Carl Erskine, Dodgers pitcher and last of ‘Boys of Summer,’ dies at 97

Carl Erskine, a remarkable pitcher who was the last of the “Boys of Summer,” the famous Brooklyn Dodgers team of the 1940s and 1950s that broke baseball’s racial barrier with Jackie Robinson and became a National League power, is died April 16 in a hospital in Anderson, Indiana. He was 97 years old.

The death was confirmed by Ted Green, a filmmaker who made a 2022 documentary about Mr. Erskine, “The Best We’ve Got.” The cause was related to pneumonia, Green said.

Mr. Erskine became a mainstay of the Brooklyn pitching staff at a time when New York was the hub of the baseball universe, with three major league teams. The Dodgers overcame their reputation as lovable losers to reach the World Series six times in 10 years – always against their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees.

The team was the pride of Brooklyn, but after the 1957 season, the Dodgers and New York Giants left the city for the West Coast, leaving their fans with a lingering sense of loss. Writer Roger Kahn, who covered the Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s, sought to show how Brooklyn’s spirit was linked to the Dodgers’ fortunes in his much-admired 1972 book, “The Boys of Summer.”

His heartfelt account depicted the Dodgers and their vanished era in almost mythical terms. “Under the dead sun of a forgotten spring,” he wrote, “the major league players were lean, graceful and effortless. They might even have been gods for they seemed true Olympians to a boy who wanted to become a man and who felt that it was an exalted manly thing to catch a ball with one hand across his body and make a crowd jump. on his feet and cheers.”

Mr. Erskine, the last surviving player featured prominently in Kahn’s book, played alongside such Hall of Fame stars as outfielder Duke Snider, infielders Gil Hodges and catcher Pee Wee Reese Roy Campanella and, of course, Robinson, an infielder who in 1947 became the first black major league player of the 20th century. (A handful of black men played in the 1870s and 1880s.) When Mr. Erskine joined the Dodgers in 1948, Robinson was the first player to shake his hand.

Mr. Erskine was not an intimidating figure, standing 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds, but he had an excellent curveball and changeup and was a mainstay on a pitching staff that included Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Ralph Branca and Clem Labine. . The young right-hander was nicknamed, in exaggerated Brooklynite, “Oisk.”

In the first game he started in the majors, against the Chicago Cubs in 1948, Mr. Erskine tore a muscle in the back of his shoulder. At that time, medical treatment for injuries was rudimentary, and Mr. Erskine feared that if he complained he would be labeled a “bad pitcher” and lose his place on the roster. As a result, injury plagued him throughout his 12-year career and he was often in pain.

Mr. Erskine appeared in five World Series and had a dramatic 11-inning victory over the Yankees in 1952, but the Dodgers failed to win the title.

A year later, he had one of his best seasons, going 20-6, as he helped the Dodgers win another National League pennant. He took the mound in Game 3 of the World Series, and in eight innings he recorded 12 strikeouts (including four from Mickey Mantle). In the Yankees dugout, veteran slugger Johnny Mize chastised his teammates for hitting Mr. Erskine’s overhand curveball.

“All afternoon I could hear him yelling at the Yankee batters,” Mr. Erskine told Kahn in “The Boys of Summer.” “‘What are you doing, being crazy about this miserable curve of bush?’ »

Holding a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth, Mr. Erskine retired pinch hitter Don Bollweg. The next batter was another pinch hitter, Mize – who struck out. Mr. Erskine’s 14 strikeouts set a new World Series record, which was later broken by Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.

Despite Mr. Erskine’s efforts, the Yankees won the Series. The Dodgers finally broke the spell in 1955, defeating the Yankees in seven games for the only World Series title in Brooklyn history. (Mr. Erskine started Game 4, which the Dodgers won, but he did not figure in the decision.)

Throughout Mr. Erskine’s time in Brooklyn, Robinson’s symbolic importance made the Dodgers a kind of public social experiment. Like many other institutions of American life, major league baseball was exclusively white for decades. Years before the civil rights movement gained momentum, Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey was determined to enter the majors with Robinson, an Army veteran who had been a multi-sport star at UCLA .

Robinson and other black players who later joined him in Brooklyn, including Campanella and Newcombe, were greeted with skepticism and hostility by other clubs and even some of their teammates. But Rickey held on and built a winning team, with Robinson at its core.

“Everywhere,” Kahn writes in “The Boys of Summer,” “men and women were talking about the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, and as they talked they were confronting themselves and American racism.”

Mr. Erskine was 21 when he first walked into the Brooklyn clubhouse, but he was already a Navy veteran and had a little-known personal story that helped make him one of the Robinson’s strongest allies on the team.

At one point, Mr. Erskine recalled in a 2022 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Robinson asked him: “Hey Erskine, how come you don’t have a problem with this black-and-white thing?”

“I said, ‘Well, I grew up with Johnny Wilson.'”

Mr. Erskine spent his childhood in a mixed-race neighborhood in Anderson, Indiana, and his best friend, Wilson, was black. They attended the same schools, played on the same teams and ate meals at each other’s houses.

“With that background,” Mr. Erskine told Kahn, “the Robinson experiment simply didn’t pose a problem. In a way, it was really beautiful.

“I saw a lynch rope”

Carl Daniel Erskine was born on December 13, 1926, in Anderson, a mid-sized town in central Indiana. His father owned a grocery store and later worked in a factory. His mother was a housewife.

Mr. Erskine grew up steeped in his father’s love of baseball and his family’s strict Baptist values. When Carl was about 4 years old, his father drove him to a nearby town, where the day before a white mob had taken two black prisoners out of jail and hanged them. Parts of a noose still hung from a tree branch.

“I saw a lynch rope before I was 10,” Mr. Erskine later recalled. The image remained forever etched in his memory.

Throughout his youth, he played on sports teams with both black and white athletes, including Wilson, nicknamed “Mr. from Indiana.” Basketball” in high school. Nevertheless, Wilson was denied admission to Indiana University, which Mr. Erskine considered an injustice based on race. Wilson later played for the Harlem Globetrotters and coached basketball.

In his early teens, Mr. Erskine was taught to throw a curveball by his father, who once broke the family china cabinet during a fielding demonstration. Young Carl’s large hands and lithe wrist helped give a tight twist to his curve, and he was noticed by a Brooklyn scout while still in high school.

After graduating, Mr. Erskine served in the Navy during World War II, based in Boston. He signed with the Dodgers in 1946 for a $3,500 bonus, more money than his father had made in a year.

His contract was later voided due to a rule prohibiting teams from signing players still on active military duty. After his release, Mr. Erskine was pursued by several teams, but he felt loyal to the Dodgers and signed a new contract for $5,000, on top of his previous bonus. After bouncing between Brooklyn and the minor leagues – with a stint in winter ball in Cuba – he found a permanent place in the Dodgers’ pitching rotation in 1950.

At a time when many baseball players drank heavily and were rowdy, Mr. Erskine lived a clean and refined life. He recited poetry from memory, appreciated classical music, and on trips to other cities enjoyed visiting museums.

After the 1957 season, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the franchise to Los Angeles, becoming a villain in the eyes of Brooklyn fans. Mr. Erskine followed the team west and, in April 1958, threw out the first pitch in a major league game played in Los Angeles.

The following season, Mr. Erskine retired at age 32 with a career record of 122-78 and a 4.00 ERA. He was an All Star in 1954 and pitched two no-hit games – against the Cubs in 1952 and against the Giants in 1956.

Mr. Erskine was considering moving to New York to work in marketing for a men’s clothing company. In 1960, he and his wife Betty had their fourth child, a boy named Jimmy, who had Down syndrome.

“The assumption from the beginning was, of course, that you were going to take him to an institution,” Mr. Erskine told the New York Times in 2023. “And Betty says, ‘No, no, he’s coming home with us We.’ .’”

Mr. Erskine turned down the job in New York and moved his family to Indiana, where he sold insurance, coached baseball at Anderson College (now a university), and eventually became president of a local bank.

He became a Special Olympics volunteer at the request of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the program’s founder, and helped run a youth baseball league whose guiding slogan was “Everybody Makes a Team.”

When Robinson came to Indiana in the 1960s to offer support for the youth league, he recalled the relationship he and Mr. Erskine had as teammates, adding, “It’s a friendship I will cherish , and I will always cherish. for as long as I can remember.” Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53.

Mr. Erskine was praised in his home state for leading efforts to improve the treatment of children and other people with disabilities. The governor awarded him the state’s highest civilian honor in 2010, and a documentary about his life, “The Best We’ve Got,” was released in 2022. In 2023, he received the Lifetime Buck O’Neil Achievement of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Award for contribution to gaming and society.

Survivors include his wife since 1947, the former Betty Palmer; four children; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Mr. Erskine became accustomed to attending funerals and giving eulogies for his fellow Boys of Summer. One by one, they walked away until Mr. Erskine was the last one standing — the last Dodger to appear in the 1955 World Series, Brooklyn’s great moment.

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent interviewed Mr. Erskine for his 2008 book, “We Would Have Played for Nothing.”

“Standing on the mound for that team,” Mr. Erskine told Vincent, “was in itself the thrill of my life.”

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