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Carl Erskine was just a wide-eyed 21-year-old from Indiana when he made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on Jul. 25, 1948.
As a matter of fact, he was younger than many of the players that currently play in the borough today with the Mets Single-A affiliate, the Cyclones.
Despite his rural upbringing, Erskine quickly found a home in Brooklyn and carved out a successful 12-year, 122-win tenure with the Dodgers, helping them win the World Series in 1955, where he went 11-8 with a 3.79 ERA in 194 innings of work. A few years later in 1957, he and his teammates were shipped off to Los Angeles, where he played the final two years of his All-Star career, but it was never the same for hard-throwing righty, as he won only four games in his final two seasons.
During his time in Brooklyn, the borough became his second home and his second family, the players he shared a clubhouse with in Ebbets Field for ten years, slowly left the team once they got to Los Angeles via trade or retirement.
â€œThe Brooklyn team that I came up with in 1948, basically stayed together until 1958,â€ said Erskine. â€œIt wasn’t until we moved to Los Angeles that they started making changes. On our off days, the whole team would go on picnics together and our children were raised together. In the Ebbets Field clubhouse, before every game, Roy Campanella would stand up and say ‘The same team that won yesterday is the same team that’s going to win today,’ He put that in our minds and we knew that’s what we had to do.â€
Coming back to Brooklyn on Aug.17 to have his number 17 honored by the Cyclones, Erskine, now 81, was thrilled to be back where his major league career began over 60 years ago.
The Brooklyn fans turned out for the occasion as well, as a standing-room only crowd of nearly 8,000 filled with many of whom grew up watching Erskine hand-cuff hitters as children, stood and watched their childhood idol talk about his playing days in Brooklyn.
â€œEven with all the World Series experience and playing on all those great teams, I think this is probably the cream on the top of everything,â€ Erskine, who had a street named after him in Brooklyn in 2002, said. â€œTo be back on Brooklyn soil after all these years and in a ballpark in Brooklyn is very meaningful to me. It’s almost like a fantasy.â€
Spending time with some of the Cyclones before the game started, the two-time author shared some of his knowledge of the game with them as well. Considering them â€œhis grandchildren,â€ Erskine was happy to give advice to the youngsters and â€œcontinue the bloodline of Brooklyn baseball.â€
â€œThere are two things we don’t know about life,â€ he said. â€œOne is when we are going to die, which is a good thing. The other thing is we never know what we can really accomplish in life if everything went right and we push ourselves as hard as we can. Look at me, I got more out of this skinny little body because I played on a great team and no one tried to change who I was. You have to believe who you are is better than something you read about or something you’ve seen somewhere else.â€
Looking back on his career, Erskine couldn’t help but smile when remembering how he felt when he first found out he was coming to Brooklyn.
Originally worried that he’d have a hard time adjusting to life in the borough after growing up in Anderson, Indiana, Erskine was surprised at how accommodating the place really was.
â€œI was a skinny kid from Indiana, who could throw hard. But to be picked out of the Midwestern culture and placed in a big city like Brooklyn was unbelievable,â€ Erskine, who also threw two no-hitters during his career, said. â€œOnly to find out that Bay Ridge, Brooklyn was exactly like my hometown. I knew the barber and the butcher and everyone knew me. If I pitched a good game, I’d come home from Ebbets Field and be in the middle of a street party, with balloons in the trees and the whole nine yards. It was amazing.â€
Like all good things in life though, Erskine’s playing days had to come to an end, as arm troubles plagued an otherwise solid major league career.
Ironically however, his playing days also played a big part in his life after baseball as well, as his natural abilities as a leader played a big part in his future success as a college coach at Anderson College, where he won four championships in 12 years and several successful business ventures in his home state of Indiana.
Because of that, Erskine has no regrets and is grateful for the opportunities playing in Brooklyn has afforded him.
â€œIt would be unreal for me to say there was something I didn’t get to do,â€ he said with a smile. â€œI stayed in the big leagues for 12 years and even though I didn’t get into Cooperstown, how many guys have a street named after them in Brooklyn? I guess a lot of people in the safety department are still Dodgers fans. How could you wish for anything other than that?â€
Photos by Patrick Hickey Jr., Ron Hatcher and Jim Dolan