Carl & Jimmy
It’s winter for the last of the Boys of Summer, Carl Erskine. Now 95, the former Dodger pitcher lives in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana, with his wife Betty, who’ll soon be 94. They will celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary on October 5 of this year. It’s been a full life for him, one filled with both joys and challenges.
He and his teammates from that great era of Brooklyn baseball – Robinson, Snyder, Campanella, Hodges, Newcombe, Reese, etc. – were immortalized in Roger Kahn’s book, The Boys of Summer, the title taken from a Dylan Thomas poem that features the line, “I see the boys of summer in their ruin.” Fifty years after the book’s publication, Erskine is the last one still alive (outliving even the author) and he has transcended the portrait Kahn drew of him when the book appeared in 1972.
Erskine’s fourth child, Jimmy, was born with Down’s Syndrome.
In the Boys of Summer chapter called “Carl and Jimmy,” Kahn quoted Erskine’s teammate Ralph Branca, who told the writer: “’A lot of people thought he ought to be put in an institution,’ Branca said, his dachshund face more sorrowful than usual. ‘But Carl and Betty wanted to bring (Jimmy) up themselves.’”
Kahn visited the Erskines in Anderson. This is how he described meeting Jimmy when the boy came into his parent’s living room:
“Say ‘Hello Roger,’ Betty said.
Jimmy shook his head and sniffed.
“Come on,” Carl said.
“Hosh-uh,” Jimmy said. “Hosh-uh. Hosh-uh.”
“He’s proud,” Carl said beaming. “He’s been practicing to say your name all week, and he’s as proud as he can be.”
Betty, Carl and Jimmy Erskine. (Photo via Erskine-Green Institute)
The father’s strong right hand found Jimmy’s neck. He hugged the little boy against his hip.”
That scene occurred more than 50 years ago. What’s clear now is Carl and Betty Erskine not only faced the challenge of raising a special needs child, but benefited from it.
Jimmy is now in his early sixties, unusual for a person with Down’s Syndrome. He lives in a group home. “He’s across town, we see him often,” said Erskine. “He lives with three other special needs men. He’s happy where he is, he seems to be doing well.”
Jimmy Erskine has worked at an Applebee’s restaurant for 20 years. “They gave him a nice plaque not long ago, with a nice clock (in it) for 20 years of service. It’s been remarkable he’s been able to do that,” said his father.
The Erskines, along with other parents in Anderson, have been actively involved with programs for the mentally challenged, and have seen many advances and changes that benefit special needs people.
“We were drawn into that, it’s been a good experience. We wouldn’t wish that necessarily on any family, but once you have experienced it you realize some of the values that come out of that. So yes, Betty and I are fortunate to have the challenge to work in that area a lot,” said Erskine.
The pair founded the Carl and Betty Erskine Society to benefit Special Olympics Indiana.
About 25 years ago, I met Kahn and discussed the Dodger “mystique.” We attributed it to three things: the Jackie Robinson factor, how a fan falls in love with a team that loses, and because the Dodgers are no longer in Brooklyn.
Erskine and his team lost four World Series to the New York Yankees (1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953). They lost the pennant for two consecutive years on the final day of the season, a pair of three-run homeruns costing them trips to the Fall Classic: Dick Sisler hit one to deny the Dodgers the pennant in 1950, and Bobby Thomson’s shot heard round the world dashed their hopes the following year.
Carl Erskine, Jimmy Erskine and Tom Lasorda
Did the Dodgers, a gifted team with several Hall of Fame players, think they were jinxed, or that they would never win a championship?
Recently, Erskine talked about “invisible barriers that show up every now and then, show up in sports, and why can’t this team break through that barrier? Well, that happens often in sports, some mystique going on, keeps a good team from being as good as they likely should be. And of course the Yankees were tough, they were not lucky. They had a great lineup, (had) depth and good pitching. So, I give them credit.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers finally won their first (and only) World Series in 1955, which Erskine said was a dose of “double good news there.”
“I think one of the things I remember most about that day was we were happy of course to win, but we were more happy for our fans, who had stayed with us through thick and thin, took some hard knocks on the way, and finally we gave them the victory they sought for so long. So I think the joy was double for us, not only for the team, but for the loyal fans who stayed with us for so long.”
Two years later, the team departed for Los Angeles.
Erskine went with the team, but he was pitching in great pain. It wasn’t throwing the overhand curveball that did it, he said – “That’s an old wives’ tale” about curve balls hurting arms. It was the fastball, which stretches the arm beyond its normal position,” he said.
Erskine pitched sparingly in California because of the pain and retired after the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first World Series in 1959. He returned to Anderson (his family and Betty’s family were there, along with friends). He went into insurance and banking after playing baseball.
According to Kahn’s book, Erskine was thinking of accepting a job as a sales representative in New York, but after the birth of Jimmy he and Betty decided to stay in Anderson. Back then, he said, ballplayers never lived in the city where they played because they were on one-year contracts, and who knows where they might be the following year. He also stayed in Anderson because “it’s a really nice mid-western town,” he said. You get the impression that even if he had been offered a multi-year contract he would not have relocated from Anderson.
“I’d say that’s accurate,” Erskine agreed.
Carl Erskine, a former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, plays the National Anthem on his harmonica before a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers on February 11, 2013 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
One other advantage he had from Anderson was his friendship with Johnny Wilson, an African-American who went on to play in the Negro Leagues and with the Harlem Globetrotters.
“Johnny taught me to be colorblind,” Erskine wrote in his book, Tales from the Dodger Dugout.
Erskine joined the Dodgers only a year after Jackie Robinson made the club, breaking baseball’s color barrier.
Even though Robinson had proved himself a great ballplayer in 1947, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and helping the Dodgers win a pennant, Robinson was still the victim of racial hatred and discrimination.
Erskine related a tale from Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts, who became a friend. According to Roberts, he went to the Phillies manager and said, “Let’s get off of Robinson’s back, the more we’re on him, the tougher he gets, he’s killing us. Let’s leave him alone.”
Robinson, said Erskine, “took the heat and it inspired him to bear down even harder, it motivated him.”
On July 25, 1948, the day Erskine joined the Dodgers, several notable events happened. He made his major league debut that day and wound up getting his first big-league win. After the game, Robinson came over to Erskine in the clubhouse and told him after seeing him pitch in spring training he knew Erskine would soon be with the team.
Earlier, Erskine arrived from Fort Worth, TX, where he had been pitching well in a AA league. He arrived at Ebbets Field, looking for the player’s entrance. He passed a line of fans waiting to buy tickets and was carrying a duffel bag with “Fort Worth” written on its side. As he passed the Brooklynites, they said, “There’s Oiskin, from Foit Woith.” Oiskin, in Brooklyn-ese, was as close as they would get to pronouncing Erskine (Ur-skin). Eventually the nickname was shortened to Oisk, which he used to sign letters.
It’s been more than half a century since the Dodgers moved west and Erskine hung up his spikes, but that fabled team back east always seems to be with him.
Recently, the Erskine’s hosted a family reunion, with their children, five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. At one point the ol’ pitcher was playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame on a harmonica for his four-year old great-granddaughter. Her name is Brooklyn.
“My grandson told us over the years if he ever had a daughter, he’d name her Brooklyn. Sure enough, he had his daughter, that’s her name. And I’m really kind of proud of that.”