Remembering Carl Erskine: An appreciation of a legendary Brooklyn Dodger

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Remembering Carl Erskine: An appreciation of a legendary Brooklyn Dodger

Imagine that you’re almost 100 years old. Your mind is still sharp, but you don’t move around much anymore. What are some things you’d always want within reach? Glasses. A drink of water. A phone, a book, a remote control.

Carl Erskine had some of those items by his blue easy chair last summer, in the living room of his home in Anderson, Ind., a modest little town between Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He also had a harmonica.

When Erskine last played baseball in June 1959, there were 49 states in the union and 16 teams in the major leagues, which were still not fully integrated. But the harmonica – well, the harmonica you can play your whole life. Erskine taught himself how to play as a boy.

“When we have music on, he’ll pick it up,” said Betty Erskine, who married Carl in 1947. “If it’s in the wrong key, he lays it back down. But if it is right, he’ll play along.”

Carl Erskine plays the National Anthem on harmonica before a 2005 game in Los Angeles that celebrated the members of the 1955 World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers. (Kevin Reece / Associated Press)

Carl Erskine, who died on Tuesday in Anderson at 97 years old, lived with a song in his heart. He never lost a sense of wonder that somehow, he really did spend a dozen years on this planet pitching at a monumental moment for the Dodgers.

He outlived everyone else who played in the 1955 World Series, the only time Brooklyn won it all. He threw the first major-league pitch in Los Angeles. He twirled two no-hitters and struck out Aaron and Mays and Musial and Mantle. He formed a lasting bond with Jackie Robinson, who called Erskine “the most understanding” teammate he had.

“To picture me on that stage, coming from this little town in Indiana — I was just an average kid in everything I did, except that experience was above all of it,” Erskine said last summer. “Sometimes you just have to stop and say, ‘Did that really happen?’ It was that unusual. Those experiences stay with you. They don’t just pass through.

“The strikeouts? Mantle struck out four times against me in one game. Well, you wouldn’t plan for that. You wouldn’t say going into the game, ‘I’m going to get him four times.’ You say to yourself, ‘Was that me?’”

Erskine was a treasure — faithful but not pious, righteous but not judgmental, thorough but not ponderous. He was honored last summer with the Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Award, recognizing a life of skill on the field and service off it. His eldest son, Gary, accepted for him in Cooperstown.

Carl and Betty’s fourth child, Jimmy, was born with Down syndrome in 1960. Carl had just retired and planned to move the family to New York, where he would work as an athletic wear representative for Van Heusen, the apparel company. Instead, they settled back home in Anderson.

There was never a thought, Carl and Betty said, of putting Jimmy in an institution. They raised him as part of the family, integrating him into the community. Jimmy, who died in November, lived to be 63 years old, more than twice his life expectancy. He worked for decades at a local Applebee’s.

Late in life, moved by the courage of both his son and his pioneering teammate, Erskine wrote a book called “The Parallel” on the challenges Robinson and Jimmy Erskine faced as they navigated their worlds. When he spoke at schools, Erskine would bring both his World Series ring and Special Olympics medals. The parallel.

Erskine was the last of the Dodgers chronicled in “The Boys of Summer,” the seminal Roger Kahn book from 1972. He never tired of lending texture to his teammates’ stories, always available to share insights from those sepia-toned days.

Carl Erskine (right), with Clem Labine (left) and Jackie Robinson (center) in 1956. (Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

There was Clem Labine, a pitcher whose crooked finger gave his sinker extra drop; Joe Black, a rookie sensation ruined by a tinkering manager; Sal Maglie, who could drop his late-breaking curve “into a teacup”; Preacher Roe, who sold his spitball secrets to a magazine, against Erskine’s advice; and Ted Lyons, a Hall of Fame pitcher who felt lost as a Dodger coach.

“The old-time managers, they thought pitchers weren’t even real ballplayers,” Erskine said a few years ago, laughing. “They can’t hit, they can’t slide, they can’t run the bases. They’re necessary, but they’re not really ballplayers. We outgrew that, finally.”

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ architect and impresario, was a strong Christian but didn’t push his faith on the players. That made a profound impression on Erskine, who called Rickey the second greatest influence on his life, after his father. Like Robinson, he referred to his old boss as “Mr. Rickey,” long after Rickey died.

It was comforting — thrilling, in a way — to know that Erskine was still with us, an ever-vibrant connection to the game’s long-gone ghosts, like Rickey and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, who lived at the Terre Haute House in Indiana, a minor league stop for Erskine in 1946 and 1947.

“He would come down and talk to us in the lobby, show us his hand, where he had this farm accident and it took away not only his first finger of his right hand, it even took the knuckle,” Erskine said. “So he had a hand that had three fingers — naturally, his nickname was ‘Three Finger’ Brown — and it gave him the ultimate best use of that second finger for the curveball because the first finger was out of the way completely.”

Erskine developed his own wicked curveball (without chopping any fingers) and soon helped disprove the theory that a curving baseball was merely an illusion. This was the infancy of television, and he and Roe took part in a program called “Omnibus,” an educational variety show. Erskine scuffed up a ball to give it extra bite.

“I warmed up and the director of the film stood behind me and said, ‘I’m not a baseball guy, so I don’t know what I’m looking for here. Could you throw me a couple of curveballs so I could see what it is I’m trying to film?’” Erskine said. “So with this scuffed-up baseball, I threw an overhand curveball and it broke big. And this director says, ‘My God, is there any doubt?’”

In 1951, an errant curveball in the Polo Grounds bullpen may have saved Erskine from infamy. He was warming up alongside Ralph Branca during the fateful ninth inning of the playoff finale with the Giants. A coach, Clyde Sukeworth, told manager Charlie Dressen that Erskine was bouncing his curve — so Branca got the call and gave up Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer.

There was a backstory to the backstory. The redoubtable catcher Roy Campanella — who always told Erskine, “You bury it, I’ll get it” — was injured, so backup Rube Walker was playing. That’s why Dressen wouldn’t use Erskine.

“At the Polo Grounds, the distance between home plate and the backstop had much more room than most any in the league,” Erskine said. “Rube Walker was an outstanding catcher, a good hitter, good power, good arm, but he was, as an old Texan said, slower than pond water. He just was really slow on his feet. So when Sukeworth, our coach in the bullpen, said they’re both throwing OK but Erskine’s bouncing his curve, Dressen processed this: ‘Walker catching, wild pitch, we don’t need that at this time in this game, let me have Branca.’ That’s never been recorded, but that’s my guesswork.”

Thomson’s homer spared the Dodgers from the ritual of losing to the Yankees in the World Series that fall. They’d done so three times in the 1940s and would do so again in the ’50s. Erskine played in five World Series, all against the Yankees, and lost four of them.

“We were friends with a lot of the guys on the Yankees when we were not on the field,” Erskine said. “On the field, we thought, ‘Why do these guys boast so much?’ When you talk about having a team (with) Reese and Robinson and Hodges and Campanella and Snider, you say, ‘Wait a minute, what are you talking about? We stack up plenty good with these guys!’

“Now, where we didn’t stack up as good with the Yankees: they had two dominant pitchers, Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds, and they were very effective against our right-handed hitters. If you look at the history, Snider (a left-handed hitter) always had some really big World Series even though we’d lose. It was the dominance of Raschi and Reynolds in some of those early ’50s Series when we just couldn’t beat the Yankees.”

Erskine did his part to help. In Game 5 in 1952 — on Oct. 5, his fifth anniversary — he gave up five runs in the fifth. But that was all the Yankees got, and Erskine went the distance in an 11-inning, 6-5 victory. No pitcher has worked 11 innings in a World Series game since.

Carl Erskine pitches in Game 5 of the 1952 World Series against the New York Yankees. (Associated Press file photo)

“The capstone of the story is — Vin Scully swears it, and he’s said this over and over on his broadcasts — Scully says he was looking for any more fives — the 5th day, the 5th game, the 5th of October, 5th wedding anniversary, 5 runs in the 5th inning,” Erskine said. “And he said, ‘Carl, I swear to God when you struck Berra out to end the game, I looked at the stadium clock, it was five minutes past five.’ You want a story that sounds made up, that’s one of them. But it’s the God’s truth, the whole thing.”

The next fall Erskine set a single-game World Series record, since broken, with 14 strikeouts in Game 3 at Ebbets Field. In 1955, he started the Dodgers’ Game 4 victory on their way to Johnny Podres’ cathartic closing shutout in the Bronx.

Two years later it was over – the Brooklyn franchise was off to California with the Giants, leaving memories, like this one, that Erskine would carry for them all:

“When Podres got the last out and we mobbed him on the field, we all went up the runway into the visitors’ clubhouse — and believe it or not there was not a lot of celebration right at first,” he said. “For about four or five minutes as we went up the runway, it almost got to be too quiet. I could feel this in my gut, it was just kind of a moment there: ‘This is unbelievable, we’re world’s champions, we beat the Yankees on their own grounds,’ and I looked at Pee Wee up in the clubhouse, he had tears in his eyes. Hodges had tears in his eyes. I felt tears in my eyes. And then finally, after three or four minutes or whatever, it finally erupted into the celebration.

“But Roger Craig was a rookie on that team and not too many years ago I was talking with Roger and he said to me, ‘Carl, when we went up the runway at Yankee Stadium, do you remember that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ He said, ‘You know what I remember about that? You guys who had played and had your best years in Brooklyn, I saw you had tears in your eyes.’ I said, ‘Roger, I never thought anybody noticed that.’

“But just for a short time before the celebration and the champagne, there was a moment of, I mean a rare moment of, I don’t know if you’d say if it was gratitude or thanksgiving or what, but there was a moment of reverence right there that nobody’s written about. It was a moment of reality that we were world’s champions, the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

Farewell, old friend. And thank you.

(Top photo of Carl Erskine at Ebbets Field in 1956: Sports Studio Photos / Getty Images)