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August 29, 2019

Breakfast With Carl Erskine

by Mark Jent

*This is the third story in a series of my quest to meet as many of the remaining Brooklyn Dodgers as possible. At the end of this story you can find links to the other adventures.

It was February 2017 and the dead of winter in Nashville. The start of spring training was still a few weeks away and Opening Day was nearly two months away. I was hankering for an adventure. For several years this had been my number one on my baseball bucket list adventures. The seed was first planted around 2007 when Beth and I were driving to a wedding in Michigan. Months earlier I had just read this baseball book “What I Learned From Jackie Robinson,” and as we passed the exit on I-69 that said Anderson (IN) I turned to her and said “That where he’s from. I just read one of his books. I’d like to come meet him one day.”

Some of my adventures occur spontaneously and could never be planned in advance. Others sit with me a while and simmer until I work up the courage to take the initiative to make them happen. Although I had already had a few unbelievable baseball moments in my lifetime as a fan, this six hour journey from Nashville, Tennessee to Anderson, Indiana was leading me into unchartered territory. A few days prior to February 4, 2017 something clicked in me that led me to picking up the phone, dialing those ten digits that had been saved in my contacts for quite a while and inviting myself to travel 600 miles round trip to dine with baseball royalty.

This is my adventurous story of working up the courage to go have breakfast with Carl Erskine.

The Idea
After the initial seed plant in 2007 on the way to that wedding in Michigan, I continued to find myself fascinated with the men who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and whose baseball immortality were frozen in time in September 1957 when the team picked up and moved west to Los Angeles. Although this occurred two decades before I was born, I found myself reading book after book, researching story after story and clamouring for every ounce of information I could get on the men who became known as ‘The Boys of Summer,’ in Roger Kahn’s 1972 novel. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn more. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go deeper. Somewhere along the way I asked myself the questions, “How many former Brooklyn guys are left? Could I actually track them down before they all pass away?” Some who were still alive in 2007 were legends whose plaques can be found in a quaint museum in a central New York village. Some were men who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues and lived the majority of their lives in baseball obscurity.

His Accolades
Yet others, like this Carl Erskine was neither a hall of famer, nor a no name. He was a legend who had a 12 year career from 1948-1959, played in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, made an All-Star Team in ‘53, pitched two no-hitters (1952, 1956), won two World Series titles (1955,1959), threw the first pitch ever in Los Angeles Dodgers history in 1958 and played alongside some of the greatest players who ever stepped foot on a baseball diamond. After he retired he returned to his hometown of Anderson, Indiana where he would have a 30 year career in banking. More on that shortly.

My First Encounter
My first brush with Mr. Erskine was in Cincinnati at a Dodgers-Reds game in 2013. My best baseball traveling companion, Patrick Cameron and I were on the way to our seats when I look up and see this older, white-haired gentlemen walking my way with a plate of nachos and a coke  in his hands. I see the royal blue polo shirt he’s wearings says “Dodgers Alumni” and I turned to Patrick and say, “That’s Carl Erskine!” Patrick didn’t see him nor would he have known who he was if he did. With my voice shaky and his hands full of nacho cheese and jalapenos, I say hello and he waves me down to his seat behind the Dodgers dugout. Upon arrival to his third row seats, I kneel down, introduce myself and tell him I’m a big fan. (Yes, I fan-girled which is not a surprise to any one who knows me.) As I knelt down for a few moments to talk with him, he gladly signed a baseball and I said, “Mr. Erskine I’d like to come visit you one day in your hometown of Anderson.” He said that’d be fine, come on any time. As I walked back up the aisle, I realized that in this ballpark packed of 35,000 fans, not a single person around him knew who he was. Some actually stopped and asked on my way up the aisle and when I shared with him, they had no clue.

That was my first encounter with Carl Erskine. It lasted a grand total of three minutes, yet I knew there was more, but didn’t know if I had the courage to do it.

Getting Closer
Three years later in the fall of 2016, I connected with someone on Facebook who knew Mr. Erskine and lives in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana. His name is Jim Denny and he had developed a meaningful relationship with Mr. Erskine in recent years. I befriended Jim as any good Facebook stalker would do and months later Jim shared the Erskine’s home phone number with me. I actually called the number a couple of times that November, but didn’t get an answer, had left a message on the answering machine and never heard back. I was discouraged, but had not lost all hope.

A few months later, I was on the way to work and something inside just nudged me to call one more time. Mr. Erskine had just turned 90. Not to be morbid, but I knew I didn’t have an indefinite amount of time to hang out with this gentleman. So I called and his wife Mrs. Betty answered. Like any good southern gentlemen would do, I greeted her by her first name like we were old high school pals. Like she really cared about another “baseball fan” calling, I gave her the rundown of wanting to connect with her husband acting like it was going to take a heist into Fort Knox to get him on the phone. Mrs. Betty handed him the phone and I find myself for the next 12 minutes having this conversation that seemed as if I was in a time capsule with baseball history. Right before we hung up, I went for it, “Mr. Erskine, would you mind if I drove up to Anderson and took you to breakfast some time? Like maybe this Saturday if you’re available?” He kindly obliged, went to get his day planner, flipped over from January to February and said he was free in five days. We had a date – 9 a.m. that Saturday at the local Bob Evans restaurant.


That Saturday
Patrick and I left Nashville that Friday and drove the six hours to Anderson and spent the night at a local hotel. When I woke up Saturday morning it was like I was a kid on Christmas morning. I was excited and I was nervous as I couldn’t believe this was actually about to happen! We made our way across the street to Bob Evans. Much to our disappointment Bob wasn’t there, but Carl Erskine was! He kindly greeted us and immediately I found myself very thankful that we made the trek. The four of us (Jim Denny included) sat down at a table in the back and the storytelling began. We ordered our omelettes (see in the featured image) and for the next three hours Patrick and I found ourselves having breakfast with the great Carl Erskine. I was in baseball heaven!

Over the next three hours he told countless stories that I will always cherish, but there were two stories he shared where he pulled back the curtain that really left me with mouth wide open thinking to myself “Am I really hearing this?”

Meeting Jackie
It was spring training of 1948 and 21 year old Carl Erskine was assigned to the Dodgers AA club. As is customary in training camp, on this particular day the AA boys were playing the big league club from Brooklyn on a backfield. Carl from small town Indiana, found himself on the mound pitching against Brooklyn greats Gil Hodges, PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson. After a stellar outing that day he went back to the clubhouse on the minor leaguer side when one of his teammates told him that somebody wanted to speak with him out on the field. He walked out to see Jackie Robinson having summoned him, “You won’t be down here long in Double A.” Carl was in awe. That summer when Carl got called up to Brooklyn the first person to greet him in the clubhouse was none other than #42 who said, “I told you that you wouldn’t be down long.” That poignant moment began a nearly 25 year friendship between the two men that went far beyond the a baseball diamond.

Jackie and Carl were teammates for nine seasons until Jackie’s retirement after the ‘56 season. They kept in touch over the years and in the 1960s Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and Bob Feller came to visit Carl in his hometown to help promote and raise money for youth baseball in the area. At one point of our conversation Carl talked about being one of the last living teammates from those Brooklyn teams and having been to the funerals of Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese.

Tragedy Strikes: Visiting Campy
The Brooklyn Dodgers played their final game in September 1957. After years of trying to get a new more suitable ballpark, the Dodgers’ ownership decided to become the first team to move west of the Mississippi River and relocated to Los Angeles for 1958. In between the two seasons in January of ‘58 tragedy struck the Dodgers that shook the players and the fans to the core. On a cold, blistery and snowy New York night Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella was driving home from his offseason job when he hit a patch of ice and was in a terrible car accident crashing into a telephone pole less than two miles from his house. The wreck left Campanella paralyzed from the neck down.

Campy had just finished his 10th year in the big leagues and won three National League MVP awards. He along with Yogi Berra were the greatest catchers of their generation. His career was not only abruptly over, but he was clinging to his life in a  New York hospital.

Word slowly spread about Campy’s accident, but in an age that relied on newspapers and occasional television news on top of the fact that the Dodgers were in a flux moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Carl and his teammates did not know of the severity of his injury. He shared with us, “We didn’t know how bad Roy was hurt as we kept waiting to hear when he’d come back from his injury. Even though we had moved to LA for the ’58 season, everything felt the same until the end of spring training in Vero Beach. It wasn’t until the end of camp when we got on the plane for Los Angeles that it really hit us. Instead of flying north to Brooklyn, the plane turned west for Los Angeles. That’s when it also hit us that we didn’t have Campy.”

Even though it had been 60 years since the accident and nearly 25 years since Roy Campanella passed away, Carl could barely tell the story without getting emotional. “On our first trip to the east coast we played in Philadelphia. Understand this was now April, nearly three months after his wreck. We had a rain out one day when I was supposed to pitch, so instead of staying in Philadelphia, I decide to hop a two hour train ride into New York City to visit Roy in the hospital. When I got there, I was told by the hospital staff that it was a no visitors policy. I told them to let the family know that I was a teammate. They did and when I went up to his room, the family left to give us time together. It hit me when I walked in his room that I was the first teammate to see Roy after the accident. I walked in his room and he was lying face down with his neck immobilized and a mirror on the floor so he could see who was in the room. We just sat there in silence for a few minutes. I knew Roy better than almost anybody on the team. You see he had been my catcher for 10 years and I’d thrown over 1,500 innings with him behind the plate.”

Although I was mesmerized by the story, the human element of this was not lost on me as here were two good friends sharing a moment of life that no one wants to be part of. Carl went on, “One of the first things he said to me was ‘Carl, you gotta get me help and get this insurance fixed. My insurance ran out after 2 days.’ You see I was a player rep with the union at the time. We visited for a while and I got on the train and went back to Philadelphia that night.”

Carl’s memory of the details at 90 years old was immaculate. He continued, “The next day I was still scheduled to pitch. Would you know it that I pitched my last best game of my career. It was my final complete game. We won 2-1 thanks to a Don Zimmer hit down the line late in the game. Every time I threw a pitch that night, I just imagined Roy being behind the plate.”

Two years later the Los Angeles Dodgers would play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at the LA Coliseum. There were 93,103 fans in attendance as it was a fundraiser for Campy’s medical bills that raised over $60,000. They estimate that 15,000 fans were turned away. As Dodger shortstop PeeWee Reese pushed Campanella on the field in his wheelchair, they dimmed the Coliseum lights and the entire place lit matches that flickered. That moment is one of the most iconic photos in baseball history. (Click here to see it.) Even though he never played on game as a Los Angeles Dodger, he would always be part of the Dodger family later tutoring from his wheelchair young catchers John Roseboro, Mike Scioscia and Mike Piazza.

Roy Campanella would live another 35 years of his life in a wheelchair until his passing in 1993. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.

Post Career
Carl Erskine’s retired from baseball in 1959, the team’s 2nd season in Los Angeles and one in which they won their second World Series in five years.

Carl has not thrown a pitch in a major league baseball game in 60 years. He had a jovial personality as he told stories – he laughed, nearly cried and extremely pleasant. Towards the end of our time together, one of my favorite things he said was, “You know it is crazy that I still get all this attention for just throwing a ball. You see I only played professional ball for 14 years, then I came home and was in banking for 30 years. But no one ever comes up to me and says ‘Carl, you did a great job on my home loan back in the 70s! Thank you so much.’ But every one still wants to talk about my playing career. It’s so funny.”

Friends, that is Carl Erskine – humble.


A Tour of Anderson
After breakfast, Jim was kind enough to take us on a grand tour of Anderson to all the historical and significant sites of Cark Erskine’s hometown. We went by the local elementary school that is named in his honor. We went by the rehab wing of the hospital that is named after Carl and Mrs. Betty. Outside the hospital is a statue of Carl in his windup. Inside in the lobby is full of memorabilia and artifacts from his career. Jim took us by their house from the 50’s that was featured in the previously mentioned ‘Boys of Summer’ book from ‘72. And finally, he drove us by their house today that looks like every other house on the street except it has a small sign that read “Duke Snider Drive,” a tribute to his former teammate.

A Greater Impact
Some of you reading this (very long!) story have long admired Carl Erskine’s career and philanthropic efforts. He was the catalyst behind bringing Special Olympics to the state of Indiana. He and Mrs. Betty’s fourth child, Jimmy, was born in 1960 with down syndrome. It was an era where kids who had life-altering disabilities were shunned and the parents were often encouraged just to put them in an institution. Not the Erskines. They advocated, they fought, they persevered and ultimately they have influenced countless lives of families who found themselves in a similar situation. Carl and Betty Erskine are revered throughout the state of Indiana as heroes for how they’ve raised their son Jimmy, who today is still a Special Olympian.

In Closing
Carl Erskine is 92 years old. He and Mrs. Betty have been married for 72 years and still reside in Anderson, Indiana, active in the community and still raising their son Jimmy.

February 4, 2017 is a day that will forever be ingrained in my memory as an unforgettable adventures of my baseball journey. As I have reflected on it over the past few years, I’ve been reminded that some times to get where you want to go, you have to be a little old school and just pick up the phone and invite yourself to breakfast. That was a really good ten dollar omelette.

OTHER BROOKLYN DODGERS ADVENTURES
•  Meeting Don Newcombe (published 2.19.2019)
•  Lunch With Tommy Lasorda (published 8.8.2019)
•  Finding Charlie Thompson (published 9.20.2019)

FEATURED IMAGE:
February 4, 2017 – Bob Evans restaurant in Anderson, IN


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August 29, 2019

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