One of the greatest baseball books ever written may have been tossed in a drawer and forgotten, had it not been for Dodgers pitcher, Carl Erskine, 93, who encouraged Roger Kahn to finish “The Boys of Summer.” Readers came to know Erskine as “Oisk,” based on Kahn’s description of Brooklyners who leaned over railings at Ebbets Field, cheering on their boy “Cal Oiskine.” I spoke with Erskine by phone on a frozen Valentine's day in Indiana, soon after Kahn's death at age 92. He'd been bombarded by calls from the press, asking about the night at a back table at Toot Shor’s restaurant in New York, when he encouraged Kahn to finish the manuscript when he was broke, and worried that no one would read his book.
Our conversation took us to a different place about humanity.
“I admired Roger’s soulful literary approach to sports writing,” he said. “Roger saw life in more depth than any other beat sportswriter. He drew out the broad personalities of ballplayers” in an era of hero worship.
According to Erskine,“The Boys of Summer” is really two books. “The first part is about Kahn’s childhood, growing up in Brooklyn, where his mother never read him a baseball book, but taught him about Greek mythology, which he applied to ballplayers. The second part is about athletes who age.” The title is derived from the opening stanza of a poem by Dylan Thomas, the Welsh playwright who died at age 39 in 1953. It reads:
I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils.
“The Boys of Summer” was met with mixed reviews when it was released in 1972. Erskine said Walter O’Malley, who moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, did not like the book because he felt it played on the bad luck and some of the unfortunate circumstances the players faced later in life.
“Kahn exposed this Dodger team that was snake bit – they all had some tough outcomes in life,” Erskine said, recalling that his roommate Duke Snider was not pleased about the way in which he and his family were portrayed.
“I never felt that way. Kahn’s book reflected what real life is like,” he said. “It had nothing to do with how many baseballs you hit or players you struck out – because you ended up so human that you were just like everybody else.”
Kahn’s narrative is also about loyalty through tough times, when athletes like Erskine played an entire career with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, from 1948 through 1959. As a starting pitcher, Oisk helped the Dodgers collect six National League pennants, winning the World Series in 1955 against the New York Yankees. At the highpoint of his career in 1953, Erskine won 20 games and set a World Series strikeout record in “chilly sunshine” on October 2, 1953.
Though Erskine pitched two of the National League’s seven no-hitters, Kahn focused on a life-decision the soft-spoken Hoosier made to move home to Indiana at age 32, staying put to make a better life for his son Jimmy, born with Down syndrome in 1960.
One of Erskine’s heroes was his good friend “Jack” Robinson, who quietly persevered to break the color barrier in baseball. Fifty years later, in a New York Times interview, Kahn said, “Robinson has been called a pioneer, prophet, visionary and SOB. He could be any or all. Mostly, I remember him as a man who would risk anything, even his life, for what he believed in.”
When Jimmy Erskine was a little boy, he entered the Special Olympics. It was a transformative experience for the entire family, inspiring Erskine Sr. to write two books about the societal challenges Jimmy and Jackie faced and conquered entitled, “The Parallel” and “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson.”
Like his friend Roger Kahn, Erskine understands that true heroism is found in humanity. He believes that Special Olympics athletes are as awe-inspiring as any major-league ballplayer or Greek warrior. Today, the Carl and Betty Erskine Society champions that credence through its work to raise funds for Special Olympics Indiana, which supports nearly 20,000 athletes statewide.