When he first met Jackie Robinson, Carl Erskine was a 20-year-old minor leaguer pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team in Fort Worth. "The Dodgers came through to play us just before Jack's sophomore season began, when he was still battling to be accepted," says Erskine. "I pitched three strong innings and afterward Jack took me aside and said, 'Young man, you aren't going to be in this league very long. You'll be with us by midseason.' I was. I joined the Dodgers in Pittsburgh and didn't know anybody. I walked into the clubhouse and set my bag down. The first man to talk to me was Jack Robinson. He said: 'I told you, young man, that you'd be here. Welcome.' From that moment, we had a special friendship."
Erskine is recalling all this while standing in the lobby of the New-York Historical Society. He has flown to Manhattan from his native Anderson, Ind., to see "Jackie Robinson: An American Journey," a multimedia exhibition celebrating baseball's first black major leaguer. The exhibit will tour the country during 1988, going to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago. Erskine is now a bank president in Anderson, and something of a gentleman vegetable farmer. Three decades ago he struck out 14 Yankees in a World Series game—then a record—but because he had a chronically sore right arm, he generally tried to get batters to put the ball in play quickly. In 12 major league seasons, all with the Dodgers, Erskine won 122 games, including two no-hitters, one of them coming in 1956 against the Dodgers' bitterest rivals, the New York Giants. When a muscle tear in his pitching arm forced him to retire at age 32, Erskine moved his family back to Anderson, figuring it was a better place to raise his infant son, Jimmy, who was born with Down's syndrome.
Erskine maintains his own sense of perspective, a combination of smalltown values and big-city sophistication. He is the sort of man who visits Dylan Thomas's grave at Westminster Abbey to reflect upon the poet's lines about the "boys of summer," and at the same time the sort of man who savors the notion that many of Anderson's residents greeting him on Main Street hold his days as a playmaking guard for the local basketball team in more esteem than his years in the majors.
Erskine moves slowly through the Robinson exhibition. To his left is a large blown-up photograph of Robinson in a dugout with children leaning over, clamoring for his autograph. "There were always crowds of children pressed against the fence outside the clubhouse in Brooklyn," Erskine says. "After one game, I walked outside and saw Jack's wife, Rachel, and son Jackie Jr. waiting for him. So I went over to say hello. Later, Jack thanked me and told me how much it meant to him that I spoke to his family in front of all those kids. To me it was as natural as taking a breath."
September 27, 1987
Next Erskine comes to a collage of photographs of people who had an impact on Robinson's life, including Branch Rickey, who broke the color line by signing him to a Dodger contract, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Says Erskine, "When you're a part of history, you're too close to it and you don't see it. I was aware of the flow—Robinson, [Roy] Campanella, [Don] Newcombe—these guys were great ballplayers. Sports at the major league level provides one of the purest settings there is. You have to produce. Nobody can help you unfairly. Favoritism does you no good. Baseball integration sped up the whole integration process because it provided direct proof that blacks were qualified."
Erskine turns to a section of the exhibition devoted to Robinson's life before baseball. There are family photographs taken in Cairo, Ga., where Robinson was born. A portrait of his mother hangs beside a photo of an empty wagon trundling down a country road. Clearly, Erskine is moved. "This fills in some things for me," he says finally. "I remember him talking about his mother and her encouragement of him in a spiritual way. When Mr. Rickey screened his 50 finalists, you'd have to wonder why he ever picked Jack to be the first, what with his militant nature and hot-blooded personality. Now it fits. Mr. Rickey must have known about his early Christian training. That's why during Jack's interview he read him the parable about Christ turning the other cheek. Jack did just that for the first two years, no retaliation. That was when some people used to swing a tag into him with the ball in their fist instead of sweeping him with their glove. His faith helped him through it."
Robinson's mother wanted something better for her children than a sharecropper's existence, and she moved her family to Pasadena, Calif., when Jackie was two. Erskine listens to a tape recording of Robinson's sister, Willie Mae, describing the rock throwings and cross burnings the family endured in California. Erskine pauses beside a case containing the blanket and sweater given to Robinson for being named an All-America track and field athlete at UCLA in 1940. Nearby photographs recall that he was also a star halfback for the Bruins.
During World War II, Robinson got a commission in the Army, and his lieutenant's uniform hangs in a glass case. Says Erskine, "He really did border on being a militant when he was in the Army. He reacted vehemently against injustices and discrimination." Robinson once refused to move to the back of a military bus. He was court-martialed for insubordination, but was exonerated and received an honorable discharge.
Around the next corner of the exhibit is a section devoted to Robinson's year (1945) in the Negro Leagues. Photographs of great black athletes, including Paul Robeson, Althea Gibson and Jessie Owens, share space with a television screen that shows biographical film clips of such outstanding Negro Leaguers as Smokey Joe Williams, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston. "He never talked about the Negro Leagues," Erskine recalls. "When Rickey sent the scouts to see him, I think Jack thought Rickey was forming the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers." If he had, Robinson probably would have refused to sign up.
Another section of the exhibit deals exclusively with Rickey. In the famous photograph of Robinson and Rickey studying the first major league contract signed by a black man, their heads appear to be just touching—the canny conspirators. Erskine says, "This all reflects well on Branch. He signed me when I was 19, same year as Jack. At spring training he spoke about values and stability. He wanted all his ballplayers to be married, because he thought that gave men stability. We sensed he genuinely cared about us, saw us as individuals dealing with life, not just baseball. Of course he didn't pay us very much. He'd say, 'Son, you had a good year. We'll let you come back.' It was very competitive. We were going out every day to win so we would keep our jobs.
"There was tremendous pressure in the organization, with 800 players on one-year contracts. We were trying to win games, so we didn't see Jack's social impact. Oh, there was the good-natured kidding, but that went on behind every player's back and he was just included. Not vicious, certainly not ridicule. For instance, when Jack started turning gray, some guys called him Uncle Remus. He took it well, he knew he fit. We'd been through too much together."
The exhibit moves to Robinson's Dodger days. There is a model of Ebbets Field. Other mementos in this part of the exhibition include some of Robinson's bats—thick-handled to contend with the inside pitches he constantly had to face—as well as uniform jerseys with his No. 42, and even some seats from Ebbets Field. On a wall is an enormous photograph of Brooklyn fans at the ballpark, all smiles and cheers. Erskine says, "The Brooklyn fans accepted him pretty well. I can't recall a single incident. Why should they have bothered him? He won so many games for us. If you had a funny nose or a crooked walk, they got on you. Other fans and opposing players did get on him, but very few used color in a derogatory way towards Jack. He was a controversial figure, no matter what his color. He'd take great displeasure at people who'd say, 'You've made it—everything's great.' He'd say, 'Because I've made it only magnifies what needs to be done.' He was very unhappy with some of the things that hadn't been done. He'd still be today. He'd say, 'Where are the black managers and the black executives?' The Campanis interview would have made him irate."
While looking at photographs of Robinson running the bases, Erskine says, "Such quick starts and stops." He shakes his head, savoring the memory. "He rejuvenated baseball into a running-stealing game. It had been passive since Ruth and the home run. I heard comments from other players who disliked him, not because he was black but because he was a strong competitor who would irritate them with his daring play. He wasn't a braggart, but he would take the field and with his actions announce, I want you.' Sam Jones was a wild Cubs pitcher, and he'd toss behind Jack's butt. Jack would get to Jones by talking to him from the batter's box. Then he'd walk, and taunt Jones from first base. He irritated Sam Jones only because it gave us an advantage."
Erskine gazes at a case containing bats signed by entire Dodger teams, and other pieces of equipment, including a pair of his own scarred spikes. Beside those shoes lies Sal Maglie's glove. Maglie eventually was traded to the Dodgers, but he is best remembered as a vicious knockdown pitcher for the Giants. One day Robinson bunted toward first, hoping Maglie would be drawn over to field the ball so Robinson could knock him over. But the bunt was too far from the mound, and instead of hip-checking Maglie, Robinson ran over the Giants' young second baseman, Davey Williams, who suffered a severe spinal injury. "Jack played hard, he slid hard, he was a rough player," says Erskine. "With Davey, that was retaliation; he wanted Maglie. All Jack saw was GIANTS across Davey's chest."
An exhibition case holds the MVP plaque and the Silver Bat Robinson won for leading the National League in hitting in 1949. Above it are enlarged copies of several letters threatening Robinson's life. One reads, "We have already got rid of several like you. One was found in the river just recently." Robinson, and eventually his teammates, devised ways to get around the insults and threats. "We used to play an exhibition game in Atlanta as we worked our way north from [spring training in] Vero Beach," remembers Erskine. "They wouldn't let blacks in the stands in Atlanta. While we were in the clubhouse, our manager [Charlie Dressen] read a threatening letter aloud and we all got very quiet. What to do? What to say? Gene Hermanski finally said, 'Well, Skip, tell you what, we'll all wear number 42 and he won't know who to shoot.' It broke everyone up. Players would joke, saying 'Hey Jack, would you mind moving over that way a little,' but Jack always went right ahead with what he had to do, playing as if nothing had ever happened." Erskine purses his lips. "I never saw Jack Robinson scared."
Erskine stops at a photograph of Robinson standing beside a trunk in the clubhouse. His bags are packed as is his smile, for this is the day in 1958 when the Dodgers traded the aging Robinson to the despised Giants. Thirty years later, Erskine is still puzzled: "I don't understand that. I think they decided he wasn't an every-day player anymore. I think it was a grandstand play. He could still hit shots. He always hit vicious line drives. If they'd been up in the air, he would have hit a lot more home runs."
Robinson declined to play for the Giants and retired into a business career instead. A series of photographs documents his days as a food company executive, and later at the Freedom National Bank. There are shots of him standing before the bombed-out house of a black Birmingham minister, of him grasping a shovel at ground-breaking ceremonies for a low-income housing development, talking with NAACP officials and with Malcolm X. All are testimony that Robinson's civil-rights activities continued long after his batting eye faded.
In the course of raising his son, Erskine has become active in movements for the handicapped. He says, "Without realizing it, I think Jack helped me to know my son. There are real similarities in our society's accepting the handicapped and minorities in places they've never been. When Jack broke in, Mr. Rickey told him, 'Some oppose this, hardly any are on your side, and most are neutrals just waiting to see.' You still have the radical few who are that way with minorities and the handicapped, but I think Jack's experience brought a lot of understanding to the neutrals."
The exhibition ends with a gallery of drawings, poems, essays and rap songs created by schoolchildren inspired by their studies of Robinson's life. Erskine glances at some photographs of people crying during Robinson's funeral in 1972, and then strides slowly through the gallery and out into the lobby. He bumps into Rachel Robinson and they embrace. The two talk for a while, then Rachel must leave. Both are genuinely happy that this unplanned encounter occurred. "Jackie tended to trust Carl Erskine a great deal," Rachel says. "They conducted their lives similarly, held many values and beliefs in common. Both were strong family men who admired that devotion in each other. Jackie always said Carl was one of the first to support him."
As Erskine watches Rachel walk away, he says, "What shocked me more than Jack's death was the time a couple of years earlier when someone asked him to play golf. He said he couldn't because he couldn't see the ball. It affected me deeply how such a man's health had deteriorated so much. The two strongest men on the Dodgers, Jack and Gil Hodges, died so young. I'm forever saddened their lives were so short."
Erskine's hair is white, but at the end of a long day he still looks and sounds much like the handsome, graceful young athlete Jackie Robinson met 40 years ago. "You know," he says while getting his coat, "it's appropriate that this exhibition is opening in a historical society. What Jack did opened a lot of minds in the world. And he was strong enough to open them in a broader sense than just baseball. When people come to this they'll get a lot more than baseball. It's the kind of thing that helps you learn how to handle life."