Indiana Native: a Baseball Treasure
INDIANAPOLIS - Nestled to the northeast of Indianapolis in nearby Anderson, Ind. - a mere 60 minutes from Victory Field - is one of the greatest major league ballplayers from the Hoosier state. He is a proud owner of two no-hitters, a 20-win season, one All-Star bid and most importantly, a World Series ring.
This past January, longtime Voice of the Indians Howard Kellman made the short trip to Anderson, home of Carl Erskine. Kellman was accompanied by WHMB-TV 40, which would later air an "Inside the Clubhouse" feature on Erskine. The two local baseball icons challenged each other with their vast knowledge of baseball history, recollecting players, coaches and everything in between from America's pastime, and both quick to correct the other if a fact was misstated. When the lights were on and camera in action, the 92-year-old Erskine answered every Kellman question thoroughly, highlighting his Indiana upbringing, baseball career and much, much more.
Erskine grew up in Anderson alongside his friend, the late Johnny Wilson, who was the first African-American named Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 1946. The two bonded, despite segregation still being very prominent in society at the time. Wilson starred on the hardwood at Anderson University, played baseball for one year with the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues and eventually returned to basketball, playing with the Harlem Globetrotters into the 1950s. The relationship between Erskine and Wilson on the field, court and in Anderson High School's halls helped both individuals navigate their way to impressive careers. During the interview, Erskine stated that both he and Wilson made every baseball and basketball team they tried out for. He also joked that they were both student-athletes, earning 4.0 GPAs in high school. That is, if you added their GPAs together.
For Erskine, his relationship with Wilson cultivated an eventual friendship with Dodger teammate and Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, an African-American who broke baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947.
Erskine and Robinson first met in 1948 in a preseason exhibition game in Fort Worth, Texas. Erskine, 21 at the time, was a minor league pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. Robinson, 29, was in his second professional season with the Dodgers and on the heels of being named Major League Baseball's Rookie of the Year in '47. Erskine blanked the Dodgers over 5.0-plus innings that day, and retired Robinson both times they faced one another. After the game, Robinson came over to the Fort Worth dugout and asked to speak with Erskine. The two shook hands as Robinson said, "Young man, I hit against you twice today. You aren't going to be here (Fort Worth) very long."
Erskine went on to win 15 games by mid-July for Double-A Fort Worth and was promoted to the big leagues, where Robinson was the first to meet him at his clubhouse locker. One day, early in Erskine's career, Erskine exited the clubhouse where many of the Dodger families were waiting. He greeted and interacted with Robinson's wife Rachel and son Jackie Jr.
The next day, Robinson thanked Erskine for the respect he showed his family. Robinson then asked Erskine, "Why doesn't the black and white stuff bother you?"
Erskine replied with two words. Johnny Wilson.
Erskine and Robinson would go on as teammates in Brooklyn for nine total seasons. Robinson was named to the National League All-Star team six straight years (1949-54) and won NL MVP in 1949. Meanwhile, Erskine dominated on the mound. He appeared in 11 games over five World Series (1949, 1952-53, 1955-56) and struck out a record 14 batters as the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the 1953 Fall Classic. The following year, he earned his first and only NL All-Star bid and was on the Dodgers' first World Series championship team in 1955. Erskine is one of four players still alive from that '55 squad, joined by pitchers Roger Craig, Sandy Koufax and Tommy Lasorda. His no-hitters against the Chicago Cubs in 1952 and New York Giants in 1956 sandwiched the highpoint of his playing career.
Despite his own individual success, all roads pointed back to Robinson.
Erskine raved about Robinson's playing ability, citing he could do it all - hit, run, throw, field. But what impressed Erskine most about Robinson was his character and self-discipline. From hotel lobbies to airports to the ball diamonds, Robinson never once retaliated when racial slurs and verbal abuse were thrown his way.
Erskine's respect for Robinson and the relationship they shared is best displayed through Erskine's book "What I Learned from Jackie Robinson." And much of that is owed to Erskine's upbringing with Wilson.
In 2015, Erskine made an appearance at Victory Field on Jackie Robinson Day. The following year, Erskine was joined by Wilson. Both threw out ceremonial first pitches, and Erskine played the national anthem on his harmonica.
Erskine had a career worthy enough to rest on his own laurels. But he'd rather recollect the memories he had with Robinson and Wilson. And rightfully so.
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