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Carl Erskine's treasure chest of Dodgers lore

The pitcher, one of the Boys of Summer, witnessed plenty of baseball history and is still living the good life in his Indiana hometown.

May 07, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Carl Erskine, center, with Duke Snider, left, and Brooklyn Manager Charley Charlie Dressen, could have been the pitcher that faced Bobby Thomson in the 1951 playoff game against the Giants.
Carl Erskine, center, with Duke Snider, left, and Brooklyn Manager Charley… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Anderson, Ind. — Along the way, Carl Erskine (no relation) has seen some things. A curveball artisan and one of the famed Boys of Summer, he was in the Dodgers' dugout during Don Larsen's perfect game and shared the bullpen when Ralph Branca was summoned to pitch to Bobby Thomson in what is probably still the most famous bomb of all time.

"People always ask me, 'What's your best pitch?'" Erskine says, a twinkle in his eye. "I tell 'em that's easy. 'It's the curveball I buried in the bullpen that day. Otherwise that could've been me.'"

Yep, along the way, Carl Erskine has seen some things, all right, played along Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider on those beloved Brooklyn teams of the '50s. Pitched a record 14 strikeouts against the Yankees in the 1953 World Series with a four-seam curveball that dropped — bam — like a Bible off a bookshelf.

Came back to his hometown of Anderson to raise four kids and wound up running a local bank. If you detect a bit of Forrest Gump or George Bailey to the old pitcher's life — hey, we're just getting started here.

"My whole life is a story," he says over pancakes and bacon, crisp. "Everything that happens has more to it."

Somebody summon Spielberg, or get Ken Burns on the phone. Because this is an American life full of folk heroes and normal everyday guys who do extraordinary things, against a backdrop of race relations, the early days of television and Walter O'Malley's march west. Erskine's stories are also a touchstone to a simpler era, a time machine to Dodgers glory days that seem pretty far away right now.

But first things first. At 84, Erskine is still living the good life in Anderson: looks fit, nice coloring, shock of white hair — like Lasorda if he lost 300 pounds.

He goes fishing when he can, plays harmonica in a local band called Old Stuff and sounds like a 25-year-old when he tells stories from his treasure chest of Dodgers lore — how the franchise could've fielded Larry Doby and Roberto Clemente but O'Malley and the league thought it was better to diversify, how he collected two bonuses from the notoriously stingy Branch Rickey, after the team signed Erskine illegally and the commissioner ruled that he should go back on the open market.

"Dizzy Dean told his TV audience, 'Hey, I want you to meet someone who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, because he got Branch Rickey to cough up two bonuses."

Here's the trophy shelf from a 12-year career:

• A 122-78 lifetime record (10 in Brooklyn, two in L.A.).

• A 20-win season in '53, with 16 complete games.

• 11 World Series appearances.

• Two no-hitters.

As usual, the personal stuff trumps the stats. He talks about his friendship with Robinson.

"I told him that not all white people are your enemy," Erskine says. "He said that bigots come in all colors."

"I remember Branch Rickey once told Jackie, 'Look at you. You could whip anybody on this field ... anybody. But are you strong enough not to fight?'"

He talks about playing in pain his entire career after injuring his arm in his first start. "Struck out the batter on a high fastball" — not the famously torquey curve — "and I felt a shot in my arm, like a knife."

Talks about watching Larsen on that incredible afternoon in 1956.

"Same pitcher that day as he was before, routine stuff," he remembers.

And the Thomson home run?

"I've been over that game so many times," he says. "There's still holes in what made [Charlie] Dressen bring in Ralph."

Branca and Erskine were the two choices that day. When Dressen called pitching coach Clyde Sukeforth, he told Dressen that he'd been bouncing his curve.

"Ralph's first pitch was a low fastball," Erskine says. "We all gasped because we all know Thomson was a low fastball hitter.

"He took that first pitch. As they say, it had hair on it."

The next pitch, inside, is the one Thomson turned on, sending it into the left-field seats and winning the pennant for the Giants.

"I think it was fate," Erskine says. "You could've brought in Walter Johnson, you could've brought in anybody … I think it was bound to happen."

When his career was done, Erskine came back to Anderson, 32 years old, four kids, no job, but knowing his family would be able to help.

Roger Kahn's landmark book "The Boys of Summer" poignantly tells the story of Erskine's youngest son, Jimmy, born with Down syndrome.

Today, the dad drops Jimmy off at the local Applebee's for a work shift and notes the parallels he's seen.

"Jackie broke down the social barriers," he says. "Jimmy helped do the same thing with Down syndrome.

"When you got to know Jack, you liked and admired him. Same with Jimmy."

Yep, Carl Erskine has seen some things.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com@erskinetimes

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