November 29, 2006
In our sundown perambulations, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball Let us go forth a while and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms The game of ball is glorious.
Although I’m sure there were moments during that most glorious baseball season of 1955 when I desired nothing more than "getting to first base" with the current girl of my pre-teen dreams, but I have since found the reduction of baseball to metaphor to be way out in left field. Actually, it had two strikes against it from the beginning.
Right off the bat, the year tugged and pulled and prodded and pushed. Every other pitch was a screwball. Unfamiliar choices stared back from the mound. They called it the "spit-ball era" and you never quite knew where circumstance might be heading. You could sense one thing, however. The ’50s would never be the same. Not only had the paradigm shifted, it had found overdrive.
Space-time itself existed totally on the edge of a massive gravity infused future — not unlike the event horizon of a black hole. Media continued to shrink the globe. Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti" insinuated themselves into the slowly expanding collective consciousness of the Idaho panhandle.
The year continued to resonate. By late summer Elvis Presley left Sam Phillips and Sun Records in the rear-view mirror of the pink Cadillac of his dreams and, along with Colonel Tom Parker, drove straight into what must have looked like immortality. By then, the Brooklyn Dodgers were also well on their way to a distinction all their own.
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Manager Walter Alston, you see, had sent his big right-hander Carl Erskine to the mound back in April on opening day. Erskine, a National League all-star the previous year, defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 6 to 1 and "the bums" never looked back. They remained in first place the entire season — winning the pennant by 13 1/2 games and, finally, beating the hated Yankees in seven games to win the World Series.
This is the Brooklyn ballclub of myth — the "boys of summer" as writer Roger Kahn would come to anoint them. The names continue to echo through time. Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Sandy Amaros, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Don Newcomb, Johnny Podres, and the two who make up this tale, Carl Erskine and that man for the ages, Jackie Robinson.
Robinson, a four-sport star out of UCLA, became the most historically significant baseball player ever. The first black to play in the majors during his century, he would also be the first to win an MVP award, be elected to the Hall of Fame, and become Rookie of the Year.
Jackie Robinson’s contributions as a player, however, would pale alongside his role in "breaking the color barrier" in baseball and, ever so slowly, in the country as a whole. It would be said that although Babe Ruth changed baseball, Jackie Robinson changed America.
Not that there wasn’t an initial uproar among fans and players alike when General Manager Branch Rickey first brought Robinson up to the Dodgers from their minor league club in Montreal in 1947. They both thought they knew what was coming and were somewhat prepared. Robinson had promised Rickey that, if he got the chance to play, he would turn the other cheek for the first full season.
The extent of the verbal abuse, however, would be much more than they had imagined. The slurs and taunts and humiliations piled one upon the other, forcing the highly competitive athlete to call upon resources he never knew he possessed. The anger would simmer within and he would never forget.
Carl Erskine first met Jackie Robinson during spring training of 1948 while still in the minors. After pitching five innings against the big boys — what they would now call a "quality start" — Robinson came up to him in the dugout and tapped him on the shoulder. Obviously impressed by the youngster’s effort, Robinson spoke words Erskine carries to this day. "You’re going to be with us real soon."
Within a few short months, Carl Erskine joined the Dodgers and became Jackie Robinson’s teammate and much more. Their friendship would endure the prejudices of the time and, from this, Erskine would learn important life lessons concerning patience and inner strength. Robinson carried in abundance what Hemingway called "grace under fire," and it became most difficult for the intuitive young rookie to remain unaffected.
Carl Erskine has written a memoir of those times spent in and out of the Dodger dugout with Jackie Robinson and the quite personal imprint they left behind. Looking back on the man and the cause to which his game served as microcosm, "What I Learned from Jackie Robinson: A Teammate’s Reflection On and Off the Field" gives testimony to how one man’s baseball diamond became part of a much larger social landscape.
Erskine will be in Utah this coming Saturday as part of "Sundance Resort’s Tree Room Author Series on Race" to read and sign and reminisce about a time when forces of change were upon the land, including our perception of what actually makes a sports hero. To this day, that particular pantheon continues to undergo quantum corrections.
Actually, it’s rather ironic that Erskine, once quite a relief pitcher of note, has been called in from the bullpen to replace another author whose scheduling conflict caused him to be taken out of the starting rotation. No worries, Carl Erskine will come through. You can always count on the man who tossed two no-hitters during his career.