Sports

Brooklyn Still Has Fond Place in Carl Erskine’s Heart

The legendary Carl Erskine, 92, pictured above with his great- granddaughter Brooklyn, pitched for more than a decade for the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers. (Photo courtesy: Carl Erskine)

At 92 years old, the great Carl Erskine remains very much a part of Dodgers lore.

 

Last month, the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their seventh consecutive National League West Division title.

But the past seven seasons have yielded only two visits by the Dodgers to the World Series — losses to the Houston Astros in 2017 and to the Boston Red Sox in 2018.

In fact, the Dodgers haven’t won the World Series since Kirk Gibson’s limping heroics in 1988. That’s a long stretch for such a storied franchise, and the drought has continued this year following the team’s upset loss in the National League Division Series to the Washington Nationals.

Given their inability to come through in the biggest moments, the Dodgers seem to have adopted a “wait till next year” mentality.

If that sounds familiar, you must be a true Brooklyn Dodgers fan! “Wait till next year” was frustratingly muttered all throughout Brooklyn in the late 1940s and early 1950s as “Dem Bums” just couldn’t get over the hump.

From 1947 to 1954, the Dodgers finished the regular season in first or second place in seven of eight years and reached the World Series four times. But each time, Brooklyn fell to its crosstown rival New York Yankees.

In 1948, a young right-hander from Anderson, Ind., joined the pitching staff. Carl Erskine still remembers what it meant to be a ballplayer in Brooklyn.

“From 1947 to 1957, that was the golden era of baseball,” said Erskine, who recalled a decade that involved playing games under the lights for the first time, traveling across the country on airplanes and the integration of the sport through his teammate Jackie Robinson.

Despite the game changing for the better, “Ersk” — or “Oisk” as it’s said in Brooklynese — started to get fed up with waiting till next year. Even his memorable record-setting 14-strikeout performance in the 1953 World Series wasn’t enough to bring a title to Brooklyn.

That is until the 1955 World Series.

The Yankees took the first two games before the series shifted back to Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers won Game 3. Erskine took the ball for Game 4 and kept his team in the game just enough for the offense to deliver the win. Brooklyn then won Game 5, setting the stage to finally break the curse.

Yanks starter Whitey Ford delivered a complete-game gem in Game 6 to send the series to a deciding Game 7 at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 4, 1955. Dodgers lefty Johnny Podres had a shutout going that day right up until the final batter, Yankees left fielder Elston Howard.

Erskine knows exactly where he was during that final moment. He sat on the Dodgers bench all game fidgeting next to Robinson, who was nursing a leg injury. With two outs in the ninth, he remembers Howard hitting a ground ball that shortstop Pee Wee Reese gobbled up and threw to Gil Hodges at first base to end the game.

Just like that, “next year” was this year!

It took five tries, but the Dodgers finally defeated the Yankees in the World Series. Erskine thoroughly enjoyed celebrating on enemy turf, but a specific moment stands out.

“When we got back into the visitor’s clubhouse, there was a reverent two-or-three-minute period of silence,” Erskine said. “Roger Craig said later that he noticed a tear in my eye before the real celebration started.”

That’s how meaningful that victory was to the Dodgers; it was truly an emotional experience. The fans loved that team and finally saw it succeed on the biggest stage.

“Nobody in Brooklyn slept for about a week!” Erskine said.

Winning the World Series forever cemented Brooklyn as a special place for Erskine. He had his greatest years in Brooklyn and said he pitched his three best games in Crown Heights: the 14-strikeout World Series performance in 1953 and no-hitters in 1952 and 1956. More importantly, he felt a connection to the borough and the fans. He quickly became a fan-favorite for his demeanor on the mound and his willingness to give back to his community.

“He was a gentleman all the way through,” said Father Danny Murphy, former pastor at St. Saviour, Park Slope, and former New York Mets chaplain who grew up a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan. “He never badmouthed other players. We supported and appreciated that.”

“Erskine was one of the heart and souls,” said Brother Robert Kent, O.S.F., head varsity baseball coach and alumni director at St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, who also grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan. “He was reliable in the clutch all the time. He was definitely a guy who was true to Brooklyn.”

Unfortunately, starting in 1958, Brooklyn was no longer home to the Dodgers, as ownership decided to move the team to Los Angeles. Erskine said the move didn’t have as much of an effect on the younger players, like Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, as it did on the veterans, like Hodges, Duke Snider and himself.

“It was a very strange feeling flying from Dodgertown in Vero Beach out west rather than up north to Brooklyn,” Erskine said.

He did say it was an honor to start the first-ever game for the Los Angeles Dodgers — a 6-5 victory on April 15 over the San Francisco Giants, who also packed up from New York City to move west.

Just like starting that game, there were many honors throughout Erskine’s life and baseball career. Reflecting back, he said he was beyond honored when the borough renamed Exit 15 on the Belt Parkway as “Erskine Street.”

“I never made the Hall of Fame, but to have a street named after me in Brooklyn was even more of an honor,” he said.

Adding to the honors, Erskine received the ultimate that will forever connect his Brooklyn legacy with his family. His grandson, Luke Short, promised Erskine that if he had a girl, he would name her “Brooklyn.”

Short’s first two children were boys, but sure enough, Brooklyn Short was born two years ago, bringing full circle what playing baseball in the borough meant to Erskine.

“The fans in Brooklyn meant so much to me, so to now have a great-granddaughter with the Brooklyn name is something that’s very special,” he said.

To this day, Erskine said he still receives fan mail from Brooklyn at his Anderson home, where he resides with Betty, his wife of 72 years. Brooklyn is where it all began, and Erskine continues to reminisce about the good old days in Brooklyn Dodger Blue.

“I was just a skinny kid from Anderson, Indiana lucky enough to play ball in front of the great fans in Brooklyn,” he said.

On the contrary, it was the fans of Brooklyn who were the lucky ones to have the pleasure of watching him pitch.


Contact Jim Mancari via email at jmmanc@gmail.com.

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