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."
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.