Former Dodgers’ pitcher Carl Erskine, 93, is the last surviving ball player famously shadowed by the late author Roger Kahn, who penned the “The Boys of Summer.” The longtime Anderson, Indiana, resident is also a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy.
The pitcher receives about 1,200 fan letters a year. During quarantine, his mail has increased five-fold from people who appreciate his unparalleled connection to baseball, military service and human rights, as the Carl and Betty Erskine Society is a major force in the Indiana Special Olympics.
But it was a later-life trip to the Normandy coast of France, overlooking the cliffs scaled by American Army Rangers on D-Day, that stands out as one of the most profound moments of Carl’s life. Carl says that he absolutely loved being a little boy in Indiana. “I grew up in a modest home, the Depression years were lingering, it was a simple, plain life and a very good life.” As a kid he pitched tennis balls against an old barn door, hitting a strike zone drawn with chalk. He played American Legion ball, and was a stand-out athlete at Anderson High School where he courted Betty, his wife of 73 years this October.
That innocence was cut short when the pitcher was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1945 after high school graduation. Carl says the only time he saw his father cry was on the morning when he stepped onto that “big bus to get inducted into the Navy.” To this day, the former Dodger admits that he feels a little shy about standing up at veteran’s events because he served stateside in Boston, but he’s proud of his time in the service. His older brother also served in the Navy as an aerial photographer in the Pacific. He was getting ready to ship out on a carrier when President Truman dropped the atomic bomb.
Military service was the thread that connected many of the Greatest Generation ballplayers. When Carl joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, he became close friends with Jackie Robinson, an Army veteran, who served in an all-black tank battalion. Inspired by his “Jack’s” quiet, perseverant quest to break the color barrier in MLB and change the world, Carl wrote this memoir that’s especially relevant today, “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson: A Teammates Reflections On and Off the Field.”
Carl helped the Dodgers collect six National League pennants, earning a World Series championship ring when the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in 1955. In 1960, the Erskines moved back home to Indiana, staying put to make a better life for their son Jimmy, born with Down syndrome.
After a successful career in business as a bank president, Carl and Betty visited Europe for the first time in the 1980s. When Carl visited Pointe du Hoc and the Normandy American cemetery, he had a powerful reckoning about the men who died as they scaled those cliffs so that we could live free.
Thinking back to that day, 76 years ago, he says, “I felt like somehow I was connected. Being in the military … although I was not even close to the kind of carnage that went on at that spot on that day, somehow it was a bonding of some kind when I saw all these craters and these rows and rows and rows of white crosses. I was all alone right there and it just really hit me.” Carl kept a diary on that trip. For fun he wrote limericks. That night he poured his emotions into this limerick—forever committed to memory—which means more to him with each passing day:
Can we total the debt that we owe
To so many whom we will never know?
Each life sacrificed
In a way was like Christ
We are free because they took the blow.
Just last year Panini America issued a baseball card honoring Carl's service in the Navy recounting a funny story about the officer who wouldn't allow him to play for the base's ball club, and how they laughed about it years later. In all seriousness, as we battle a virus, job losses and now civil unrest and riots, our nation is indebted to veterans like Carl and the men and women in uniform who risk their lives to protect our freedoms.
On D-Day may you find this message in peace.