experience and it did help me,’’ Erskine said. “I developed a much better curve ball in that offseason. I came back to spring training, I pitched in an inter squad game and the coaches and scouts were behind the screen. After I pitched the first inning they all came over to the bench, saying, ‘Where did you get that curve ball, you didn’t have that last year.’ ’’
Here is how he came up with the “new’’ pitch.
“I changed the way I way I gripped the curve ball those 4 1/2 months in Cuba and got better rotation on it,’’ he revealed. “That curve ball got me to the big leagues that same year, ’48.’’
“In high school I threw the curve ball off my first finger but I started using my second finger,’’ he said. “I had a much better curve ball off the second finger and it went down with tight rotation. The tighter the rotation, the later it breaks. That change of how I threw the curve ball was dramatic. When you snap the second finger you get a lot more wrist turn. It was the making of me as a pitcher.’’
Erskine pitched with the Dodgers from 1948-59, winning five NL pennants and finished with a 122-78 record and 4.00 ERA. He also started and won the Dodgers first home game in Los Angeles at the Coliseum in front of 78,000 fans in 1958. In all, he made 11 World Series appearances. His best years were 1952 and ‘53 (a combined 34-12 with a 3.16 ERA) and said he had no major arm issues those years. “Campy was easy to pitch to. If you gave him half a chance he would throw everybody out.’’
As for today’s impending rule changes in MLB involving pitchers, Erskine, called them “crazy’’ and cut right to the chase. “I don’t know why they twiddle around with that stuff,’’ he said. “Baseball is baseball. If you know the game it is not a slow game at all, there is always something going on and good baseball fans appreciate that.’’
Erskine was teammates with Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. He quickly learned what made Jackie Jackie when Erskine joined the Dodgers in 1948.
Portrait of former Brooklyn Dodgers and Los Angeles Dodgers players (L-R, top) Maury Wills (30), Tommy Davis (12), and Carl Erskine (17) with Duke Snider (4) and Ralph Branca (13) during photo shoot at Holman Stadium in Dodgertown.Vero Beach, FL 2/8/2007CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
He used one word to describe Robinson: “Intense,’’ he said.
“Duke Snider’s locker was across the aisle from Jackie’s,’’ Erskine said. “Duke told me one day, ‘Carl, come to my locker when Jackie is getting dressed. I want you to look at his game face.’ Sure enough, when he was getting dressed before a ballgame, the intensity already started with him. He was a power player, what I mean by that, he was not a typical second baseman. He was not an acrobat, almost like a dancer around second base. He had heavy legs, and he was strong armed. I never saw Jackie backhand the ball at second base, he always got in front of it. He knew where to play the hitters and he was so quick. I never saw him get trapped in a run down, he always got out of it. He was the most exciting player in baseball when he ran the bases.
“Duke Snider lived in Compton, California growing up, and he saw Jackie at UCLA play football and he said his best sport was football but his best opportunity came in baseball.’’
Erskine, who will be inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame later this year, also spent all those years with Gil Hodges.
“Gil was the ultimate pro,’’ he said. “He was quiet but he had a strength about him that even the fans in Brooklyn picked up on this genuine guy who was for real.’’
The Dodgers were an organization ahead of its time and worked with hitters using the advanced technology of the day to zero in on their weaknesses.
“They worked with Gil in different ways before high tech was called high tech,’’ Erskine told me. “They had a very crude setup in spring training that registered strikes and balls and Duke Snider was benefitted by that the most. Gil some, but Duke had problems laying off the high fastball. A guy like Allie Reynolds would just eat him up, throwing him that high fastball. Well, Duke learned to hit that high fastball before his career was over. Duke was my roommate and I watched him struggle in his early years, but he learned how to hit that high fastball.’’
In 1955 the Dodgers broke through and beat the Yankees to win the World Series.
“Our fans never had a World Championship, 75 years or so, finally in ’55 we did,’’ said Erskine, who still lives in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana. “Now, guys on that ’55 team didn’t think that was the best team we ever had. Our teammates all believed ’52 and ’53 were the best Dodger teams ever, and we didn’t win the World Series either of those years, but the ’55 team thanks to the good pitching of Johnny Podres won. He was 9-10 during the regular season but he had one big week when he won two World Series games and pitched a shutout, 2-0, in the seventh game. That gave us what we never had before, a World Series ring.’’
Fans and autograph collectors have not forgotten “Oisk’’ and the mail flows to his home.
“If you answer your mail you get more mail,’’ he said with a laugh. “Word gets around. You know social media, that’s a powerful voice these days.’’
Is it ever.
“A typical letter is: ‘Dear Mr. Erskine, I didn’t see you pitch but my grandfather did.’
“I don’t mind, I love to hear from the fans and the grandkids. I think it’s a privilege to have a youngster write to you.’’
And what a privilege it is to hear from Carl Erskine on his Dodgers’ career. “Oisk’’ will forever be one of The Boys of Summer.