Josh’s Note: With all of the advances in technology you would think that interviews with baseball players dealing with the history of the game would be more common. However, it seems in our modern age history is often overlooked. That is why I am so excited to be able to share this and other amazing interviews done by Norm, talking with players who not only saw baseball history, but were a part of it. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. If you have not read part one of the Erskine interviews I would encourage you to do that first. Carl Erskine Interview (part 1) Also please keep watch for the possibility of additional interviews with Carl Erskine.
With the release of 42 coming up in April, what do you remember about Jackie Robinson?
Well I played 9 seasons with Jackie and I came up in his second year, 1948. Jackie was there in 47. So I did miss his rookie season.
First of all Jackie was hand-picked by Mr. Rickey. Naturally he had to be a good player and Jackie was a super athlete. He had been a four letter man at UCLA, and there has only been one other before or sense I believe. Jackie was an intelligent man, he had been to college. He was articulate. His mother had raised him to respect other people.
The main reason why I think Mr. Rickey finally chose Jackie above all the other great athletes in the Negro League was because he met Rachel his wife. She was a college graduate, a very dignified gal, and a very beautiful lady. I knew that Mr. Rickey was a wise person and he knew that Jackie would have more time off the field to deal with the segregation and bigotry, which was there in the 40’s, than he would on the field. And so when he met Rachel, Mr. Rickey must have said this is a complete package. Jackie had a lot of qualities other than his playing ability to make it work at that time in our history.
Do you have any memorable stories about Mr. Robinson that you could share with us?
Well I’ve got a lot of memories of Jackie. I was in the minors in ’47 and then in the spring of ’48 the big team (Dodgers) came to play Fort Worth Texas, one of their affiliates, a Double-A team. I was with the Fort Worth team and I pitched against the big club. I didn’t know anybody on the real Dodgers, but Jackie was in the lineup.
When the game was over Jackie came across the field and came to the dugout and asked ‘Where’s Erskine?’ So my teammates yelled for me to come here becasue Jackie Robinson had come over to see me. I stepped out of the dugout and shook his hand and he said ‘Young man I hit against you twice today. You’re not going to be in this league very long.’ Oh boy what a boost that for a young kid in the minors. That is how I met Jackie.
So I had won 15 games by July in Double-A and they called me to the Dodgers and I joined them in Pittsburg. Jackie was the first guy to my locker and he said ‘I told you, you couldn’t miss.’ So that started a great friendship.
The off-season I did a lot of things with Jackie in the schools and with youth groups. So we became very good friends.
Well naturally television was such a magical thing. If you were alive only in the radio days and now could suddenly see the action on the field and hear the broadcast. That was almost as equal as going to the moon. It was such an unbelievable thing.
So now people got to really get acquainted with ballplayers. They could watch their mannerisms, learn their numbers, and all of that stuff.
Some people thought that T.V. was going to ruin the game because why would people come to the ball park when they could get it free on television. But what really happened is it invigorated the game and people started to come to the games in bigger numbers because they became more acquainted with the game.
So television has been an amazing boom for baseball and once free agency came in, then the players that were free to go the highest bidder were able to tap into all of this new money that came in because of television.
We caught the front end of that in my era. But the big money came later. I think TV was such a breakthrough for all sports. You could put a great play, a movie, a Shakespeare play on TV and then you would have to wait a few years to do it again, but with baseball you could put the same two teams out there every day and you get a new story every day. TV was made for sports and vice versa.
Could you talk about when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA and compare what the stadiums were like.
I played in Brooklyn for 10 seasons. I played with the main team which was the solid lineup that included Campanella at catcher, Hodges at first, Jackie and 2nd and later 3rd, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider in the outfield. That was a great, great team.
By the time 1957 rolled around and we finished our last season in Brooklyn and then moved to LA in ‘58, a lot of us had already had our best years. However, a few guys like Koufax, Drysdale and Johnny Podres were just coming into their best years. So the move west was harder for us older players, than for some of the younger guys. We had to prove ourselves over again.
The crowds in L.A. were very quiet compared to the ruckus fans in Brooklyn who sat really close to us. The Ebbet’s Field seats were very close to the field. In L.A. we played in the coliseum because Dodger Stadium hadn’t been built yet. The atmosphere was very different for the first couple of years compared to the close confines of Ebbet’s field. But professionals have to make an adjustment to whatever the conditions are, so that’s what we had to do.
I only played a couple of years in L.A. I’m happy I got to be a transition player and play on both coasts. I did get to pitch the opener against the Giants and we won that day. So I did get the first win and I didn’t win too many after that but I was happy to get the first one.
Could you tell us a little bit about Sandy Koufax?
Well Sandy had an unusual career, a very unusual beginning. In those years, the 50’s, there was no draft and players could be signed at any age right out of high school. The owners were very reluctant to pay bonuses. They were afraid it would get out of hand. So they made a rule that amongst themselves that if you paid a player $20,000 or more as a bonus, he could not be sent to the minors. He had to take up a spot on the major league roster.
Well that’s what happened to Koufax when he signed in 1955. He came onto our team and he did not have one day of experience in the minor leagues. So Koufax was absolutely a green horn compared to the level he had to perform at in the Major Leagues. Most of us had been in the minors for a while and got all of the fundamentals we needed. Sandy didn’t know how to hold a man on base and was pretty wild, not much control at all.
It was tough for Sandy. In those years we were on one year contracts so we were cordial with Sandy but he had to keep learning on his own. I think for his first five years on the team he was an even .500 pitcher. But once Sandy and the team moved to California, it was kind of a fresh beginning and Sandy began to find himself.
Then he pitched in the 1959 World Series and in the early 60’s he really found his stroke. He always had good stuff. He threw hard and had a good curve, but he didn’t have any good control. Then he found himself and he had five or six of the greatest years that any pitcher could have. In fact he made the Hall of Fame in about five or six years, which is pretty unusual.
Thank you very much for taking the time today to talk with me. I really appreciate it.