May 28, 2024 at 9:39 p.m.

Erskine was a great pitcher, better man

Far From Randolph County

By Hank Nuwer

The news of one-time Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher Carl Erskine’s death at 97 on April 16 recalled a wonderful memory.

The year was 1997, and I was finishing up a two-year term as a visiting associate professor at the University of Richmond. I taught a popular sports and outdoor writing course, appropriately enough since some 20 years of my career had been devoted to writing sports books and articles.

As a highlight of the class’ reading of “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn, my students interviewed Erskine by speaker phone. I asked him for 15 minutes, but he graciously gave us a full hour. 

As it turns out, Erskine outlived Kahn (1927-2020) and the dozen Dodger teammates profiled during and after their careers by the legendary sportswriter, one of my early heroes.

Hands down, the most student questions were about the great Jackie Robinson and what it was like to be on the field with the most exciting player of his generation — the man who broke Major League Baseball’s unwritten color barrier.

My ears perked up because one of my cherished memories then had been in 1991, interviewing former MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler (for Sport Magazine), who was hospitalized in Lexington with what proved to be his final illness.

Most of my interview was on a scandal at the time at the University of Kentucky, but I did get to ask him about his part in integrating baseball. Chandler underplayed his role, and he said allowing Robinson to play was not only the right thing but a wise move from a business point of view.

I clearly remember some key points of the talk “Oiks” gave my class. He said Pee Wee Reese, the Kentuckian who played shortstop alongside the second baseman, was particularly helpful in assisting Robinson. But he did so because Robinson was his teammate, not because of his race, and Reese would have done the same for any teammate.

He said Robinson’s teammates did band together to help Robinson weather vicious and racist bench jockeying from the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies, who were hellbent on making the legendary Robinson lose his concentration and poise. 

Erskine’s favorite memory was that Robinson was one of the first Dodgers to greet him in 1948 when he was called up from their Fort Worth minor league affiliate. 

Another student question was what might be his most cherished accomplishment. I thought he would jump on that question and mention his two no-hitters or World Series appearances, but no. He said he was so proud of the fact that his son Jimmy, born with Down Syndrome, was gainfully employed at a restaurant and competing in the Special Olympics. (Jimmy died last year, and the romantic soul in me likes to imagine Erskine held on to life so long because he was dedicated to protecting his special boy). 

My own question to Erskine was whether Roger Kahn had left something out of “The Boys of Summer” that maybe should have gone in.

Erskine thought and then said he thought it wouldn’t hurt to mention that he and Kahn got along better than most scribes and players. 

Kahn had by then had interviewed the pitcher post-retirement a few times when he called Erskine at his home in Anderson.

“I suspect Roger had had a few drinks that night,” Erskine said, prompting some chuckles in the class.

At any rate, as Erskine recalled it, Kahn blubbered that he was stuck on the manuscript of “The Boys of Summer” and didn’t think he’d ever finish it.

Erskine said he didn’t give any sympathy.

“If you don’t write that book then maybe (rival sportswriter) Dick Young will write it,” Erskine said he told Kahn.

Not too long after, Kahn called Erskine again to say he’d completed the book.

RIP, Mr. Erskine, you were a great pitcher but, in my sports class’ book, a better man. 


Nuwer learned this week that the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place for best column and second-place for best humorist. His columns then were published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.




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