Mark Bennett: Carl Erskine film depicts 'The Best We've Got'

Oct. 1—Sure, Carl Erskine experienced October glories while pitching the Dodgers to National League pennants and World Series titles, and throwing a pair of no-hitters.

He left an indelible mark on baseball history, for sure.

Erskine made a bigger impact on Hoosier and American society through friendship, fatherhood and refusing to accept injustice. and he did it all with the grace of a smooth pitching windup and the power of a 95-mph fastball.

And some of those moments unfolded in Terre Haute, two hours southwest of his hometown of Anderson.

That legacy fills the new 90-minute documentary "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story." A screening of the film is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3 in the Terre Haute Convention Center. It's the latest release by Hoosier filmmaker Ted Green, whose credits include documentaries about Eva Kor, Bobby "Slick" Leonard, John Wooden and other Indiana icons. Each film shares a commonality.

"I really like to tackle subjects that celebrate the human spirit," Green said last month.

Erskine's life fits that criteria well.

"The guy slowly, over time, moved mountains," Green said. "He changed the culture of an entire state."

He spent much of his boyhood years in Anderson alongside his best friend, Johnny Wilson. They hung out in their neighborhood, ate and played sports together. Wilson became Indiana's Mr. Basketball, and Erskine grew into a major-league pitching ace for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948 to '59. Erskine is white, the late Wilson was black. That seems routine today, but their friendship began in 1930s Indiana, barely a decade after the Ku Klux Klan held power in the state's government.

"Every cultural force was pushing Carl away from Johnny, and Carl did the opposite," Green said.

Years later, Erskine was a Brooklyn Dodger and teammate of Jackie Robinson, who endured racist taunts, threats, harm and ostracization from fans, opponents and even his own teammates at times as he broke pro baseball's color barrier in 1947. A few seasons after his breakthrough, Dodgers families gathered outside Ebbets Field in Brooklyn before a game. Erskine saw Robinson's wife and son sitting alone, strolled over and chatted with them, then got ready for the game and played.

The next day, Jackie Robinson walked over to Erskine and said, "Carl, I want to thank you for what you did yesterday." Erskine gave him a baffled look, and asked Robinson, "For what?" Robinson was grateful that Erskine talked to Rachel and their son at the picnic.

"Really, it was Carl Erskine who was Jackie's biggest supporter on that team, especially in the area of race," Green said.

In his humble style, Erskine credits Robinson with initiating their bond. During spring training in 1948, Erskine was a pitcher with the Dodgers' Fort Worth, Texas farm club, and Robinson was in his second year in the big leagues with Brooklyn. Robinson watched Erskine pitch and later walked across the field, shook Carl's hand and asked his name, and then said, "You're not going to be in the minor leagues very long."

Later that season, Erskine and Robinson were teammates in Brooklyn. That brief talk from Robinson, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, inspired Erskine.

"It was a boost to my career, and it started a real friendship," Erskine said.

Just months after Erskine retired from baseball at age 32, his wife Betty gave birth to their fourth child, Jimmy. He was born with Down Syndrome. The Erskines were encouraged to institutionalize their son, and go on with life. They rejected such an idea, brought Jimmy home and formed a grassroots support group of parents of Down syndrome children. When the family went, Jimmy went, too.

"What made Carl and Betty so unique was, they didn't just bring their child home ... They took him everywhere they went," Green said.

And when a World Series champion pitcher did that, the world noticed.

"Carl says it was Johnny [Wilson] and Jackie [Robinson] who prepared him for Jimmy," Green said. Erskine wrote a book, "The Parallel," in 2012 comparing the prejudice and rejection Robinson experienced with that of Jimmy and other people with disabilities.

"There was a point in time that I had a realization of what a parallel it was," Erskine said by phone Wednesday morning from his home in Anderson.

Green's film highlights those relationships and Erskine's push against injustice. It features comments from broadcaster Bob Costas, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Special Olympics International chairman Tim Shriver, late Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully and the late Pacers coach and Terre Haute native Bobby Leonard. It was Leonard who urged Green to focus a film on Erskine's life.

Erskine, now 95, watched "The Best We've Got" premiere in Anderson, seated alongside Betty. "It was very exciting to see the film, and it was well done," Erskine said Wednesday.

The words of Costas, Scully, Daniels, Leonard and others flattered Erskine. "It was very humbling and I was very appreciative," he said. "Those are people from my life that I admire a great deal."

Shriver is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the late Sargent Shriver, who co-founded the Special Olympics in 1968. Erskine quietly brought notoriety to those games for people with intellectual and physical disabilities by attending with his son, Jimmy, who competed annually on the Indiana State University campus, where the Indiana Special Olympics began in 1969. The documentary includes rare footage of early Special Olympics competitions at ISU.

Decades earlier, Erskine had played minor-league baseball at Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute as a member of Danville, Illinois' Three-I League club.

The Indiana Special Olympics and Erskine's presence there his son opened eyes. That was especially enlightening in a state where the horrific practice of compulsory sterilization of people with mental disabilities began in the early 20th century, as Green's documentary explains.

"When you have somebody of that stature in a sports field, people remember it," said Terre Haute's Marlene Lu, past board president of the ARC of Indiana, a nonprofit group advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. ARC founded a vocational training facility for disabled folks in Muncie, the Erskine Green Training Institute, named for Carl and former Indiana University basketball standout Steve Green, whose daughter Jessica was born with Down syndrome.

Green's film project includes an educational element related to Erskine's life, similar to that aspect of his 2018 documentary on Holocaust survivor and Terre Hautean Eva Kor, "Eva: A-7063." Along with the new film's release this fall, a related set of educational materials for Indiana K-through-12 school students will be made available through a partnership with Special Olympics and Duke Energy. The program is called EPIC as the Erskine Personal Impact Curriculum.

"It makes that film more than something to look at," Erskine said. "It has the potential to be a real life-changing experience for a lot of people."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.