In 1954, when The Sporting News polled writers about the players they covered, Carl Erskine stood out. Among his fellow Brooklyn Dodgers, Erskine was cited for several attributes, including “Best Marriage,” “Best Parent,” “Most Intellectual” and “Best Conversationalist.”
Erskine, 96, has outlived all of his teammates from that 1954 team. Yet when I visited him last month at his home in Anderson, Ind., he still showed the same traits those writers cited nearly seven decades ago. He and his wife, Betty, have been married for 75 years. The youngest of their four children, Jimmy, was born with Down syndrome in 1961, and Carl’s work with the Special Olympics and other organizations helped earn him the Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award this year.
Erskine no longer travels, so family and friends will represent him at the ceremony on Saturday in Cooperstown, N.Y. But he remains an intellectual conversationalist, and his insights extend well beyond the column I wrote from my visit. Here are a few of those tidbits:
Facing Stan Musial
“He almost never missed a swing. He always hit the ball somewhere. Sometimes they’re a line shot, sometimes they’re a bloop. But he always made contact. You didn’t really have an out pitch for him; he just hit the ball somewhere. But he got less good contact with off-speed pitches.” Erskine added that he once played a harmonica duet with Musial. “I told him later, ‘It was a lot easier to play with you, Stan, than it was to play against you.’”
“Aaron was an interesting batter because in his early years, he didn’t have very many home runs. He hit these line drives, just bullets; the term in baseball is a clothesline. But he eventually — I don’t know what changed — but he started getting the ball in the air. And when he did, he hit them out of the ballpark.”
Facing Willie Mays
“You finally learned to pitch Mays inside because you always avoided that because he hit these upper-deck foul balls. You had to really crowd him plenty to keep him from getting the ball fair. He was a pure hitter. Those guys, there’s just a handful of them in baseball, they break all the rules about how you stand, how you grip. But they’re the best hitters in the league.”
Changes in the Game From 1949 to 1959
“The diamonds began to be more consistently professionally done. There weren’t so many bad hops, that was one thing. Then the gloves improved the defense a lot because the gloves used to be very heavy, made out of cowhide. But they started making it out of kangaroo hide, very lightweight leather, and it changed the way that you can have a big glove but not so heavy. So that was a big defensive change in baseball. Just part of the evolution of the game.”
Moving From Ebbets Field to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
“The Coliseum was like the Polo Grounds had been in the National League, very short down each line and deep in the outfield. So it was not so much of a shock to pitch in the Coliseum, because it reminded all of us of the Polo Grounds. That was one of the coincidences that happened.”
On the Modern Game
“That’s an interesting question because all the changes actually came from around baseball more than in baseball. The game itself and the fundamentals, they hardly changed any. How you field a ground ball, how you hit the ball to the opposite field, all those things are still there. So when I think of baseball, I don’t think so much of how it’s changed as much as how it’s stayed the same.”
On His Upbeat Outlook
“Norman Vincent Peale — do you know that name? He was a minister. His identity is his comment: positive thinking. He always emphasized it. You can think different ways, but the best way to keep life in perspective is to be positive, and to see the positive in it. So that struck me, and I believe that. That’s what he’s identified with. In fact, he wrote a book, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking,’ and it’s a powerful book. It focuses you on a positive life. Instead of always seeing the worst part of the experience, there’s always something in there to pick out that gives you another advantage. I like that. And I think he’s right.”
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