Dodgers Great Carl Daniel Erskine Recalls Fellowship of Christian Athletes Roots
What's in a name?
In Flatbush, in Canarsie or anywhere else in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the name was..."Oisk!"
And "Oisk!"- how the Brooklyn natives monikered the surname of one Carl Daniel Erskine- meant the best pitcher, on one of the best teams in America's most popular sport.
From 1948 to 1959, Mr. Erskine pitched for the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn and then for their inaugural two seasons in Los Angeles. Erskine's Dodgers are on the short list of "greatest teams in history." Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Sandy Koufax...these are not just names in baseball's pantheon. They were Mr. Erskine's colleagues.
"I played nine seasons with (Robinson). Jackie was always such a polished, class person with a fire in his belly," Mr. Erskine remembered. "He achieved not only success in baseball, but with Mr. Rickey's coaching behind him to control his temper and prove as a player that he belonged. I saw how social change came.
"He was a whole decade before Martin Luther King," Erskine reminded. "They start with Martin Luther King when they talk about Civil Rights gains. But Jackie's momentum was powerful. Mr. Rickey called bigotry 'a bully' but Jackie had to fight that bully by himself. And he achieved tremendous gains for people understanding how we see each other."
Rickey was the legendary Dodgers general manager most responsible for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier.
"Mr. Rickey was a Methodist. Jackie was a Methodist. Mr. Rickey read the Scripture to Jackie of Turn the Other Cheek (Matthew 5:39) and they didn't mention that in the movie'42'. That was a big disappointment to me," Mr. Erskine admitted. "The truth is that Jackie was raised by a strong Christian mother, and so was Mr. Rickey."
Mr. Erskine himself came to saving faith at age 16, in the church where he still teaches Sunday School in Anderson, Ind. When Rickey signed Erskine out of high school in Anderson, the righty quickly validated the GM's keen scouting eye.
"I was in the minors in 1948 but I pitched against the Dodgers in Spring Training," Mr. Erskine recalled. "After the game, Robinson came across to the Fort Worth dugout and said, 'Where is Erskine?' When I stepped out of the dugout, he shook my hand and said 'Young man, I hit against you twice today. You won't be in this league long.' What a boost for a minor league kid!
"A couple of months later, I got promoted to the Dodgers and Jackie was the first person to my locker. We became very close friends."
In 1952, Mr. Erskine threw his first no-hitter. In 1953, he won 20 games and led the National League in winning percentage. In Game Three of that year's World Series, the Hoosier struck out 14 Yankees, setting a Fall Classic record that stood until fellow Dodger Sandy Koufax broke the mark in 1963, when he fanned 15 Yankees.
In 1954, Mr. Erskine was selected to the National League All-Star team. Two years later, although bothered by the shoulder injuries that would shorten his career, Erskine threw his second no-hitter.
But 1955 stands alone in Dodger lore. That season, Mr. Erskine threw two shutouts en route to helping the Dodgers claim their first World Series crown.
"We had some tremendous years. The 1952 and 1953 teams had beautiful numbers- Hall of Fame stuff-but we didn't win the World Series," Mr. Erskine said.
"The Dodgers were real pros. They weren't up and down or too high or too low," he continued. "We felt man for man that there was no one better than the Dodgers."
"Next Year!", the rallying cry of Brooklyn fans heartbroken by five World Series losses to the cross-town Yankees in 15 seasons, had finally arrived.
"No one ever said 'I hope we win this year.' We felt we were going to win that year," Mr. Erskine stated. "I pitched Opening Day of 1955, a 6-1 win against the Pirates, and we won 10 in a row. We started 22-2." In a year where the Dodgers led wire-to-wire, they finally won the World Series, beating the Yankees in seven games.
"'55, I think, was neat because our team felt worse for our fans when we didn't win than we did for ourselves," Mr. Erskine admitted. "It was fun to present it to the fans of Brooklyn."
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What's in a name?
"Athletes for Christ." That was one of the suggestions that Oklahoma college basketball coach Don McClanen bandied about in 1954 while crafting his new ministry.
McClanen dreamed of athletes endorsing the Lord and the Christian walk "the same way they endorsed razor blades or automobile tires," Mr. Erskine remembered. The coach collected articles on athletes that mentioned their Christian faith. One of those articles, a piece inGuideposts magazine on Erskine's first no-hitter, fell into McClanen's lap.
The coach sent a letter to Mr. Erskine telling him about his ministry idea.
"The memory of that meeting with Don McClanen is still clear as a bell to me. In 1954, I had just come off of my best season in the Big Leagues," said Mr. Erskine. "Deals were coming in the side door and you had to be real careful for what you signed up for.
"This mild mannered man walked up to me in lobby of the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia," Mr. Erskine continued. "He told me that he was a coach from Oklahoma and he was floating the idea of having athletes endorse their faith. He said, 'Would you be willing to speak at high schools, campus settings for college students and simply endorse- in your own way- your faith in God and your Christian walk?'
"My wife and I had grown up around the church and we pastored young people. I agreed to do it, even though I didn't know him and I was wary of every deal coming by me at that time," Mr. Erskine relayed.
With Mr. Erskine on board, McClanen next sought out someone very familiar to the great Dodger pitcher....Branch Rickey, now the GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates. When McClanen explained his concept to Rickey, a five minute meeting became nearly four hours long.
"Mr. Rickey called me when we were in town playing Pittsburgh and asked me if I would come to the Duquesne Club for lunch before the night game. That was a very exclusive club. He wanted me and one of his pitchers - Vernon Law, who was a devout Mormon - to speak to a small group of people that he had brought together- and to tell him about this new idea," said Mr. Erskine picking up the story. "This idea that didn't have a name yet.
"There was a man sitting at the table named Paul Benedum," continued Mr. Erskine. "He was heir to the US Steel fortune. He said 'Branch, this idea can't miss. Here is some seed money to get it off the ground.' He gave Mr. Rickey a check for $10,000. This was 1955. That was about my salary! And it was another milestone in the history and early beginnings of FCA."
The athletes and seed money was set; now all they needed was a name "Athletes for Christ" sounded too much like "Youth for Christ." McClanen and a group of advisors settled on "Fellowship of Christian Athletes."
Mr. Erskine and fellow ace pitcher Robin Roberts, who would become a Hall of Famer, participated in the very first FCA convocation- a speaking engagement at an Oklahoma City high school in the winter of 1955.
"Thank goodness Robin went first. I was wondering how I was going to do this without notes," Mr. Erskine smiled.
"I heard Robin say this," Mr. Erskine remembered. "'When I was a young guy, I could throw a baseball harder than any of the other kids. I didn't know why. It hit me, that I must be blessed with something special. If I am, then where did it come from? Well, God made us and if God gave me the ability to throw a ball this hard, then God should have something to say about how I use it.' I thought, 'That is powerful!' That is the essence of the gospel.
"It really encouraged me to say my little piece. That line has always stayed with me. I thought that was a fantastic way of saying 'This is my faith. I'm a Big League pitcher. I believe it and I recommend it.'" Mr. Erskine concluded.
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What's in a name?
In 2004, the town of Anderson, Ind., consolidated two aging primary schools into one brand new building. Certain Anderson students today attend Erskine Elementary.
It is a tribute to a man who has given so much back to his community. Anderson also has a Carl Erskine Rehabilitation Center for post-operative patients.
"Anywhere you go in Central Indiana, if you mention the name Carl Erskine, he is recognizedeverywhere in the community as a standard for integrity, for excellence and for involvement in solid things like FCA and Special Olympics," commended Central Indiana FCA Director Jeff Mosier. "He represents a standard for integrity and excellence in this community."
Mr. Erskine remains an FCA fixture; he is just as prominent in Special Olympics. When their youngest son Jimmy was born with Down Syndrome, the Erskines found little support. The struggle the Erskines had for mainstream America to accept their son reminded the pitcher of the same shoddy treatment given to Jackie Robinson.
The Erskines wholeheartedly threw themselves into the fledgling Special Olympics movement with the same gusto that they did with FCA.
"He still speaks at different functions," continued Mosier. "He is constantly speaking to the lives of young people. He spoke to over 2,500 people at our first Fields of Faith event in 2009 and just did a phenomenal job. Heconnected with 14 to 18 year old kids." Mosier chuckled in remembering that Mr. Erskine, an accomplished harmonica player, recently jammed with the FCA Band at Mosier's Spring banquet.
"One of the coolest things at Fields of Faith," Mosier continued, "was when he said 'Jeff, I'm going to tell you honestly. When I look out at this crowd of young people, the feelings I am getting inside tonight remind me of the first time I pitched in Yankee Stadium.'"
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What's in a Name?
Jesus says in Matthew 19:29: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." (ESV and emphasis added).
"Something has stayed with me over these many years," Mr. Erskine pondered. "You cannot give somebody your faith. But I want to talk about what it means to have it, and encourage people to develop their own faith. I think that has come through FCA: it is a huge endorsement by guys who have been blessed and have achieved a lot in their profession.
Carl Erskine (far left) and former Red Sox hurler Dave "Boo" Ferriss (far right) were among the instructors at the 1963 FCA Conference in Henderson Harbor, N.Y.
"Kids go to FCA camps to rub elbows with a great name in sports," Mr. Erskine pointed out. "Then these young people come out of the conference with a schedule of worship every day and a full day's worth of sports activities. They leave that camp not so much with the memory of meeting Bob Feller. They remember how they felt at the chapels, or in the morning quiet times. It turns out that the thing that got them there is not what they were really impacted by.
"FCA," concluded Mr. Erskine, "looks at the athlete and asks 'What makes him tick or what makes him stay level' as opposed to the hero theme of: look who he is and what he has done. Those are secondary. He has done all of those things, but look why he is really here."
Pitching legend, bank president after his retirement from the Dodgers and community fixture- Carl Erskine has done all of those things. But Mr. Erskine is really here to devotedly follow the Name Above All Names, as he has faithfully done for all of his 87 years. As a pioneer and staunch supporter of FCA, he has enabled many other students to do the same.
If you would like to know more about following Jesus and the joy that fellowship with Him brings, please visit www.morethanwinning.org
Don Leypoldt is a sportswriter for the Bucks County Herald newspaper. He also serves as the Media Relations Director for the New England Collegiate Baseball League. A graduate of William and Mary, Don lives in his hometown of Newtown, PA with his wife and former collegiate swimmer Lauren, and their two very spoiled dachshunds. He serves on the Board of the Bucks County (PA) FCA.
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