by Mark Jent
“I am the last standing boy of summer,” – Carl Erskine
In 1972 Roger Kahn penned what many consider to be the greatest baseball book ever written, “The Boys of Summer.” Having grown up on the streets of Brooklyn as a Dodgers fan, Kahn tracked down the former baseball icons who were then in their 40’s and 50’s, aged men who’s playing days were nearly two decades in the rearview mirror. Several of the 13 players he spotlighted in the book can be found with a plaque in Cooperstown – Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese and now, Gil Hodges. Others were solid contributors to the team’s success on the field and the camaraderie in the clubhouse – Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Clem Labine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, George Shuba. It is a beautifully written piece of literature that is still a timeless classic.
Now, 70 years after their heyday and 50 years after “The Boys of Summer” was released, only one is still with us today – Mr. Carl Erskine, who was a staple in the starting rotation for those Brooklyn Dodgers in the 50’s. Erskine turned 96 on December 13th and has lived in his hometown of Anderson, Indiana ever since he retired in 1959. Anyone who grew up following the game in that golden era of baseball history knows the name Carl Erskine, but most fans of younger generations couldn’t tell you whether he was a former ballplayer, an insurance salesman or a banker. Which he was actually all three!
Thanks to filmmaker Ted Green of Indianapolis, the wonderful life of Carl Erskine will be available for generations to come in the new documentary, “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story.” With no guarantee of a cable channel or streaming service picking it up, Green and his team promoted and planned the documentary to be on a traveling road show in sold out theaters across the state of Indiana during the months of August, September and October. A significant moment occurred for the film in November, when Green was contacted by MLB Network, leading to its debut on the station on Saturday, December 3rd.
Click below to watch the 3 minute trailer.
The production took more than two years, but the idea of the film came nearly a decade ago. A Hoosier himself, Green was inspired to put Erskine’s story on the big screen because of another Indiana legend who played a different sport.
“I was starting a documentary on another Indiana icon, basketball Hall of Famer Bobby “Slick” Leonard. Slick’s wife had twisted his arm into doing the film, and when I went up to their house for the first meeting, he was clearly perturbed,” said Green. “We sat there for a minute in excruciating silence, and then he finally lowered his newspaper, stared hard at me and said, “Boy, you’re doing a film on the wrong guy. The guy you want is up in Anderson, name of Carl Erskine.” So I kind of filed that away. We did the film on Slick followed by a couple more, then about seven years later, I finally took his advice – I began to pursue the story of Carl Erskine. And I’m over the moon that I did. I’d like to think ole’ Slick is smiling down from above.”
I got a phone call from my good friend and native of Anderson (IN) Jim Denny a couple of years ago, “Hey Mark, there is a documentary being made about Carl and Betty. The filmmaker reached out to me and it’s really going to happen.”
Jim is known to be Carl Erskine’s unofficial personal historian. A good friend to Carl and his wife Betty, Jim first met Carl in 2013 following the release of the movie “42.” Erskine had come to the fire station where Jim works to meet with the local firemen for a Q&A about the movie, which tells the story of his good friend and Brooklyn teammate, Jackie Robinson.
Jim was a baseball fan, but had not developed an affinity for those great Brooklyn Dodger teams, nor did he have a great understanding and appreciation of this local hometown hero. Nearly a decade later, Jim has spent countless hours listening to the Erskine’s stories, connecting him with old teammates, doing their yard work, and befriending their son Jimmy, who he has taken across the state of Indiana to Special Olympics events, bowling tournaments, and more.
Ted Green connected with Jim early in the planning of the documentary. Following the completion of the film, Green stated that “Outside of our crew, the Erskines and their family, no one was more helpful than Jim Denny. He helped in so many ways from tracking down key imagery to helping network connections and joining us on shoots to make sure Carl and Betty felt comfortable. He’ll do anything for the Erskines, and they’ve more or less adopted him. Honestly, I can’t thank Jim Denny enough and I’m blessed to call him a good friend.”
When it was time for the red carpet premiere on August 11th, Jim went out of his way to secure a ticket for me to the pre-show V.I.P reception and screening of the film. I knew that because my breakfast with Mr. Carl in 2017 was the catalyst to my Chasing Brooklyn journey, I did not want to miss this event!
Following several Simply a Fan baseball adventures this summer that had me leaving home to travel to Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Cooperstown, immediately followed by a family trip to Colorado, I arrived back home in Nashville on August 6th completely exhausted. The red carpet premiere was the following week on August 11th in Anderson, which is 12 hours round trip from Nashville. I wasn’t sure I had the energy and stamina to pull it off. After a few nights of sleep and, at the urging of Beth Jent, the most wonderful wife on planet Earth, I decided to stay with my original plans of attending the premiere.
Upon arrival at the historic Paramount Theater (est. 1929), it felt as if Americana had married Hollywood and birthed Anderson, Indiana. Documentary banners hung from the light poles on Meridian Street, a huge movie poster outside announced it was sold out, the vintage sign out front with blinking lights made you feel like you had just stepped out of a Delorean and time-warped back to the 1950’s. This, my friends, was a big deal for this city of 54,000, its hometown hero had his life’s story about to be played on the silver screen.
The pre-show VIP Reception was packed with 300 of Anderson’s finest, so I’m grateful they allowed an outsider like myself in the door. Sitting front and center were the stars of the show – Mr. Carl and Mrs. Betty Erskine, who have now been married for 75 years. They graciously greeted each guest as they filed by one at a time, shaking their hands, laughing, taking pictures, reminiscing about days gone by and allowing the droves of people to shower them with gratitude.
It was surreal really, here was a homegrown couple who are in their tenth decade of calling this small town home. Gatherings of this nature for people of their age are typically only reserved for one thing, yet thanks to Ted Green’s work, the Erskines’ lives were being celebrated with them present. Although the room was decked out with unbelievable decor of Mr. Carl’s career, it was obvious that this event was about so much more than just baseball.
I was fortunate to have met Ted Green that evening. He was in the corner with his family, being greeted by the occasional local who was saying thanks. I can only imagine for him that this might have been a mixture of Christmas morning, Opening Day and a kid’s first day of school butterflies all combined together. When asked why he pursued producing the documentary Green said, “To discover this humble, soft-spoken older gentleman in small-town Indiana who spent a lifetime lifting others as he managed to move societal mountains through grace, humility and servant leadership…it shook me to my core. I just felt this need to share the Carl Erskine story and his example as well and widely as I could.”
As the reception program began, Mr. Jerry Reinsdorf quietly walked in from the back and took a seat at our table. That would be the same Jerry Reinsdorf who owns the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls. (His private jet had just landed at the small Anderson airport moments before even though it was closed! So their driver had to finagle them out of the locked gate.) Jerry Reinsdorf would normally be the center of attention of any room he walked into, but not tonight, nor was he seeking any attention. He was there just like the rest of us, as simply a fan. He was there a bit in awe himself as he grew up in Brooklyn going to games at Ebbets Field watching the Dodgers #17 take the mound. Erskine debuted in 1948 when Mr. Reinsdorf was 12 years old and the Dodgers left the borough after the 1957 season when he was only 21. Reinsdorf would later tell me that “I saw the majority of Carl Erskine’s starts at Ebbets Field. I’d pay sixty cents go to every game I could.”
Accompanying Reinsdorf was another awesome Brooklyn connection, Martha Jo Black who works for Reinsdorf and the White Sox. Aside from the three Erskine kids in attendance, she was the only other person in the room who could claim her dad pitched in Brooklyn’s starting rotation in the 1950’s – Joe Black. Her dad won the 1952 Rookie of the Year, was a three time All-Star, played the 1952-55 seasons for Brooklyn and was roommates with Jackie Robinson. Martha Jo was born after her dad’s career was over, but her attendance was significant as she had a deep appreciation for the story that everyone came to watch.
I sat there a bit star struck. To my right was Carl Erskine, at my table was Jerry Reinsdorf and Martha Jo Black. I was surrounded by baseball history.
After the reception concluded it was show time. As I entered the Paramount Theater, the magnitude of the event took on a different meaning. Not only would this place be packed with a two-storied, sold out crowd of 1400 people, but I was in awe of how the city of Anderson had preserved this local treasure.
As the lights dimmed and the show started, a silent hush fell over the place as we were greeted by broadcasting legend Bob Costas who was unable to attend, but had recorded a message personally to the Erskines. Within minutes, the magic of Ted Green and his team had transported us back to the 1920’s and the storytelling began.
I’ve never attended the Cannes Film Festival in France nor have I been a judge at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, but I think I have a decent eye for good cinematography. I was blown away by the previously unseen footage that Green had found and by the images from Erskine’s youth. Dodgers current radio broadcaster Charley Steiner narrates the documentary and was an incredible choice. Like Reinsdorf, he also grew up going to games at Ebbets Field and would have watched Carl Erskine toe the rubber many times as a boy.
For the next 90 minutes we were treated to a masterpiece.
From the impact that rampant racism in Anderson had on the Erskine family in the ‘20s, to the day that 10 year old African-American Johnny Wilson asked if he could play basketball with the white boys on their court and he was welcomed by Erskine. Carl Erskine was raised by parents who taught him that everyone was created equal, no matter their skin color, their economic status or their intelligence.
From Jackie Robinson being the first to greet him in the Brooklyn clubhouse in ‘48, to being thanked by Jackie for saying hello to his wife Rachel and their son Jackie Jr. when they were often ignored after games at Ebbets Field. Carl Erskine’s character, values and most importantly his faith, far outweighed any criticism he might receive from simply being nice.
The documentary covers the entirety of Erskine’s athletic career – from playing baseball as a boy, to playing basketball in front of 5,000 fans in the Indiana state championship in high school. It tells the story of him being scouted by the Dodgers twice with a stint in the service in between. Mr. Carl shares about signing for more money than he knew what to do with, to taking that train from Indiana to New York so he could meet the big league club at historic Ebbets Field. Green and his crew did a fantastic job of highlighting the many accomplishments that Mr. Carl had during his 12 year major league career from his debut in 1948 to his retirement in 1959. They are numerous!
• He tossed two no-hitters, 1952 versus Cubs and 1956 versus Giants.
• In 1953 he led the majors with 20 wins.
• Also in 1953, Erskine struck out 14 New York Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series, including a guy by the name of Mickey Mantle four times. It broke a World Series record that was set in 1929. (He would hold the record for another decade until Sandy Koufax broke it in the 1963 World Series when the southpaw struckout 15 Yankees.)
• He was a National League All-Star in 1954 alongside the likes of Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Dodger teammates Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.
• He would pitch 11 games in 5 different World Series – 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956.
• He was on Brooklyn’s first and only World Series title team in 1955.
• He retired part way through the 1959 season, but the Dodgers asked him to stay with the team as a coach. So Erskine won his second World Series ring in ’59, the first for the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
• On April 18, 1958 he was the starting pitcher in the first regular season game in Los Angeles at the LA Coliseum.
After his career ended in 1959, Erskine went back home to Anderson to contemplate what his life would look like after baseball. Only 33 years old, he had a plethora of options, but he and Betty made a decision for him to accept a job that would keep them and their three kids (Gary, Danny, Susie) in the big city of New York full-time. But before they ever packed a bag, Betty became pregnant with their fourth child. In 1960 Jimmy Erskine was born and some people saw that the Erskine’s greatest challenge was ahead of them as Jimmy was born with down’s syndrome. Yet what others in society would see as a challenge, the Erskines saw it as an opportunity. At this point in America, kids and adults with intellectual disabilities were often seen as outcasts and the families were encouraged to institutionalize their children, but not Carl and Betty Erskine – they brought Jimmy home.
The documentary beautifully chronicles the Erskine’s journey with Jimmy from birth until today at 62 years old and all of his life stages in between. As much as Carl Erskine accomplished on the major league baseball field for a dozen years, together Mr. Carl and Mrs. Betty advocated, championed and fought for Jimmy and others with disabilities. Because of his platform as a former athlete, Mr. Carl became a beacon of light for the Special Olympics, both in the state of Indiana and across the country. Jimmy raced and participated in the Special Olympics for decades, often medaling in his events. During speaking engagements, Mr. Carl would take both his 1955 World Series ring and one of Jimmy’s gold medals and ask the audience, “If I had to pick, which one of these items do you think is more valuable to me?” And then with that aw shucks grin, he would hold up the Special Olympics gold medal followed by “There’s no question which one means the most.”
At the end of the film there are a myriad of video clips and photographs of Jackie Robinson, Johnny Wilson and Jimmy Erskine. As Green and his editor Pete Saetre were making final edits, Green noticed the themes of the film all being threaded together of Mr. Carl’s incredible influence on the lives of so many. That is when they noticed the perfect spot for the B-roll clip of Jackie Robinson’s tombstone that reads, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’
“I’ll never forget that moment. Pete and I looked at each other and just kind of nodded in awe and appreciation of this great thing we were so fortunate to be a part of,” said Green. “These past two years have been the greatest education of my life, and I believe this film represents the statement I’ve been subconsciously working toward my whole career. It took Carl and Betty Erskine to get me there.
At the conclusion of the documentary as the credits rolled, the lights came up and the people started to file out of the theater, I found myself just sitting there for a few extra minutes taking it in – I was sniffling while unashamedly wiping away my watery eyes. As I found myself replaying the impact this man has had on thousands upon thousands of people during his 96 years, it hit me that I’m one of those people who’ve been influenced by his kindness and generosity. I most likely never would have had the courage to step out in faith and cold call other Brooklyn Dodgers if he had not been so gracious himself when I called him for the first time and I invited myself to Anderson that morning in February 2017. Mrs. Betty kindly answered the phone, handed it to Mr. Carl and we proceeded to talk for 15 minutes. I then asked if I could take him to breakfast, to which he replied, “Well my calendar says I’m free this Saturday. How about we meet at Bob Evans Restaurant at 9:00?”
That singular adventure led to me having the idea of trying to meet as many Brooklyn Dodgers as possible before it’s too late. There was a 25 man roster exactly when I started. (Today there are 9 left, albeit Mr. Carl is the only one depicted in Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer.) I’ve been fortunate to meet 11 of the 25 from my original list – Don Newcombe, Tommy Lasorda, Chris Haughey, Joe Landrum, Tim Thompson, Don Demeter, Bob Aspromonte, Jim Gentile, Bobby Morgan, Fred Kipp. Thus far the quest has taken me to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oklahoma City, Houston, Kansas City, Columbia (SC), Lewiston (PA) and Anderson, Indiana. (You can find stories about most of those visits below.)
In March of 2010 Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was awarding the Sachem Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, to Mr. Carl Erskine. The award recognizes an individual or individuals for a lifetime of excellence and virtue that has brought credit and honor to Indiana. As Daniels finished his remarks before he called Mr Carl to the podium he said, “Next time somebody asks you ‘What is a Hoosier?’ You can tell them ‘That man there, Carl Erskine – he’s the best we’ve got.”
Whether it’s the town of Anderson or the state of Indiana; whether it’s our country or our national pastime itself; whether it’s the Anderson Ravens or the Brooklyn Dodgers; whether it’s the World Series or the Special Olympics – each and every one of those groups can proudly boast, “That man there, Carl Erskine – he’s the best we’ve got.”
For more information on the documentary including upcoming screenings, a photo gallery from the premiere and more, visit website the at www.carlerskinefilm.com. To learn more about filmmaker Ted Green and his previous works, visit his website www.tedgreenfilms.com.
Below you will find the names of all 11 of the Brooklyn Dodgers I’ve met so far along with the dates we met. I have written stories about five of the 11, which you’ll find linked below. Stories on the rest are on the horizon!
Don Newcombe (met June 2009): Meeting Don Newcombe
Tommy Lasorda (met July 2013): Lunch with Tommy Lasorda
Carl Erskine (met Feb 2017): Breakfast with Carl Erskine
Chris Haughey (met Sept 2017)
Joe Landrum (met Oct 2017)
Tim Thompson (met Sept 2019): Finding Tim Thompson
Don Demeter (met Nov 2020): Don Demeter: One Swing
Bob Aspromonte (met May 2021)
Jim Gentile (met July 2021)
Bobby Morgan (met July 2021)
Fred Kipp (met July 2021)
There are currently nine men left who suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers left, six of whom are listed above who I’ve met – Haughey, Erskine, Aspromonte, Gentile, Morgan and Kipp. If anyone has great leads to help me meet the other three that would be most appreciated! They are Tommy Brown, Roger Craig and the white whale of the bunch, Mr. Sandy Koufax.
In March 2021 I had the opportunity to speak at the NINE Conference and present my journey. You can read about it here – NINE Conference: Chasing Brooklyn.
Below are other Brooklyn Dodger related stories on simplyafan.com
More Than 42, by Ron Rabinovitz
Vin Scully On The Ice Box, by Peter Trunk
42 Turns 100, by Mark Jent
Where Jackie Stood, by Mark Jent
Jackie: 75 Years Ago Today, by Mark Jent
The Legacy of Ron Rabinovitz, by Mark Jent
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Mark Jent is the chief trip planner and designated storyteller for Simply A Fan. He lives in Nashville with his wife Beth, and their three kids, Brooklyn, Harrison and Zach. He enjoys cheering on his Dodgers, reading baseball history, hiking at Radnor Lake and chasing waterfalls throughout Tennessee with his family. He launched Simply A Fan in July 2018 with the two-fold purpose of taking people on adventures to ballparks across the country and providing fans a platform to share their baseball stories. He is currently on a quest to meet as many of the living Brooklyn Dodgers as possible.