Book Links Jackie Robinson And Carl Erskine’s Son
February is Black History Month. I know that some critics even cynics feel that it is a snub to highlight the contributions of African-Americans during the shortest month of the year.
Personally, I think the commemorations should begin on January 31. For it is the birthday of both Jackie Robinson, who would have been 94, and Branch Rickey Jr. 99 – an able baseball executive and right-hand man of his father during the battle against baseball segregation.
We know now that Robinson’s success as a major leaguer starting in 1947 was the indelible first salvo in the civil rights movement. So as a Branch Rickey biographer, I was thrilled to be asked to appear in mid-January on a panel in Indianapolis to discuss the Indiana Repertory Theater’s production of “Jackie and Me,” playwright Steven Dietz’s adaptation of Dan Gutman’s young adult novel.
It was a benefit performance to raise money for the Indianapolis chapter of Major League Baseball’s RBI program, Restore Baseball in the Inner City. David James, director of MLB’s RBI program, was also on the panel and the former Little League executive in Williamsport, Pa. likes to say that he is the only one ever to jump directly from the Little League to the Major Leagues.
“Jackie and Me” tells the story of a baseball-loving Little Leaguer with a temper problem who has the supernatural ability to rub baseball cards and transport himself back in time. For a school assignment he travels back to 1947 to meet Jackie Robinson during his tumultuous rookie season. To add drama to his adventure little Joey Stoshack (played by Joseph Mervis) goes back as a black boy to better understand the hostility Robinson (Beethovan Oden) was facing.
During the panel discussion after the play, Carl Erskine, Robinson’s Brooklyn teammate, admitted that he cried at the moment in “Jackie and Me” when Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson appear on stage together. A gaunt Ruth near death clad in camel-hair coat points to the center field bleachers re-enacting his famous “called shot” World Series home run. At the same time young intense Robinson stands at home plate bat in hand ready to belt the baseball.
The tableau brought back to Erskine those special moments when the Dodgers became America’s first racially integrated team, the fabled Boys of Summer who from 1947 to 1956 showed by example what a genuinely functioning multi-racial community might look like. Indiana-native Erskine was raised free of racial prejudice and he was a lifelong friend of a future Mr. Basketball of Indiana, Johnny Wilson, who went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Erskine knew too well that not all of his compatriots shared his liberal feelings
At 86, except for his gray-white hair, Erskine doesn’t look much different from the compactly built 5’ 10” righthander who won 122 games for the Dodgers and threw two no-hitters. He is a marvelous baseball story-teller but the retired banker from nearly Anderson has a sense of right and wrong and a feeling for human dignity that is rare in any field.
He has written a new book “The Parallel,” which links the story of Robinson’s gallant battle against racism with the struggle faced by his son Jimmy who was born with Down syndrome. Erskine writes that he knows now that “Jackie was preparing me for a challenge of my own that would parallel his long and arduous journey.”
In April 1960 when Jimmy Erskine, the fourth and last child of Carl and Betty Erskine, was born, there were no support systems or any real understanding of what the handicap meant. The term “Mongoloid” was callously thrown around. Immediate institutionalizing of the infant was often recommended.
“I carried this little guy for nine months. He goes home with us,” Betty Erskine declared.
Erskine’s “The Parallel” is a moving testimony to what a loving family and an awareness of a different kind of human condition can achieve. At 52, Jimmy is a respected even beloved employee of an Applebee’s in Anderson. He has bowled 293 over two games and has won numerous trophies in the Special Olympics.
I dare any reader not to be moved by Erskine’s stories of how his whole neighborhood gave the thumbs-up gesture when Jimmy first passed by their homes on the school bus. Or how Carl’s older brother Donald who lived with them in his last years evolved from someone afraid of Jimmy’s difference to someone who grew to adore his nephew.
Jimmy loved to give people a good night “bite on the neck”. Donald’s last words to his brother Carl were “Give Jimmy a bite on the neck.”
“We are now being taught by those we once thought were unteachable,” Carl Erskine writes simply. “We have also learned another truism: People will not long remember what we said; people will not long remember what we did; but everybody will remember how we made them feel.”
Erskine feels we have come a long way since the days of race-baiting of Robinson and the cruel barbs at his son. He tells moving stories of how people slowly but surely came to accept Jimmy as just another human being with a special sweetness.
A reminder about “Jackie and Me”:
The play is running in Indianapolis at the Indiana Repertory Theater through Feb 16. It is a story that never loses its freshness because it is about doing right and doing well in a world that often rewards the wrong and the shallow.
Ticket information: 1-317-635-5252
I highly commend the play and the entertaining but powerful message it brings across: That the great game of baseball should be open to all who can compete fairly, regardless, as Branch Rickey Sr. was fond of saying, of “the pigmentation of your skin or the number of syllables in your last name.”
That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!