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Friday, July 08, 2005

'What I Learned from Jackie Robinson'

July 5, 2005 -- As the nation prepares for the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game next week, interviews Carl Erskine, a teammate of Jackie Robinson's whose new book recounts stories of prejudice, bigotry — and hope. By Tom Owens for More than 50 years after he shared the field with other Brooklyn Dodgers, Carl Erskine still is going to bat for a teammate. Erskine's latest words were prompted by pitcher John Rocker, who complains he's still catching heat for a 1999 Sports Illustrated interview in which he said the Big Apple was blighted by gays, foreigners and AIDS. "I know that Hank (Aaron) and Jackie (Robinson) took a good deal of crap, but I guarantee it wasn't for six years," the now-minor leaguer protested. "How much am I supposed to take?" To that, Erskine responded, "You can't imagine it today." Rocker's outspoken antics hold no candle to Robinson's 1947 barrier-breaking integration of major league baseball. To help today's fans imagine that turbulent time, Erskine has written What I Learned from Jackie Robinson: a Teammate's Reflections On and Off the Field (McGraw-Hill, $19.95). The book was released this spring but hasn't garnered the attention many believe it deserves. First meeting In 1948, Erskine went to spring training uncertain of his future with Brooklyn. The minor league hurler auditioned once against the Dodgers starting lineup. He pitched admirably for more than three innings. Only one major leaguer spoke to Erskine afterward. "Hey, young man, I just wanted you to know that I faced you twice today and you won't be long for [minor] league," Robinson told Erskine. "You're going to be with us real soon!" "He didn't have to do it," Erskine remembered. "No one would have known if he hadn't spoken to me. He was just in his second year himself. He would never know what a boost he was, how much that encouragement meant to me." Robinson's prediction came true. Erskine became a Brooklyn teammate in 1948. The white pitcher and African American infielder formed an enduring friendship. Despite their closeness, Erskine admitted that the white Dodgers didn't comprehend the full challenge desegregation presented for Robinson. "We didn't see all the sides of it," he said. "We were all conscious. But we had a lot of focus on our own performances. The minor league system was huge (26 teams and nearly 800 players). If we didn't produce right away, we'd be replaced." The KKK vs. No. 42 White teammates faced the message of integration's importance quickly. Before a 1949 preseason exhibition game scheduled in Atlanta, the team faced Ku Klux Klan picketing and death threats. Robinson vowed to play. Erskine wrote that white teammate Gene Hermanski cut the tension. "Why don't we all wear 42 (Robinson's number)?" Hermanski quipped. "Then the nut won't know who to shoot at!" Early in the 1950 season, Erskine had a wake-up call about what Robinson went through every day. The day prior, pitcher Erskine left Brooklyn's Ebbets Field after a game. Seeing Jackie's wife Rachel and son waiting for him, Erskine stopped to chat. Robinson was grateful that a white player had publicly befriended his family outside the ballpark. He stunned Erskine by thanking him for the act. "It was chilling to hear a man thank me for just having a normal conversation," Erskine wrote. "It really made me reflect on what he was going through in his life." At the time, Erskine told Robinson not to thank him for what came naturally. Erskine said his racial tolerance began in childhood. "I grew up in Indiana with my good friend Johnny Wilson. He was black. We both knew we couldn't go together to the YMCA or public swimming pool. We didn't like it, but we accepted it," he remembered. "It's a no-brainer today. But America in the 1940s and '50s was so different. I wasn't a crusader. It's hard to imagine." A son's story In his book, Erskine eloquently compares the intolerance Robinson endured to the prejudice his own son experienced. Jimmy Erskine was born in 1959 with Down syndrome. Erskine chose to give up a post-baseball job as a New York City clothing company executive, in order to return to his Indiana hometown. Jimmy's struggles mirrored Jackie's, Erskine learned. "In both cases, society was not sensitive, equipped or ready to bring them into the mainstream," he said. "The hardest thing for anyone to know is that you aren't accepted, you aren't welcomed." Erskine knew the Robinsons had trouble getting a house in Connecticut where they wanted to live. Years later, there was resistance for a group home for special needs residents in Anderson, Ind. "No one wanted a group home close to where they lived," Erskine said. "Some resistance came from people I knew. Some people thought residents would be insane sex maniacs. It was painful to sit through so many meetings. I thought, 'Now I know how Jackie felt.'" Today, Erskine noted that his hometown hosts nine group homes. "Jackie and Jimmy represent those who have changed our lives for the better," Erskine wrote. "We have enriched ourselves by not rejecting but rather including those who are seemingly different, only to find out we are all in need of being treated with dignity." Tom Owens, a children's book author living in Central Iowa, is a frequent contributor to Contact us for permission to reprint this article. Please include the name of the article in your request. >> DO SOMETHING Read a sidebar by Tom Owens, offering more baseball tales from Carl Erskine. :: Read Carl Erskine's new book, What I Learned from Jackie Robinson. :: Learn about and support Special Olympics, the sports program that has welcomed Jimmy Erskine and more than 1.7 million competitors worldwide. >> DIG DEEPER The Jackie Robinson Foundation awards college scholarships to minority students. Learn more about the Robinson family's commitment to education.


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