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Checking in with Carl Erskine: still being honored 50 years later

February 22, 2010 |  7:07 am

Dodgers He said it still happens sometimes. More than 50 years since he retired, times when dawn breaks and Carl Erskine will again ponder the question.

"I wake up in the morning and say, 'Did that really happen to me?' Because you couldn’t dream or fantasize to play with the team I played for," Erskine said.

What happened was a 14-year career as a right-handed pitcher for the Dodgers that he looks back at almost through the haze of some vague illusion.

Playing alongside team legends Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese and Don Newcombe. Throwing two no-hitters. Winning five National League pennants and the breakthrough World Series title in 1955. Striking out a then-record 14 in a World Series game.

And starting the first game the Dodgers played in Los Angeles.

"You can almost take the scores, forget them and ask, 'What really mattered?’ What really mattered was being there and being a part of these Hall of Famers’ careers and part of history," he said.

Erskine, 83, has made a lifelong habit of recognizing what is truly important. That’s why on March 2, he will be awarded the highest honor the state of Indiana can bestow upon one of its citizens, the Sachem Award.

The award originated in 1970, dissolved in the late '80s and was brought back by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2005. The honoree is chosen by the governor to recognize "excellence in the pursuit of life’s work."

In 2005 he selected John Wooden. Since then the award has gone to a former president of Notre Dame, a philanthropist, a civic leader and husband-wife gospel pioneers.

Erskine said Daniels phoned a couple of months ago to ask whether he would accept this year’s honor. Feeling unworthy, Erskine asked a question back.

"When the governor called me and asked me if I would accept it, I said, 'Gee whiz, why should I accept it?' " Erskine said.

Daniels was quick with his response. It was more than Erskine’s major league career, it was the way he was not only born in Anderson, Ind., but returned to spend his entire life there. How he raised his family, went to church in Anderson. How he became a successful local banker. How he constantly gave back to his community, became active in youth and local college sports and the Special Olympics.

"I’ve lived here my whole life," Erskine said. "I know practically every board in town, in the hospital and university. You string them all together, and he said, 'That’s the reason why we want you to accept the award.'

"I feel like I don’t deserve it, but I’m going to keep it."

When Erskine retired from the Dodgers in the middle of the 1959 season, he went back to Anderson, a city of 60,000 located about 40 miles outside Indianapolis.

"Right in the middle of a cornfield," he said. "We’re just a good, solid Midwest community."

Upon his return, he started in the insurance business and was asked to be the interim baseball coach at Anderson University. That lasted 12 years and led to four league titles. He later entered banking and became the president of Star Bank.

A local celebrity, he frequently was asked to speak to various youth groups, constantly giving back. On more than one occasion, his wife would ask, "Are you going out again tonight?"

"And I said, suppose we were living in a town and there was a major league ballplayer who lived there and our boy played Little League," he said. "And I would call this major league player and ask him to come to our Little League banquet and say a few a words to our boys, because you really made it to the top and he’d say, 'Nah, I don’t have time for that stuff.'

"You know we can’t do that. I need to do that. I need to go to that banquet for those kids because somebody boosted me along the way when I was a little guy. Because of that feeling, I just never said no."

His youngest child, Jimmy, was born with Down syndrome in 1960 and Erskine became a pioneer supporter of the Special Olympics.

"In those days, that was a real shocker," he said. "There weren’t any services and people just kind of withdrew if they had a handicapped person in the family."

Jimmy has participated in several Special Olympic sports. He lives with the Erskines and works three days a week at the local Applebee’s.

Only the final two seasons of Erskine’s career were spent in Los Angeles, but he was the one to whom manager Walt Alston gave the honor of starting the first Dodgers game in Los Angeles.

After years of playing in cozy Ebbets Field, the Dodgers made their debut in the cavernous Coliseum before a crowd of almost 80,000.

"Pitching the first game in L.A. was a big thing for me," he said. "I’ve had a few records, all broken, but nobody can break that one.

"I remember standing on the mound in the second or third inning and looked over in the dugout, and about half of the team was looking back in the stands. There were so many movie stars opening day. There was Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and Lana Turner and Jeff Chandler. They were just  sprinkled all through the crowd. My guys weren’t watching the game, they were looking in the crowd.’’

Now the state of Indiana is looking to honor one of its own for a lifetime of giving.

"It was just a natural," Erskine said. "It wasn’t like I did anything special. You just live your life and these things come through that. Then after a while, they want to give you a plaque."

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Dodgers Manager Charley Dressen, right, celebrates with Carl Erskine, center, and Duke Snider following the Dodgers 6-5 victory over the New York Yankees in the fifth game of the World Series on Oct. 5, 1951. Credit: Associated Press