JUST A KID FROM THE HEARTLAND * (conversation with Carl Erskine)

(What I Learned about Baseball & Life from Carl Erskine)

Selections from conversations 2019-2020

As told to and written by

Stuart Robbins

I knew his name long before I met Carl Erskine – one of my grandfather’s favorite possessions was an autographed baseball with names any baseball fan would certainly recognize.  It was a souvenir from the 1948 exhibition game between the Danville Dodgers and their major league counterparts from Brooklyn, a team that included Duke Snider, PeeWee Reese and Jackie Robinson.  During one of my visits with Betty and Carl Erskine in 2019, he autographed a baseball card for my son, completing our family’s 80-year circle of baseball history.

Let’s keep that tradition going, Carl said.

Any fan talking baseball with Carl would be amazed by his ability to recall each moment of his career. (For example, he still remembers how many times he faced Stan Musial of St. Louis Cardinals fame).  His career with the Dodgers included numerous achievements (including a record 14-strikeouts in the World Series), a career that began in Danville, Illinois, circa 1946.  During his first year, Carl struggled with his now-famous curveball and lost his first three games, but his memories of those years are fond, nonetheless.

The Erskines were soon to celebrate their 71st anniversary when we met, so I began that day’s interview with congratulations, and a bouquet of flowers for Betty.

I do have some memories, as a connection to <our> 71st anniversary… You see, I gave Betty her engagement ring at Lake Vermilion…we went to some kind of function with some of my buddies from the baseball team, and I remember standing at the lake or maybe on a pier and giving Betty her engagement.  Our little shortstop and his girlfriend came with Betty and me to Lake Vermilion, just to walk around.  I’d gone to the jewelry store and picked out a set of rings…The rings cost me more than I made in a month…I made 225.00 and those rings cost 325, maybe 350….

I suggested that it was a good investment, and asked him if Betty came to many of his minor league games.

Yes, she did.  It’s about 110 miles from Anderson (IN) to Danville, and my folks used to make that trip regularly, and Betty came along with them, to catch me on a night I was pitching.  They made many trips to Danville.

So many players in the minors end up playing so far away from their families.

That’s true. Well, the All-Star game that year was at Fenway Park and Mr. Rickey had me and my parents come to the game, I was 19 at the time and you had to be 21 to sign a contract in those days so I couldn’t sign without my parents’ signature as well.  So Mr. Rickey flew my parents to Boston for the All-Star game, and the next night he invited us to his suite in the Kenmore Hotel in Boston and that’s when we signed my first contract.

So when I got discharged <from the Navy> a few weeks later, I went to Danville at the tail end of the ’46 season, and I wasn’t in great shape for baseball because of the Navy, not in top shape, and I lost my first three outings in Danville, I lost.

I checked his statistics and asked about that season, which ended with 3 wins and 3 losses.

I found out that pitching in the Class B league was much different than pitching a lot of ballgames in Anderson.  There was a hotel in Danville named The Palace, and my roommate was Earl Conklin, a third baseman, and he was a little older.  He’d been around, and after my third loss, I told Earl I was going home.  I didn’t think I was going to make it in the big leagues and he had to talk me out of quitting before I even got started…

Well, lo and behold, the next night after I lost my third game in a row, the next night I’m on the bench and thinking I was never going to get into a game again, and that night, our starter was Early Wilshire, a hard thrower, he started the game but that night, he was wild, so in the 3rd inning, Chervinko said, “Erskine, go to the bullpen” and I said, ‘What? Me?’

I was dumbfounded, and I hurried up and warmed up and got into the game, and as I remember it, I struck out the side, and for me, that was the turnaround point for my career…

I asked about the courage required “to go back out there”, and the turnaround that ultimately led to a remarkable 12-year career in the majors.

The amazing thing was…I didn’t realize how competitive it was in the majors. The Dodgers at the time had 26 farm teams, which totaled up to more than 200 pitchers in their system, but I just leapfrogged 200 pitchers and ended up in the majors after only two years.

…In fact, when I got to spring training I was in for a rude awakening because there were 200 pitchers trying to get a spot, and I was sure I was heading back to Anderson to work in the Delco-General Motors plant…Anyway that was my fast-track route – – from Danville to Havanna, Cuba to Forth Worth and finally to Brooklyn.

“Did Betty go with you to Cuba?” I asked (knowing she was listening from the next room).

Yes, she did, that was our honeymoon!  We flew those old piston planes from Indianapolis to Atlanta, Atlanta to Miami, and from Miami to Havana.  It took us all night. That turned out to be not only a good honeymoon but a good launching pad for my big league career.

I asked if he had any advice for today’s young players hoping to “make it to the Bigs.”

Well, I can’t speak for others, but I think you start to realize that it’s very competitive and the percentage that actually get to the big leagues is very low, so some guys … recognize what a long shot it will be to have a professional career so they go into some other type of business, or if they’re struggling at their level, maybe they’re not hitting or not pitching well, and they’re young, maybe they can do it for a couple years, you know, not making any money.

You have to understand, the minor leagues is not a fun place to be, no money, lots of bad travel and bad hotels, so in the minors, you have to be really dedicated to suffer through that.  I was lucky, because Mr. Rickey liked me because, well, I wasn’t very big.  I was average size, but I could throw hard. I also didn’t know what “aptitude” meant but Mr. Rickey believed in aptitude.  He gave aptitude tests.

…He asked, ‘Can you learn anything?  Or are you always going to be a thrower?’ So when he taught me something, like an off-speed pitch, I learned quickly. Mr. Rickey loved young players who had good skills, played good in college, and he refined them.  So, without me knowing it or understanding it very much, Mr. Rickey liked me because I learned quick.

Branch Rickey understood a basic truth:  It’s about how to make decisions in the middle of a game when something isn’t going well.  Do you switch to your secondary pitch, or do you change your approach to the next batter?

He’s right, I said to Carl, its true in business and in sports. If you don’t learn from the last time around, you’ll probably make the same mistake again.

That’s true, yes.  But then, there’s a good hitter.  Good hitters will get their hits.  You can pitch your best pitch in just the right spot, and good hitters will hit .340 anyway.

Yet the best hitters will say that they fail 70% of the time…

Well, it’s one of the most remarkable skills, hitting a baseball that curves and slides and drops.  It’s still a marvel to me how a guy can hit a 90-mile-an-hour fastball on the sweet spot, but they do.  You know, the Dodgers this year <2019> have seven players with 20 or more home runs.  Seven!

Carl was a 19-year old phenom from Anderson, Indiana with an unhittable curveball in high school.  Or so he thought until he came to Danville, lost three games, and began to doubt himself.  At 92, he demonstrated the grip to me, straining to form his fingers into position.

In Danville, one of the teams we played was Waterloo, a team from Iowa, and Jack Onslow managed the team in Waterloo. We had a pretty good team that year, I think we won our league and our last game of the season was in Waterloo.  I pitched that game I think we won 2-1.  Anyway, Jack Onslow came up to me after the game and asked me if I wondered why that team hit some balls pretty hard off me.

Finally, Carl retold the story when a visiting coach explained why everyone could hit his best pitch.  They could see it coming.

He told me I wouldn’t last a year in the major leagues with that pitch.[1]

Later, I asked about other lessons he learned in his career.

“You often about the many things you learned from Branch Rickey, and you wrote a book about what you learned from Jackie Robinson.  What would your advice be for the young players who are playing on the Danville Dans now?”

Well, if you’re talking about pitching, and you know that was my position, I’ll pass on to you the advice I got from Hugh Casey, a Dodger pitcher who was on the team when I joined them in ’48.

He was older, been around the league, and he said this to me:  I don’t know anything about you, haven’t seen you pitch.  I don’t know if you throw side-armed or overhand, I don’t know anything about your stuff.  But let me tell you – there are guys in this league who are going to hit .340 every year, they’re going to hit you just like they hit the rest of us, so here’s my advice: bear down on the guys who bat ahead of a good hitter.  You think about bearing down on a good hitter, but it’s more important to bear down on the guys who hit ahead of him and keep them off the base.

Now, in my career, I pitched over 300 innings against the Cardinals, and I faced Stan Musial 164 times.  Schoendienst led off and Slaughter hit second, and I got those two guys out so when Musial hit a double, there was nobody on base.

I don’t say this in a bragging way but the Cardinals had a good team, and I was 23-8 against them, mostly because I kept Schoendienst and Slaughter off base ahead of Musial., so it didn’t matter if he was standing on second base.

It was great advice then, and that’s what I’d tell young pitchers today.

Beyond his impressive baseball career that included two no-hitters (twelve seasons with the Dodgers during which time the team won six National League pennants and two World Series championships, including that game when he struck out 14 New York Yankees for the win), Carl Erskine has been an important leader in his hometown community.  He is a successful businessman, and a dedicated champion for Indiana’s non-profit mental health programs.

His two finest achievements, however, are more personal.  His son, Jimmy, was born with Down Syndrome in an era when neighbors shunned him, and neighborhoods refused to allow group homes; Jimmy’s notable Special Olympics participation, his 15+ year employment at their local Applebee’s, and – recently – the moment when he was honored on the field by Tommy Lasorda and members of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  These moments are sources of great pride for Carl and Betty.

To understand the grace and wisdom of the Erskine family, read Carl’s book, What I Learned from Jackie Robinson. Carl was Jackie’s teammate in their early years (when society’s poor treatment of the Robinson family mirrored the Erskine family’s struggles with their hometown’s unsympathetic understanding of Down Syndrome mental health issues).

Carl sees a parallel:

America had the same social attitudes toward people with disabilities as it had toward race relations.

Though his son never met Jackie Robinson, Carl believes his time with Jackie – witnessing one man’s struggle with society – prepared him for the social struggles the family would later experience when Jimmy was born.

As he says in the book…

Jackie <Robinson> and Jimmy, because of tradition, superstition, ignorance, fear, and arrogance, felt the bitterness of rejection.  Society considered them second-class citizens, or worse…[2]

With so many records and statistics, I asked Carl which of the many records he thought to be his finest achievement.  His answer didn’t surprise me.

I think the anniversary, number 71, is the best of them all, Carl said.  From the next room, I could see Betty smiling.

The arc of baseball history is mirrored by their 70+ year marriage, dating back to the moment my grandfather asked some players to autograph a foul ball in the new Danville Stadium, continuing through one pitcher’s notable career from Danville to Cuba to Fort Worth to Brooklyn.

Carl Erskine’s career led him to face some of the game’s greatest hitters with his legendary curveball – Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays – then he returned to Anderson, Indiana, his hometown, to face social barriers as a parent, until his son, Jimmy, prevailed.  Due, in part, to the patient leadership and compassion of the Erskine family, Jimmy is a thriving member of the community; there are now nine group homes serving children and adults in Anderson where, once, there were none.

On October 5, Carl and Betty will celebrate their 74th anniversary.

 

[1] The story originally appeared in the classic baseball book by Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer.

[2] Carl Erskine, What I Learned from Jackie Robinson.  McGraw-Hill, New York 2005, p. 143