With the recent troubles of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the news and the impending July 4th holiday, I thought it would be a cool idea to post an interview from a Dodger legend. Maybe this will put Dodger baseball back in the proper perspective, showing how great the once proud franchise used to be. The legend I am referring to is Carl Erskine. The connections to the great Dodger teams of the 1940’s and 1950’s are becoming fewer and fewer, but Erskine is still going strong. In today’s world where the Dodgers are tied with messy divorces, horrific fan beatings, and bounced checks, it is comforting to recall a more positive aspect of their past.
It was pretty cool getting to talk to great Dodger pitcher, who spanned the Brooklyn to Los Angeles transition. He played his entire 12 year career with the same franchise, another part of the modern game that has become more unlikely with the big money to be earned on the free agent market. Erskine was an excellent pitcher and it was strange talking to somebody who I have read about so frequently over the years. I got over that real quick though because of how interesting I found him to be. I won’t bore you with a long entry because I want you to get right to the interview. I will say that as always, you can find more about Carl Erskine’s career statistics by going to http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/erskica01.shtml. And without further ado… the interview.
Carl Erskine Interview:
How did you first get interested in baseball?: I was born in 1926, so when I was 9 years old, I remember being invited to play on a team of Oakland Park. We didn’t have Little League in those days. So I did go and play in the Park League at age 9 and I remember that because that was my first game and it is something I remember well. I played in that league until I went into high school a couple of years later.
When I turned 12 or 13 I went into high school and I had played in this Park League for a few years and our baseball coach in the high school was a very famous name in our area. He also coached basketball to a state championship and was a very famous name. He sent for me and it made me very nervous, what Mr. Chadd was his name, what would want with me before he even knew me. But he told me he wanted me out for baseball. I was a mid-term student so he said “if you stay in school until you are a senior until your second term you will be in school five springs. You cannot letter in high school more than four times, so I am going to take you off the team as a freshman, so you can’t play, but I want you to make the trips with us.” So actually Mr. Chadd was a big help to me to get me that much experience as a youngster to be on the baseball team in high school. Later in high school I started to get some scouts following the team.
Did you always play pitcher?: In high school I played center field when I was not pitching. At the high school level I was a pretty good hitter. I think I had a four year average of like .440 or something for my high school career.
When you pitched professionally, what pitches did you throw?: I grew up as a kid without a lot of instruction. I played in the Navy, I was drafted in 1945. I didn’t go overseas, but I pitched for the Navy team and it was all just self-learned. The scouts had watched me enough and as soon as I got discharged they signed me; the Dodgers signed me. When I went to the minor leagues the first time I ever had real good instruction, and so I learned back in my first season in the minors that I had to change how I gripped the ball, especially on my curveball. I did play in the first season in pro ball without any change, but then I was told by one of the coaches that they were calling my pitches and I needed to change my delivery on how I threw my curveball. So they sent me to winter baseball in Havana and I played a winter season there and I changed my curveball delivery and really became effective; a really good change for me.
I threw a fastball. We didn’t have gun in those days, but the Major League fastball is normally in the low 90’s and I guess I was in that range and had a good live fastball that just had good movement on it. It was almost effortless; I mean I got a big easy smooth delivery. I wasn’t really big. I pitched at about 5-10, and I pitched about 165-168, so I wasn’t very big, but somehow the mechanics of throwing a baseball doesn’t necessarily relate to size. I could throw fast and I could learn a good curveball and later I learned to take something off the pitch, an off-speed, so those were my three main pitches.
You had two no-hitters, was one more memorable than the other?: No-hitters are unusual animals. They pop up when you least expect them. The one against the Cubs, the significance of that, was that it finally gave me the confidence and I think the media in those days and the fans, finally was kind of like proving myself. Because I came in the league in 1948 and I pitched this no-hitter in ‘52. So I had already won several games, but I was not considered a solid established pitcher. But once I pitched a no-hitter, the first one, it kind of gave me credentials.
But the Giant no-hitter was the sweetest. At that time there were 8 teams in each league. So, in our National League there was 7 opponents and we played each one of our opponents 22 times; 11 at home and 11 on the road. In the case of the Giants and the Dodgers, both in New York City, all 22 games were in New York City. So that created a huge rivalry. To pitch a no-hitter against the Giants with Willie Mays and company in front of the home crowd was really a high point and that was a sweet one.
Did you ever play against any Negro League Teams?: Well we didn’t play directly against the Negro teams, but my winter season in Cuba, I did play against some outstanding Negro players. Some of them were Cubans and I think in some cases there might have been a couple of Americans there. Monte Irvin maybe was in that league and he’s a black player. In my experience in baseball, starting as a kid, there was no mixing of teams, black or white, and I don’t think I ever pitched against a black team… There were a lot of black teams in the area where I lived.
What was Jackie Robinson like as a teammate?: I played with Jackie nine season. Initially how I met him, I was in the minor leagues in ’47, that was Jackie’s rookie year in the Big Leagues. In the spring of ’48, my second season, I was in Double-A Forth-Worth, Texas, and we played the Big League team in a spring exhibition game in Fort Worth and I pitched against the real Dodgers. I didn’t pitch the whole game. I pitched maybe five innings and I did okay. When the game was over, Robinson, who I didn’t know… I didn’t know anyone on the big team, but Robinson came across the field and asked for me by name. He said, “Where’s Erskine?” I stepped out of the dugout and Jackie Robinson stuck out his hand and shook my hand and said, “Son, you’re not going to be in this league very long. I hit against you twice today and with the stuff you got, you are going to be in the Big Leagues soon.” Now that’s how I met Jackie. He went out of his way to encourage a young kid in the minors. And sure enough I won 15 games there in Fort Worth and by mid season they called me up. So that was the beginning of a good friendship and a longtime teammate with Jackie.
Do you think Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo were Hall of Fame caliber players?: I think that’s a numbers game. Certainly those two players were well, well, well above average Major League Players, both of them and played a long time. It is difficult if you look at the numbers and try to compare the innings, and the hits, and the home runs, and so forth. Both of those players in my opinion are Hall of Fame caliber but there are a lot of players who were outstanding players who are not in the Hall of Fame.
Did Brooklyn Dodger fans deserve their unique reputation?: What was it like playing in Brooklyn?: Well, I’ll tell you. I think fans in any city are going to embrace a team, especially in my era because teams kept players together indefinitely. Free agency today changes all that and guys move around so much. In my day if you said Ted Williams, you knew it was the Red Sox. If you said Stan Musial, you knew it was the Cardinals; Joe DiMaggio, you knew it was the Yankees. Today, that’s quite different. Pujols in St. Louis may stay there forever, but maybe not. He could play for the Yankees or somebody eventually. So the fans in Brooklyn were uniquely stoic supporters. The truth of that was they supported teams well before I got there who were not contenders; they were not contending teams. So the Dodgers have that reputation for kind of being clowns, cellar dwellers, and running the wrong way on the bases. But in the ‘40s after World War II Branch Rickey came from the Cardinals organization where he had built a strong dynasty. He came to the Dodgers and he began to build this franchise with a big farm system. He had almost 800 players under contract and 46 farm teams. So he built a strong organization that started to win. When Jackie came on the team in ’47 the next decade, I think the Dodgers won the National League championship maybe six times and Jackie was the center piece. So the fans finally got respectability by having a team that could stand up and beat almost anybody. They did have trouble with the Yankees in the World Series.
The Dodgers’ fans in Brooklyn, they adopted the team and adopted us. In the neighborhoods we were brought in like we belonged to the families. And we lived in the same neighborhoods for a decade and that brought us really close to the fans. I would pitch a good ball game and would come home and the fans would have a street party. Both no-hitters, one in ’52 and later, one in 1956, when I came home from the ballpark, both day games, the neighbors were all out waiting for me and they had balloons in the trees and the street blocked off and had a street party.
Are you a fan of the modern game of baseball?: I am, yes. I am very, very cautious about being critical of the game. I have some things I don’t like about the game today. Baseball follows the culture of the country. In my era, the culture was far different than it is now, plus free agency, and 12 year contracts, and expansion has changed the whole atmosphere of baseball. So the era I played in, which was unique in its own time, but to try to compare it to today is so different. The game is the same. I could still instruct in a baseball setting. I could still instruct on how to bunt, how to throw a curveball, how to use your glove effectively. A lot of those basic techniques are still the same, but the size of the stadiums, the scheduling, the salaries, so many things are not the same. For instance it was important in my day to have a roommate. It helps you. They used to get guys together who were real compatible or they might decide a young player would do well if they moved him with a savvy old timer. And so they used to match the roommates. Well today everybody gets their own private room and nobody are roommates any more.
When I started baseball it was played in sunshine. There were no night games. Baseball went from a day game to a night game. Then it went from a train game to a plane game. It went from radio to tv. It went from all white to integrated, and it went from east coast to west coast. All that happened in a decade, like ’47 to the early 60’s. So even though all the changes happened, the game on the field didn’t change that much. I’m still a strong believer of the game in general. It’s still one of America’s jewels.
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