Carl Erskine may not be a household name anymore, but he deserves to be. He was New York baseball royalty during the 1940s and 50s, helping the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series in 1955 against their crosstown rivals, the Yankees. But as great a pitcher as he was, Carl’s legacy far exceeds anything he accomplished on the field.
Long before the word “inclusion” became a mainstay in our national conversations, Carl modeled an attitude of openness and welcoming to others who were different from him throughout his childhood, as a teammate of Jackie Robinson, and as the father of a child with Down syndrome in an era when special needs children were deemed a hazard to society and, therefore, institutionalized. In fact, Carl served as a pioneer in helping those with intellectual and physical challenges better integrate into their families and communities.
His story is now being told in the Christopher Award-winning documentary “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story.” Filmmaker Ted Green joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below) to talk about the remarkable life of Carl Erskine, who at age 96 is the the last of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ famed “Boys of Summer,” as chronicled by Roger Kahn in his book by the same name.
Carl Erskine’s earliest memory was visiting the site of a lynching. He was four years old in 1930 when his father took him to Marion, Indiana, to see the aftermath of what had happened the day before. The elder Erskine’s goal was not to celebrate this death, as so many of his fellow white citizens had done, but rather to demonstrate to his son that this was “hate at its worst.” Despite his young age, Carl understood the lesson and took it deep into his heart.
It was a lesson that ran counter to the cultural forces that surrounded him. “In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan essentially ran Indiana,” explained Ted. “They dispersed the year that Carl was born for various reasons, but the racism that fed it was very much there.”
Thankfully, Carl’s parents lived their Christian faith in a way that was courageously progressive for the times. They taught him to love God and love his neighbor – and they included people of all colors in their definition of “neighbor.”
A defining incident occurred when Carl was 10 years old. He was playing buckets one day in an alley in his neighborhood when Johnny Wilson, a nine-year-old African American child, saw him and watched shyly from the side. Carl walked up to Johnny, held his ball out, and asked, “Do you want to play?”
“It seems like the simplest thing in the world,” observed Ted, but it flew in the face of the prevailing worldview that white and black kids should stay apart. Carl and Johnny went on to become great friends, and Johnny was welcomed into the Erskine’s home many times.
Fast forward to 1948. Carl became a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers and a teammate of Jackie Robinson, who had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier just one year earlier. Robinson faced racism from many people, but he and Carl became fast friends.
Ted explained, “Jackie couldn’t figure it out. He said, ‘Carl, I don’t understand this natural way that you accept me?’…Carl explained to him about Johnny, and then Jackie [responded], ‘You know, Carl, it’s just weird. I seem to see life divided, you seem to see life connected.’ It was a real moment for Jackie there, and they stayed super tight friends.”
Another incident early on shaped Jackie’s admiration for Carl. On a day when he wasn’t pitching, Carl walked over to a section of Ebbets Field that was fenced off for the players’ families. Fans were nearby too, so they were reaching through the fence to get autographs.
“Carl steps out there, and he notices an [African American] woman and her young son standing all by themselves and nobody is talking to them,” said Ted. “Carl walks up, starts a conversation with Rachel Robinson, roughs up Jackie Robinson, Jr’s hair. The next day, Jackie made a point to approach him and say, ‘Carl, I just wanna thank you for what you did yesterday…You went out of your way to make Rachel and Jackie Jr. feel accepted in front of all those people. That means a lot.’ And Carl is sort of befuddled. [He said], ‘Don’t thank me for that. That’s the most natural thing in the world.'”
“I guess that’s the thing,” continued Ted. “Carl shows how easy it can be if you put decency first, if you put others before you. And in fact…I believe that Carl is the perfect embodiment of what’s etched onto Jackie Robinson’s tombstone: a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”Carl Erskine’s life also had a major impact on the lives of children with special needs, an impact whose ripple effects are still being felt today.
On April 1, 1960, Carl’s wife Betty gave birth to their son Jimmy, who had Down syndrome. This was not a welcoming era for people with any kinds of intellectual challenges.
Ted explained that during America’s beginnings, the country had a mainly agrarian economy. People with intellectual disabilities were called “feeble-minded,” but they were mostly put to work anyway, in the home, on the farm, or in the field.
“When the Industrial Revolution came in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the economy began to click and everything changed,” said Ted. “People moved to cities, factories [began] springing up…Competition became king. Suddenly, these people who weren’t fast enough to keep up with all that – they weren’t just put aside, they were blamed. Like, these people are pulling society down. We have to work all the extra harder just to take care of them.”
That attitude led to the eugenics movement, which said people with intellectual disabilities “need to be eliminated or not allowed to have children. Otherwise, they’ll be like bad cattle who infect the herd.”
Eugenics became popular and gained support from the highest levels of government. In 1907, Indiana passed the country’s first compulsory sterilization law for people with intellectual disabilities, and other states soon followed suit.
The eugenics movement in the United States finally lost some steam during World War II because it was similar to what the Nazis were doing. In fact, Ted found a document from the Nuremberg trials in which the Nazis cited Indiana’s compulsory sterilization law in their own defense.
After World War II, said Ted, is when “the institutions started multiplying like crazy. The idea was post World War II, this is a time of optimism, of affluence. Are you going to let your family be held back by a child who was quote unquote ‘defective’? That is what the doctors were saying to everybody. That is what they said to Carl and Betty Erskine on April 1st, 1960.”
But once again, Carl Erskine, and now his wife Betty, pushed back against the prevailing prejudices of the time. When Betty’s doctor suggested sending Jimmy to an institution, she responded, “No way. I’ve been carrying this guy for nine months, and he’s coming home with me.”
Carl and Betty were not the first to make this choice. They became part of what was called “The Parents’ Movement,” in which moms and dads raised their own disabled children, highlighting that the best treatment for them is love and respect.
The Erskines, however, took it a step further. Ted explained, “Not only did they bring [Jimmy] home, they decided, ‘We’re not going to hide him at home,’ which was the norm for the people who couldn’t afford institutions. ‘He’s coming out everywhere we go.’ Beyond that, they started reaching out to others and starting these little gatherings in churches, in the community: ‘We heard so-and-so has a child with some disabilities. Maybe we can have a play date.’ And they started spreading it and spreading it. All of a sudden, Anderson, Indiana, became a hotbed for this Parents’ Movement. And Carl and Betty never backed down from it. They embraced it.”
Both Special Olympics of Indiana and The Arc of Indiana cite Carl and Betty as being at the epicenter of improving inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their state. And the Erskine Green Training Institute, which offers job training to people with intellectual disabilities, has an 80 percent placement rate, compared to the standard 20 percent elsewhere.
When Jimmy was born, doctors predicted he would only live to age 30 or 35. Well, Jimmy turned 63 a few weeks ago. He worked at Applebee’s for 20 years, competed in Special Olympics for 50 years, and has even moved out of his parent’s home to live by himself (with some outside assistance). He is living a rich and full life, thanks to his parents.
When Carl returned to Indiana following his baseball career, he reconnected with his old friend Johnny Wilson, who had achieved his own level of success in life.
“Johnny Wilson was a remarkable athlete,” said Ted. “He was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. That’s a big deal here as the best player in the state. He could have been an NBA player for sure, but that wasn’t open to him. He went on to be a Globetrotter, he played in the Negro League, and he ended up being a high school and college coach. But then, [Johnny and Carl] reconvened back in Anderson late in life, and they picked up right where they left off. They were speaking in schools. As a brilliant guy in the film named Michael Tackett, former New York Times reporter, said, ‘Their point was not to shame or scold or preach. They were just there to show these kids that there is a way that this can be done.'”
On the topic of schools, Ted Green and Special Olympics Indiana are promoting an educational initiative called EPIC (the Erskine Personal Impact Curriculum). Created by teachers and heavily vetted by the Indiana Association of School Principals, the project uses a shortened version of “The Best We’ve Got,” as well as different age level books about Carl’s life and accomplishments, to teach students about diversity and inclusion. The program is currently in 500 Indiana schools, with hopes that it will spread to other states as well.
“I’ve seen it in action at schools,” said Ted. “I’ve seen teachers rave about it. Principals rave about it. People essentially are including different people in their friend groups. That’s how it starts. More diverse friend groups. And to me, this notion that maybe, 20 years from now, when Carl’s probably no longer with us, a kid in an Indiana classroom could look across the room and see somebody else who doesn’t look at all like him or think like him or walk like him. And [that kid might] think after going through this EPIC program, ”There’s no reason why I can’t be that person’s friend.'”
As many of Carl’s accomplishments that are chronicled here, there are still others, such as being a founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, as well as a founder of the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps out players who didn’t make much money, who got injured early, and had fallen on hard times .
Regarding the totality of Carl’s life, Ted believes he is worthy of the term “hero.” And he believes Carl’s is the best kind of heroism because it is attainable by anyone. “You don’t need to be able to dunk a basketball or memorize Beethoven’s fifth,” Ted concluded. “We all have it in us to put others first and to look out for others ahead of ourselves.”
To view “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story,” you can visit the film’s website at CarlErskineFilm.com for streaming options or to buy DVDs or Blu-Rays. The film is also available to PBS stations so contact your local PBS station and ask them to run it.
(To listen to my full interview with Ted Green, click on the podcast links):