By Joseph Dynlacht
When most people think of Carl Erskine, they think of the All-Star pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. And for good reason.
Affectionately known as “Oisk,” Erskine began his major league career in 1948. He pitched two no-hitters (in 1952 and 1956) and helped propel the 1955 Dodgers to their first World Series title. Among his other many accomplishments, Erskine struck out a then-record-setting 14 Yankee batters in Game 3 of the 1953 World Series (the record would be broken 10 years later by Sandy Koufax, who struck out 15). Erskine retired in 1959 after compiling a 122-78 record (.610 winning percentage) and appearing in 11 games during the five World Series match-ups against the Yankees.
Born and raised in Indiana, Erskine moved back to his hometown of Anderson (as he did during the offseason), where he went on to work as an insurance agent and later assumed leadership positions in the banking industry. Erskine also coached for Anderson College for 12 seasons, winning four conference championships along the way. Well-known for being an active leader and charitable member of his community, Erskine has been a long-time volunteer for the Special Olympics.
He has also authored three books: What I Learned from Jackie Robinson, Tales from the Dodger Dugout and The Parallel. The first two books are still in print and available for purchase. However, The Parallel, which was published in 2012, is only available by making a donation to the Special Olympics (www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/sojd/theparallelbycarlerskine). In this small hardback book, Erskine describes the similarities between Jackie Robinson’s courageous struggle against racism and the equally inspiring struggle for acceptance faced by Erskine’s son, Jimmy, who was born with Down Syndrome.
At age 86, Erskine still has quite the spring to his step, and still enjoys entertaining sports fans. But his stage has changed from the pitcher’s mound to the center of a basketball court!
I caught up with Erskine recently at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, where he had been asked to perform the National Anthem, on his harmonica, prior to a game between the Pacers and the visiting Brooklyn Nets. Erskine had performed the National Anthem before, most recently at a playoff game between the Pacers and Miami Heat in 2012.
At the game, I spoke with him about baseball, sports memorabilia and his adventures with the harmonica (including how he came to perform the National Anthem at several NBA games over the past few seasons).
Sports Collectors Digest (SCD): Do you get more butterflies in your stomach before playing harmonica than you did before pitching? How did you end up playing the National Anthem at NBA games?
Carl Erskine (CE): Well, I’d feel more comfortable if I had a rosin bag out there with me! The Pacers will usually call and ask me to play. I’m friends with Jim Morris (president of Pacers Sports and Entertainment) and have also known Bobby Leonard (former coach of, and currently radio color analyst for, the Pacers) since the ABA days. My wife Betty and I will occasionally make the hour-long trip from Anderson to attend games. In this case (the Feb. 11, 2013, Nets vs. Pacers game), they asked me to come in because I had Brooklyn ties, and the (visiting) Nets are the first professional team to come to Brooklyn since the Dodgers left that city.
SCD: How did you get started playing the National Anthem on a harmonica in the first place?
CE: I did 46 baseball fantasy camps (until 2008) where the staff played against the campers, and they staged it just like a major league game (with campers playing against the big leaguers). They announced each player, and he came out on the foul line, and then everyone was asked to stand and I’d play the National Anthem. One time we had two or three guys from Canada, and they said, “Hey, what about us?” I said, “Gee, I’d heard the Canadian National Anthem when I spent a couple of months playing in Montreal when I rehabbed my shoulder . . .,” and one of the guys ended up sending me a tape of someone singing “O, Canada.” So the next time we had a fantasy camp, I could play “O, Canada” as well.
SCD: Did you ever play harmonica with Stan Musial (who was a fairly accomplished harmonica player himself)?
CE: Yes, I did, in Louisville, Ky. A guy named A. Ray Smith owned the Louisville Triple A team (a St. Louis affiliate) and A. Ray Smith drew a million paid for a minor league team, the first time in history that a minor league team ever drew a million paid attendance. He held this event where he brought in every living soul that had a name in baseball – Ted Williams, Mantle, Berra, a huge group of big-name players. So after the event was over for the public, we had a private dinner. And I ate with Stan Musial and his wife.
After the dinner was over, Al Hirt was the musical entertainment. So we finished dinner and Stan reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a harmonica. And I said, “What are you going to do with that?” Well, he said, “At my restaurant in St. Louis, Biggies, Al Hirt comes and plays for us there sometimes, and I’m going to play with him in a little bit.” So I just kiddingly said, “Gee, I wish I brought my harmonica.” He says “Here, I’ve got another one.” So Stan Musial and I got up and played with Al Hirt an old tune called “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” What a gig that was! I told Stan afterward, “Stan, you know something? It’s a whole lot easier playing with you than against you.”
Author’s notes: Musial was a successful businessman long before he hung up his spikes. In the late 1940s, he and business partner Julius “Biggie” Garagnani opened up a restaurant in downtown St. Louis called Stan Musial and Biggie’s. After describing the incredible gig with Stan and Al Hirt, Erskine shared some additional thoughts about the many times he faced Musial, and squaring off against some of the other big names of his era.
CE: He (Musial) and I kept in touch, and when he passed away, someone wrote me and asked, “Do you realize that after 12 seasons you were in the big leagues and of all the guys you faced, you faced Musial in more at-bats than any other player (116 times)?” Then he told me the rest of it . . . “He hit .331, he had 39 hits, you struck him out four times and he hit four home runs.” You know what? To hold Musial to four home runs – that’s a pretty good career!
SCD: You faced Mantle several times in the World Series. He only hit .222 against you, and you struck him out four times in one game. How did you generate such mastery over Mantle?
CE: Who knows? Guys have asked me who was the toughest hitter, and who did you get out all the time. There was never anyone that I feared, and I faced a lot of guys, but I’ll tell you who was a tough out – Johnny Mize. And ironically Mize became my 14th strikeout (in the record-setting World Series game). That was sort of poetic justice, because he’d massaged me pretty good!
SCD: Which batter did you hate to face? Not necessarily because you couldn’t get him out, but maybe because you just didn’t enjoy facing him because he spent too much time in the batter’s box, or maybe some other reason . . .
CE: There was a guy in the league named Harry Walker, nicknamed “Harry the Hat.” And he would irritate most pitchers. He’d didn’t bother me any, but he had this habit of pulling on his cap. He’d get in the box and he’d fidget and pull on his cap. Well, that bothered some pitchers like crazy. Those things never bothered me . . . when he’s ready, I’m ready.
I tried to not let things I had no control over bother me. Hugh Casey, a quality pitcher who was at the end of his career, came to me in the outfield my first day and said “Son, can I give you some advice?” I said, “Absolutely.” I was thrilled that he would even talk to me. He said, “Look, there are things in this league that you can’t control. You can’t control the weather or the park you are pitching in, and you can’t control who’s umpiring. You control what you have control of, and that’s the ball and your own emotions. Forget the stuff you don’t have any control over.”
And that was great advice, because you play the Polo Grounds which was different from Ebbets Field which was different from Crosley Field which was different from Connie Mack Stadium. Guys had favorites, and places that they felt were taboo to them.
Author’s note: Erskine then went on to describe some of the batters he felt were the most challenging to face.
CE: The guy that hurt me home run-wise was (Ralph) Kiner. I could get Kiner out three times, make him look bad, but you make one bad pitch, one mistake, and, well, Kiner hit 50 one year (editor note: in 1947 and 1949), which in those days was well above anybody. But I didn’t have a fear of anybody, I really didn’t. Mize was a tough out. I didn’t have to face Williams much. I came close to playing him in the All-Star game in Cleveland. He was on deck. If I hadn’t gotten the last guy out . . . We never played them (the Red Sox) in the postseason.
SCD: You faced DiMaggio only one time in the World Series. And you got him to pop out. You must remember that!
CE: I do, very well! And I remember knowing Joe quite well after our playing days. He represented Bowry Savings Bank in New York, and I was, of course, a banker in Indiana, so they would call me and tell me that they were opening some branches in Brooklyn. Joe D. and I did ribbon cutting for the bank he represented a few times.
Author’s note: I had told Erskine that I had recently read the book Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer, and that in the book, the author sometimes painted a not-so-flattering portrait of the Yankee legend. Erskine offered some additional comments about DiMaggio.
CE: He was very cordial, and we became friends. Joe never had a peaceful moment when he was out in public. Fans mobbed him so I’m sure that got under his skin.
SCD: Did you collect baseball cards or anything else when you were a kid?
CE: Marbles. I was a marbles player. Actually, I also collected pictures of ball players – any big leaguers, from newspapers and magazines.
SCD: Did you keep any memorabilia from your playing days?
CE: I gave almost everything away. I kept my two World Series rings, I got one in Brooklyn and one in L.A., and I wouldn’t sell those. I didn’t keep everything because I never thought it would be worth anything.
SCD: Did you keep any memorabilia from other players you played with?
CE: Duke Snider was my roommate, and we were close as brothers. As a Hall of Famer, he got some nice paying appearances. Once he had me (help out) as his coach at a Hall of Fame fantasy camp, and insisted I be paid the same as he (which was more than coaches were to be paid). I was building a house at the time, so with the extra money, I put in a brick circular drive. I call it “Duke’s Drive,” and I have a laminated sign of Duke’s Hall of Fame card sitting out in front of it.
SCD: Do you still keep in touch with any of your former teammates?
CE: I keep in touch with (Don) Zimmer, (Ed) Roebuck, Roger Craig and (Tommy) Lasorda, and I exchange e-mail frequently with (Ralph) Branca. I don’t see them much, except at reunions and card shows.
SCD: Do you still enjoy being a guest at card shows?
CE: I do. I still do a few shows each year, but (because of family obligations) I prefer to fly in and out the same day, ideally Saturdays – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut . . .
Author’s note: Upon introducing myself to Erskine, I confessed that journalism wasn’t my day job, but that I’d only need a few minutes of his time to conduct the interview.
Despite the realization that he would miss a considerable portion of the basketball game he was attending, Erskine put me at ease immediately, answering each question with enthusiasm and a twinkle in his eye. He was extremely generous with his time and went out of his way to make sure that I had everything I needed for the article.
As I familiarized myself with Erskine’s life before and after baseball, I came to realize that few athletes have contributed more to their community and state than Erskine. In awarding Erskine the Sachem award (the state of Indiana’s highest award) in 2010, then-governor Mitch Daniels talked about what he had meant to Indiana long after his days in baseball were over, speaking about how he was a witness and a champion for civil rights and the rights of the disabled.
Indeed, I found Erskine to be a very humble man with a knack for good story-telling, and an individual who perhaps had a bigger impact on society as a volunteer and community leader than he did on the baseball diamond.
After interviewing Erskine and hearing that he still liked meeting fans and talking baseball at card shows, I attempted to determine whether he ever appeared at a National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC). Though the search cannot be considered comprehensive, I found no evidence that he had ever appeared as an autograph guest at an NSCC. Given the close proximity of Anderson, Ind., to Chicago and Cleveland (the sites of the NSCC for the next three years), hopefully promoters will attempt to secure Erskine as a guest at an upcoming show. Fans of all ages would no doubt be delighted to meet and talk baseball with this true Dodger legend.
By day, Joseph Dynlacht is an Associate Professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, but he enjoys being an occasional freelance contributor to SCD. Dr. Dynlacht may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.