Carl Erskine, Dodgers great and last of the ‘Boys of Summer,’ dies at 97

NEW YORK — Now they are all gone.

Carl Erskine, the humble Hoosier who pitched two no-hitters for the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers and was the last of the fabled “Boys of Summer,” has died. Erskine, 97, died Tuesday morning in his hometown of Anderson, Ind., after a brief bout with pneumonia. His family confirmed his death to the Indianapolis Star.

One of the classiest players ever to grace the major leagues, Erskine spent his entire career (1948-1959) with the Dodgers, compiling a 127-78 record that included no-hitters against the Chicago Cubs (June 19 1952) and the Giants (May 12, 1956) as well as a World Series record 14 strikeouts in one game that was later eclipsed, first by Sandy Koufax and again by Bob Gibson. In all, Erskine pitched in 11 World Series games from 1949-56, all against the Yankees, making two starts in 1952, three in 1953 and one each in 1955 and ’56. He also was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers’ first game in Los Angeles in 1958.

His Game 5 win in the ’52 Series was one of the more phenomenal — and unlikely — pitching efforts by any starting pitcher ever in a World Series. The Dodgers were leading 4-0 when suddenly the Yankees, held to just one hit to that point, erupted for five runs off Erskine in the bottom of the fifth. The first two runs were scored via a walk, two soft singles and an infield force-out before Johnny Mize delivered the only hard-hit ball in the inning with a homer to deep right field.

Right after the Mize homer, an annoyed Erskine was visited at the mound by Dodger manager Chuck Dressen and assumed his day was done. He was admittedly caught off guard when, instead of asking for the ball, Dressen began asking him what his plans were for after the game.

“When I got to Yankee Stadium that morning there was a telegram in my locker from a guy in Texas who I’d played with in the minor leagues,” Erskine related in a 2017 interview with the New York Daily News. “It said, ‘Good luck. It’s the fifth game, on the fifth of October and this is your fifth wedding anniversary’. I showed the telegram to our broadcasters, Red Barber and Vince Scully, and Scully took it up to the booth with him.

“Now it’s the fifth inning and I’ve just given up five runs and Dressen’s out there asking me how I feel.”

“’How do you think I feel?’ “ I said to him.

“Dressen says: ‘I know it’s your anniversary. Got any plans for dinner tonight with Betty?' ”

“ ’As a matter of fact I do,’ ” I replied.

“ ’Well, Dressen says, ‘Mize’s was the only ball hit hard off you. Try to get this game over before dark so you don’t have to keep her waiting too late.’ ”

That was it. The reprieved Erskine went on to retire the next 19 batters and the Dodgers won the game on Duke Snider’s RBI double in the 11th inning. Erskine retired the Yankees in order in the bottom of the inning, including Yogi Berra on a game-ending strikeout.

“After that last pitch to Yogi, a curve ball, I looked at my finger and there was a big blister on it,” Erskine said. “I couldn’t have thrown another pitch in that World Series.” As Scully exclaimed in his broadcast after relating the story of the letter Erskine had received, the time on the clock as the game ended was five minutes past five.

“It wasn’t until after the game someone pointed out to me that I’d pitched nine no-hit innings in that game, the first pitcher to ever do that in a World Series,” Erskine said.

During the regular season in ’52, Erskine was 14-6 with a 2.70 ERA for the Dodgers. In his no-hitter against the Cubs, only a four-pitch walk in the third inning to his opposing pitcher, Willard Ramsdell, prevented him from a perfect game. The following year he had his best season, 20-6, and pitched another gem in the World Series.

After a quick kayo in Game 1 of the ’53 World Series, in which he was removed by Dressen having given up four runs in the first inning, Erskine was at least well rested for his Game 3 start three days later. In out-dueling Yankee ace Vic Raschi, 3-2, Erskine turned one of the most dominant starts in World Series history, breaking the 24-year old Series record by striking out 14 batters, including Mickey Mantle and Joe Collins four times each.

“The ’53 season was very unusual for me,” Erskine said. “I was only 5-4 at the All-Star break and Dressen said I was just unlucky. I’d pitched really well but had nothing to show for it. Then I went 15-2 in the second half, the best stretch of pitching in my entire career. I had a bad first inning in Game 1 of the World Series when Billy Martin, who set a Series record for hits, got me for a bases-loaded triple. But Dressen was very re-assuring. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told me, ‘’you’re gonna start Game 3.’ ”

According to Erskine, he had a rush of adrenaline the entire Game 3. When he struck out Don Bollweg on three high fastballs to start the ninth, he looked to see who was coming up, “and it was my old nemesis. Johnny Mize.”

Erskine later heard that Mize, the Hall of Fame slugger who prided himself for his keen batting eye, had been chastising the Yankee hitters the whole game. When Mize was summoned by Yankee manager Casey Stengel to hit for Raschi, he reportedly shouted to the bench, “I’ll show you guys how to hit Erskine.”

He instead became Erskine’s 14th strikeout victim and as he disgustedly came back to the dugout, Billy Martin reportedly said to him: “That’s the way you beat Erskine?”

(The 14 strikeout record was later broken by Koufax with 15 in Game 1 of the ’63 Series and then again by Gibson, with 17 in Game 1 in the ’68 Series.)

Erskine, who retired at age 32 in 1959, later revealed he pitched his entire career with a sore arm, the result of a torn muscle in his shoulder incurred in his very first major league start, against the Cubs, on a cold, damp day in Chicago in 1948. “I struck out Bill Nicholson on a high fastball and I felt this sharp pain in the back of my shoulder,” he said. “But in those days you didn’t dare tell anyone you were hurt. The Dodgers had over 200 pitchers in their minor league system, all looking to take your job. So I kept pitching, periodically taking cortisone shots throughout my career to dull the pain.”

As chronicled in Roger Kahn’s iconic book “The Boys of Summer,” the ‘50s Dodgers were seemingly snake bit against the Yankees in the World Series, save for 1955 when they won their one and only world championship in Brooklyn — and star-crossed with tragedy off the field in the after-careers: Gil Hodges died at 47, Jackie Robinson at 53, Billy Cox at 58; Roy Campanella was paralyzed in an automobile accident in January of 1958; Ralph Branca was forever haunted for giving up the home run to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game; Carl Furillo left baseball a bitter man after suing the Dodgers for releasing him in 1960 while he was on the disabled list. And Erskine dedicated his entire life to raising and caring for his son, Jimmy, who was born with Down syndrome. Despite the advice of many to have Jimmy institutionalized, the Erskines insisted on raising him themselves. Jimmy lived until 2023.

For years afterward, Erskine loved to joke about the unwitting role he had in Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” homer off Branca. Both he and Branca had been warming up in the bullpen when Dressen called down in the ninth inning with two runners on base and the Giants trailing 4-1, and asked his coach, Clyde Sukeforth, which one was ready. “They both are, but Erskine just bounced a curve ball,” Sukeforth reported, prompting Dressen to reply: “OK, send me Branca.”

“Whenever anyone asked me what my best pitch was,” said Erskine, “I always told them it was the curve ball I bounced in the Polo Grounds bullpen in 1951.”

After his retirement, Erskine returned home to Anderson, where, in addition to being a successful businessman as a licensed agent for United Life Insurance Co. and vice chairman of STAR Financial Bank in Indianapolis, he coached the Anderson College baseball team for 12 seasons, winning four Hoosier Conference championships. He was also very active in the Special Olympics because of Jimmy. At the Hall of Fame ceremonies in July 2023, Erskine was honored with the Buck O’Neil Award “for extraordinary efforts to enhance baseball’s positive impact on society.”

He is survived by his wife, Betty, a daughter, Susan, and sons, Gary and Danny.