Carl Erskine, RIP: From Jackie to Jimmy

If you consider The Boys of Summer as author Roger Kahn did, the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers he covered for the New York Herald-Tribune, Carl Erskine was the last Boy standing. Which may have surprised him as much as anyone else.

If you consider them to include Brooklyn's only World Series winners from 1955, Erskine's death at 97 last Tuesday leaves Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (a bonus rookie on the team who didn't appear in that Series) the last Boy standing. It almost seems sadly appropriate.

Erskine's 14 strikeouts in Game 3 of the 1953 World Series stood as a Series record until Koufax broke it with 15 punchouts in Game 1 of the 1963 Series. "Don't worry, Dad," one of Erskine's sons said to his father after they finished watching the game on television. "You still hold the record for right-handers." (He did until Hall of Famer Bob Gibson broke both him and Koufax in the 1968 Series.)

Either way, Erskine's long and exemplary life doesn't prevent mourning. A good pitcher who was a better man no longer lives and walks among us.

"He was a calming influence on a team with many superstars and personalities," said former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, whose father Walter owned the team from 1950-1979. "But getting credit was not Carl and that is what made him beloved." No, that only began to delineate what made Erskine beloved.

The Hoosier right-hander known for the kind of big, overhand curve ball Koufax himself would develop and surpass from the left side, Erskine grew up in Anderson devoid of prejudice and was a boyhood friend of eventual Negro Leagues baseball player and Harlem Globetrotters basketball player Jumpin' Johnny Wilson.

Joining the Dodgers a year after Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, Erskine was approached by Robinson, who asked, "Hey, Erskine, how come you don't have a problem with this black and white thing?" Erskine mentioned his friendship with Wilson, saying, "I didn't know he was black. He was my buddy. And so I don't have a problem."

Over two decades later, Erskine told Kahn for the latter's fabled book, "Jumpin' Johnny Wilson ate maybe as many meals at my home as he did at his own. With a background like that, the Robinson experience simply was no problem."

Remembering further, Erskine also beamed when telling Kahn of the welcome he got when the Dodgers brought him up from their Fort Worth (TX) farm in July 1948. "The team is in Pittsburgh," he said. "I walk into the Forbes Field dressing room carrying my duffel bag."

Just inside the door Jackie Robinson comes over, sticks out his hand, and says, "After I hit against you in spring training, I knew you'd be up here. I didn't know when, but I knew it would happen. Welcome" . . .

. . . Man, I'd have been grateful if anyone had said "Hello." And to get this not just from any ballplayer but from Jackie Robinson . . . I pitched that day and won in relief.

Known colloquially as Oisk by Brooklyn fans, Erskine was managed first by Burt Shotton. And Shotton made a grave mistake. During a start against the Cubs, Erskine suffered a torn shoulder muscle. He finished the game but awoke the following morning unable to lift his arm. He started next against the Phillies and could barely lift his arm after 5 innings.

"Why, son, you're pitching a shutout," Erskine remembered Shotton telling him then. "Now you go right ahead out there. If you get in any trouble, we'll take care of that." Erskine went on and again couldn't lift his arm the following morning. "I did a lot of damage to my shoulder in those two starts," he remembered to Bums author Peter Golenbock, "and I began then to have really, really severe arm problems, and it plagued me my whole career."

Somehow, Erskine managed to pitch two no-hitters (1953, 1956) and get credit for 2 wins in 11 World Series games between 1949 and 1956. "I'm very pleased and fortunate that I was not finished after I hurt my arm," he told Golenbock, after admitting his retirement two years after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles was for just that reason at last. "But occasionally it would cross my mind, I wonder if I had not hurt my arm, how good could I have been?"

Soon after Erskine retired as a pitcher, his fourth child was born. Jimmy Erskine was a Down's syndrome baby (they called it mongolism in those years, alas) and everyone in the Erskine orbit, practically, urged Erskine and his wife, Betty, to have the boy institutionalized. The Erskines said, "Not so fast." They determined, in Kahn's words, "to make Jimmy Erskine as fully human as a (Down's child) can become."

At that time, Down's children had an average life expectancy of 10 years. Jimmy Erskine said, essentially, "That's what you think." Thanks to his parents and the Special Olympics, in which he participated for decades to follow, he lived 63 years, even coming to work in the restaurant business before his death last November. His parents and his three older siblings made sure people saw him as part of their family, taking him on normal outings to the supermarket, church, and restaurants.

His father worked in insurance and then as a bank president and an Anderson College baseball coach. But his father also plunged deeply into the Special Olympics among other advocacies for the developmentally disabled. One of Erskine's friends became Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Jimmy's parents also created the Carl and Betty Erskine Society to raise money for the Special Olympics.

Those who watched him pitch may have believed at times that his shoulder issues kept him from a Hall of Fame career, but Erskine arrived in Cooperstown regardless. His Special Olympics work and advocacy for the disabled helped earn him the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award at last year's Hall ceremonies.

Erskine had a habit when speaking in public of hoisting his 1955 World Series ring, then hoisting one of the gold medals his son won as a Special Olympian. "You tell me which is the greater achievement?" he'd say. "Which of these means more?"

I'll answer that personally. I'm the father of a developmentally-disabled son thanks to babyhood deafness (which cleared in due course) leaving him speech-language impaired. Bryan is an avid baseball fan and a near-rabid Los Angeles Angels fan, and he now works as a restaurant shift lead. He also played softball for the Southern California team in the 2018 Special Olympics in Seattle. He whacked a home run in his first-ever national SO plate appearance, and his team earned the silver medal. The only one who could have been more proud than him was (and remains) his father.

And I'll still take that over any World Series title won by any major league baseball team, even any major league team that won one playing in the New York sunlight or under the New York stars. May Carl and Jimmy Erskine's Elysian Fields reunion have been even more joyous than any of the times they shared on this island earth.

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