.WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Benjamin Pomerance
September 18, 2011
Stuck side-by-side, the words seem as out-of-place as a basketball hoop on a baseball diamond. Carl Erskine, bank president. Or this paring: Carl Erskine, author. Or try this one on for size: Carl Erskine, insurance executive. Each set sounds foreign, sticks in the mouths of people who try to say them. For people of a certain generation, of a certain era in American history – a time when baseball reigned supreme and a place deep inside New York City – there is only one appropriate label that can come after Carl Erskine’s name. Carl Erskine, pitcher, Brooklyn Dodgers.'
Yet this is unfair. It is unfair because the life’s work of Carl Erskine extends far beyond the confines of Ebbets Field. Far beyond the game of baseball, even. And the former pitcher is the first to admit it. “It’s amazing to me how long that Brooklyn Dodger mystique has lasted,” Erskine says, speaking in measured Midwestern tones from his home in Anderson, Indiana, the same town where he was born and raised.
“The fame and the nostalgia of those teams has hung around an awfully long time, longer than I ever would have imagined. And it was a great period, a transformative period, to be part of. But it wasn’t just about baseball. If anything, it was about change. “During my playing years, we went from train travel to plane travel, radio broadcasts to TV broadcasts, day games to night games, all-white baseball to integrated baseball, and the move of baseball to the West Coast,” Erskine says. “That all happened in that same time period. If there’s a particular reason why the Dodgers of those years have gone down in history, I think that all of these transformations have to be part of it. Baseball was changing. The country was changing. And we were there for all of it.”
The changes haven’t stopped after retirement. Erskine’s post-playing days have brought him back to the familiar surroundings of his hometown, but those golden years have been filled with barriers as daunting as facing Yogi Berra in the World Series. Converting yourself from baseball player to bank executive isn’t exactly an intuitive transition. Learning the ropes of the insurance business doesn’t exactly happen overnight.
And then there is the greatest challenge and change of all, the one that Erskine sees when he’s around the 51-year-old man who still lives at home with his parents, the one who works at the local Applebee’s and earns high marks from his boss for his diligence. The man is Carl and Betty Erskine’s youngest child, Jimmy. For more than a half century now, he has battled the limitations and stigmas of being born with Down syndrome. And for those 51 years, when Carl Erskine looks into Jimmy’s eyes and the father thinks about what his son has been through, he can’t help but remember Jackie Robinson.
The story of Erskine and Robinson begins with a lynching rope. There were two African-American men, both taken from a jail in Marion, Indiana, by an angry mob. The crowd skinned the bark from a tree branch and threw a rope over it, and then they hung both men from the branch until they were dead. One day later, Matt Erskine got into a car with his son Carl, a boy who was less than 10 years old, and drove 30 miles to the place where the lynching had occurred. The African-American men had been taken down from the tree, but a piece of rope remained.
To this day, Erskine says, the memory of that rope burns strongly. Matt Erskine, the man who would eventually teach Carl how to throw his curveball, had instilled a different kind of lesson in his son that day, a reminder of what can happen when actions are governed by prejudice instead of reason.
So in 1947, when Jackie Robinson stepped onto a major league diamond and shattered the sport’s age-old color barrier forever, a teenage Erskine – at that point serving in the United States Navy after being drafted and reporting to duty just days after his high school graduation – followed the news from his post in Boston Navy Yard and applauded baseball’s crusader from afar. Two years later, when he walked into the Dodgers clubhouse for the first time as a wide-eyed 21-year-old, Robinson was the first player to meet him and shake his hand.
The rookie could not have received a better welcome. “Jackie was out there a decade before Martin Luther King, standing alone, facing the bigotry and hatred of segregation,” Erskine says today. “Sometimes, I think people now forget just how influential of a man Jackie was. He brought about major social changes. But it took tremendous determination and struggles for him to do it. For years, he couldn’t stay with the rest of us, couldn’t eat with the rest of us. It took seven years before the last hotel where the team stayed – the Chase, in St. Louis – would accept a black guest. I was with him on the team when he had to put up with all of that. And I saw how what he did was part of this incredible change in the way people treated other people who had a different skin color.”
Then, in the 1960s, Erskine would experience the horrors of bigotry again. This time though, the subject of the prejudice was not a teammate, but his newborn son. “When Jimmy was born [in 1960], the outlook was not good,” Erskine remembers. “Betty and I did not know what to expect. People kept saying that we needed to send him away and put him in an institution. The doctor kept telling us about all of these places where he could be cared for out of the public view.” He pauses. “But Betty wouldn’t hear of it. This was our child, and we were his parents. And we were going to raise him.”
A year-and-a-half earlier, Erskine had announced that his playing days were over. After 122 big-league wins, two no-hitters, and a World Series championship in 1955, the recurring shoulder problems that had bothered him throughout his career had finally ended it. Plenty of teams offered him positions, but Erskine was forced to decline. “My kids were 10, eight, and three at the time,” he explains today. “And now, Jimmy had been born with Down syndrome, which people called ‘mongoloid’ in those days, and needed a lot of care. I couldn’t be on the road with a baseball team and leave Betty at home to take care of everything.” He returned to Anderson, the hometown hero returning.
It wasn’t long before the problems started for that local star. Erskine’s memories of Robinson’s courage came racing back as the prejudice toward his child grew. People in town – some of them friends whom the Erskines had known for years – demanded that Carl and Betty send Jimmy away. Many claimed that “a mongoloid child” like Jimmy could be dangerous.
At a town meeting discussing the possibility of starting a group home for children with Down syndrome and similar conditions, Erskine listened as established residents of Anderson delivered lengthy descriptions of people with developmental disabilities as sex maniacs and lunatics. Finally, when they began announcing that the establishment of a group home would cause their property values to plummet, Erskine had heard enough. “We’re talking about a home for children here,” he remembers telling the gathering. “We’re not talking about a landfill.”
After spending years playing alongside Jackie Robinson, Erskine could finally understand the loneliness that his teammate and friend felt. “I realized that Jimmy was born into a society that was no more ready to accept him as a Down syndrome person than society was ready to accept Jackie as a black person,” he says. “Because of ignorance, fear, superstition, and bigotry, people had rejected Jackie and Jimmy as second-class citizens. They didn’t do anything to deserve that. But people acted like they were less than human.”
Yet just as Erskine watched race relations change during Robinson’s lifetime, he began to see a change in the way society treated mentally and physically disabled children as Jimmy grew older. Today, he says, his son lives in a world that would not have been imaginable 20 years ago. “Jimmy is still very limited,” he explains. “But he has great support now. And communities all over are looking at people like Jimmy and embracing them and encouraging them and including them in all sorts of settings. Their lives now have the kind of acceptance, inclusion, and support that was non-existent when Jimmy was born.”
On a recent visit to the local Applebee’s, where Jimmy works three days a week, Erskine pulled the manager aside for a private chat. “I wanted to thank him for everything he’s done for Jimmy,” Erskine says. “And before I could say very much, he said, ‘Let me tell you something about Jimmy. When Jimmy’s here, he’s not smoking, he doesn’t pull out his cell phone, he’s not off in a corner talking to somebody. When he comes in, he works. He sets a great example for our entire staff.” Erskine pauses again. “So many people wanted Betty and I to send him away when he was born,” he finally continues. “But look what he has been able to do with his life.”
Since Jimmy’s birth, public advocacy for young people with disabilities has become a significant part of Erskine’s life. He became friends with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy’s sister who founded the Special Olympics in 1968, and has served as a spokesperson for the Special Olympics since its inception. “When I was playing baseball and basketball in high school, I couldn’t imagine a world where handicapped kids could take part in the experience of competitive athletics,” he says. “What Mrs. Shriver was able to accomplish is a tremendous breakthrough, and I was happy to help tell the story of the Special Olympics. I think it’s part of one of the most remarkable social changes in American life over the last century.”
During his retirement years, Erskine has also found opportunities to assist a very different class of athletes in need. As a member of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), a nonprofit organization devoted to helping former baseball professionals in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues who are experiencing medical or financial difficulties, Erskine says he has worked with many ex-ballplayers in desperate need of a helping hand – including at least one former teammate.
Sandy Amoros, the fleet-footed outfielder whose running catch of a Yogi Berra fly ball essentially clinched victory for Brooklyn in Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, appeared on BAT’s radar several years after his playing days had come to an end.
“Apparently, his health was very bad, and he lost a lot of money and property that he had owned down there. Well, somehow, he made his way to Tampa, Florida. And then Chico Fernandez, who was Sandy’s old teammate in Brooklyn, notified BAT and told us that he had found Sandy in Tampa, sleeping in a garage.”
Erskine and the other members of BAT’s grant committee followed-up on Fernandez’s tip, and upon learning that it was genuine, immediately sought out Amoros and offered to help him. “We gave him some money that he could live on,” Erskine remembers, “and we got him a steady job with the Parks Department in Tampa. He had to have his left leg amputated, too, because of problems related to his diabetes, and we were able to buy him a good prosthesis. And I was very proud that we were able to help Sandy Amaros, my teammate and friend from the Dodgers, when he needed us.”
To hear Erskine talk about the old days in Brooklyn, it seems that every teammate must have been his friend on some level. He speaks fondly of the camaraderie on road trips and in the clubhouse, sitting around talking and pulling pranks and playing cards. One card game in particular stands out in his mind. It came in 1952, one year after Erskine had earned a full-time place in the Dodgers’ starting rotation. The Chicago Cubs were in town, and the weather forecast called for rain. “It was an overcast day,” Erskine recalls, “and the air was very heavy. We scored five runs early in the game, and after that, we were all hurrying to get to the fifth inning so it would be an official game and go down as a win.”
In the top of the fifth, with Erskine pitching a perfect game, the skies opened up. Cubs pitcher Willard Ramsdell was at the plate. Trying to get Ramsdell out quickly, Erskine speeded up his delivery and walked him – “the worst hitter on the whole team,” in Erskine’s words – for his first base runner of the day. Before the next batter could step into the box, the umpire declared that the field was too dangerous for play and ordered the teams off the field.
Back in the clubhouse, Erskine changed into a dry uniform and joined a game of bridge with his teammates. Third baseman Billy Cox was his partner. “I had just drawn a hand of four hearts, and played it, when the umpire said that the rain was stopped and ordered us out on the field again,” Erskine remembers. “Well, I went back and didn’t allow another base runner for the rest of the game. It was a no-hitter. But if I hadn’t been rushing when I pitched to Ramsdell, trying to beat the rain, it would have been a perfect game.”
Four years later, Erskine again went nine innings without allowing a hit to the opposing team. This time, though, he confesses that revenge might have played a bit of a factor. The opponent that day was the New York Giants, Brooklyn’s bitter rivals under the best of circumstances. Comments made by to a newspaper reporter by Tom Sheehan, the Giants chief scout, claiming that the Dodgers were “over the hill” and “done,” only intensified the tension of the game that day.
To make matters worse for Erskine, who had been struggling with injuries since the start of the season, Sheehan had specifically targeted three Dodgers for his criticism: Erskine, Robinson, and catcher Roy Campanella. Of Erskine, Sheehan said that the Dodger hurler no longer had an effective curveball, and that he was throwing “garbage” pitches.
“We were all pretty mad about that,” Erskine says. “And then I go out there and throw a no-hitter. Alvin Dark was the last batter, and he hit a chopper back to me, and I threw him out at first. As soon as the umpire called him out, Jackie ran to the mound and shook my hand. Then he spotted Tom Sheehan, who was at the game, starting to walk up the aisle. And Jackie reached in his hip pocket and he pulled out the article where Sheehan had been saying all of this stuff. And he started pointing at Sheehan and yelling ‘How do you like that garbage?’ at him.”
Erskine laughs softly. For a man in his mid-80s, this particular victory remains fresh and sweet. “The three players Sheehan mentioned as being ‘over the hill’ were Jackie, Campy, and me,” he states. “Well, Jackie saved the no-hitter with an incredible catch that he made. Campy caught the no-hitter. And I pitched the no-hitter.” He laughs again. “I guess you can call that poetic justice.”
To Erskine, though, no on-the-field justice was more poetic than the outcome of a game in which he didn’t even pitch. Instead, the hurler was a youngster named Johnny Podres, who turned in one of the best-pitched games in World Series history, a 2-0 shutout over the cross-town rival New York Yankees in Game Seven of the 1955 Fall Classic. For the first and only time in history, baseball’s championship would come home to roost in Brooklyn. The team whose perennial mantra was “wait till next year” finally had a year to call its own.
“We had been there so many times before,” Erskine says. “We had come so close and lost. And we probably had better teams than the one we had in ’55. The ’52 Dodgers had fantastic numbers. The ’53 team, same thing. But there was something special in ’55.” To the players, many of whom spent their seasons living among their fans in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, it was a chance to finally pay back their followers’ leather-lunged loyalty. “There has never been a day or night like that in Brooklyn,” Erskine proclaims. “Not before and not since.”
Ironically, Erskine’s career fully began its downward slide after the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. “The word ‘strange’ was the only way to describe how it felt to leave spring training in Vero Beach and board a plane to fly to the West Coast,” he remembers. “It just felt strange. We hadn’t done this before.” Out in L.A., Erskine was given the honor of starting the first home game in Los Angeles Dodgers history, a 6-5 victory over San Francisco, before 79,000 fans at the Coliseum. Opening Day, April 18, 1958.
For Erskine, and for many of the older Dodgers, that moment of proof never came. Los Angeles would be the place for new heroes to be minted, players like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who were just starting their careers at the time of the team’s westward move. “The old guard,” Erskine says today, “was finally done.”
Back in Anderson, he entered the world of business, becoming a partner in an insurance brokerage firm. He also took some classes at the local Anderson College. Once, he recalls walking into the classroom and hearing the chatter of the younger students all around him. “All of a sudden, as soon as I got inside the room, it got quiet,” Erskine says. “And suddenly, it hit me. They thought I was the professor.”
He never would become a professor. Yet he would become a bank executive, a move that he made after some leaders of the First National Bank of Anderson attended a convention in San Francisco and learned that a San Francisco bank gained tremendous publicity after they had helped Giants superstar Willie Mays avoid bankruptcy. “On the plane ride back to Indiana,” Erskine says, “they were talking about this, and they said ‘Hey, we have a ballplayer back home in Anderson. He’ll do.’ So now, whenever I see Willie Mays, I always thank him for getting me into the banking business.”
Still, Erskine quickly proved to be more than a figurehead for publicity purposes. Three or four years after joining the bank’s board of directors, he was asked to become an officer. Not long after that, he became the bank’s vice president. A few years after that, he was promoted to president, a position Erskine held for 11 years. Even today, he remains an active member of the bank’s board of directors.
Of course, that’s when he isn’t doing something with the First Baptist Church of Anderson, where he and Betty are members. Or speaking about the Special Olympics, or working with BAT, or writing a book (he has written two since retirement). Or spending time with his family; daughter Susan and sons Danny, Gary, and of course, Jimmy. And Betty, the woman whom he began dating when she was 14 years old. On October 5, they will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary. “I give my wife a lot of credit,” Erskine says. “She hung in there. It hasn’t always been easy, financially as well as the rest of it. But we didn’t miss any meals, fortunately. And I think things have worked out okay for us.”
Including for Jimmy, about whom Erskine speaks with the pride of a father, but also with the satisfaction of someone who has seen society change, and change for the better. Change twice, actually. And when he speaks of these transformations, you get the sense that nothing – no victory, not no-hitter, nor even that World Series championship in 1955 – pleases him more. “I’m fortunate to have been part of two of the biggest social changes of the last century,” the curveball-throwing right-hander says. “I saw the racial changes with Jackie, and the changes toward young people with disabilities with Jimmy. And I like to think that Jackie could have had something to do with Jimmy’s success. There are all kinds of parallels between what they went through. It’s a parallel story that I have lived through twice. And it’s one that seems to be having a happier ending than anything that we could have imagined before.”
Benjamin Pomerance has written more than 350 published articles, including profiles of Johnny Podres, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Mike Marshall. His article on Jackie Robinson’s time with the Montreal Royals, including interviews with Rachel Robinson and George “Shotgun” Shuba, can be read at http://www.apnmag.com/fall_2009/pomerance_JackieRobinson.php. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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