Brooklyn Boro

Carl Erskine was more than just baseball

July 8, 2024 Andy Furman
This is an undated photo showing Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine. AP Photo/File
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Jerry West. Willie Mays. The Baby Bull — Orlando Cepeda.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for Baby Boomers and the stars they idolized when they were growing up, as the list has been shrinking with each passing.

And, Carl Erskine – we certainly did not forget you. In fact, it was rather fitting that 97-year-old Carl Erskine passed away one day after Jackie Robinson Day (April 15) this year.

“Oisk will always be remembered as a wonderful and influential part of my childhood forever,” Lafayette High grad and former Los Angeles Dodger Al Ferrara told me, “The streets of Brooklyn would echo at the start of punchball and stickball games, I am Number 17, Oisk.”

Related Article: Carl Erskine: A boy of summer

Erskine was one of Jackie Robinson’s staunchest supporters when he joined the Dodgers as Major League Baseball’s first black baseball player.

And Erskine continued to fight for human rights his entire life.

He was the next-to-last survivor to have played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. Sandy Koufax is the sole survivor.

And what a pitcher Erskine was — two no-hitters, pitched in five World Series, including a complete game 14-strikeout performance against the New York Yankees in the 1953 World Series.

But it was a letter that Erskine sent me, dated June 30, 2014, that I have kept and continue to read from time to time.

He also sent his book, “The Parallel”, with this note: “I wrote this little book to help Special Olympics — This is a personal gift to you.”

Signed Carl Erskine.

Brooklyn Dodgers teammates whoop it up in their dressing room at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, September 30, 1951, after they nosed out the Phillies 9-8 in 14 innings to go into a playoff series with the New York Giants for the National League pennant. Players at left and left foreground are not identified. Others in the front row, left to right, are: Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, Roy Campanella, manager Charley Dressen, and Carl Erskine. AP Photo
Brooklyn Dodgers teammates whoop it up in their dressing room at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, September 30, 1951, after they nosed out the Phillies 9-8 in 14 innings to go into a playoff series with the New York Giants for the National League pennant. Players at left and left foreground are not identified. Others in the front row, left to right, are: Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, Roy Campanella, manager Charley Dressen, and Carl Erskine. AP Photo

It was April 1, 1960, Erskine recalls in the book; in St. John’s Hospital in Anderson, Indiana. The whispers were running through the hospital like wildfire. “The Erskine baby is mongoloid.”

Erskine admitted at the time he and Betty’s fourth child was diagnosed as mongoloid, a harsh and harmful term reflecting society’s misunderstanding and insensitivity of what is now medically called Down syndrome.

“We were not aware that some 3% of babies are born with some form of birth defect,” Erskine wrote.

It was also standard procedure for physicians in those days to advise parents to institutionalize the child as to “not disrupt your family.” Physicians had no other place to make referrals because no service existed. Erskine said his wife, Betty, was “having none of that.”

She said: “No way. I carried this little guy for nine months. He goes home with us.”

Related Article: Dodgers’ Carl Erskine, 94, still remembers his Brooklyn days

The Erskines took their Jimmy with them on all occasions, and with little difficulty, he noted. Words were hard for Jimmy to form, so he just did not make the effort, said Erskine.

At 18, he had tied his shoe strings for the very first time.

Carl Erskine compares the challenges of his Jimmy to teammates Jackie Robinson’s breaking into major league baseball. “Once you got to know him, you liked Jackie,” he said, “And the same for Jimmy.”

Society was going through a huge social change, one of inclusion rather than rejection. The hardest thing for anyone is to be told you don’t belong here; you are not welcome. And you’re not a part.

Jimmy was soon a part — he had a job coach and was being trained in the routine of table preparation before the opening of a new Applebee’s restaurant. He worked at Applebee’s for more than 12 years.

And since 1970, Jimmy Erskine was in the Special Olympics and had not missed a summer game at Indiana State University.

While Jimmy was working at Applebee’s, he swam, bowled, and golfed in those Special Olympics, which were founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver for intellectually challenged young people and adults.

Jimmy outlived his Down syndrome prognosis by decades and became the face for Special Olympics.

He passed when he was 63 years old, last year. At the time Jimmy was born, average life expectancy for babies with Down syndrome was 10 years.

Sure, Carl Erskine pitched two no-hitters, and he won a World Series with the Dodgers — their only one in Brooklyn, 1955 — but he showed the world with his wife, Betty, how to raise a child with special needs.

And it wasn’t only Jimmy – he wanted to make lives better for all people.

Here is the kind of man Carl Erskine was. All you need to do is see page 29 in “The Parallel”.

“I was asked to be on the National Coaching Staff and speak on behalf of this new concept called Special Olympics,” he said. “At one such function in Washington, D.C., I spoke to an audience at the Kennedy Center. I had a World Series ring on that day. As I finished my remarks, I mentioned my ring and how proud I was to own it. Could any achievement be greater?” he asked.

Then he pulled from his pocket a Special Olympics gold medal Jimmy had won at the state games swimming the 50-meter freestyle. I asked the crowd to compare the two, he said. “Which was the greater achievement? The Dodgers, with several Hall of Famers and many other talented stars, were expected to win a World Series.

But was Jimmy or others with limited coordination, poor muscle tone and many other conditions not suited for athletics, expected to excel in sports?

“To me,” said Carl Erskine, “The Special Olympics gold is the greater achievement.”

The crowd went silent.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR


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