Dodgertown Memories

Carl Erskine


Kay and Walter O’Malley visit with Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine and team captain Pee Wee Reese from their seats in Holman Stadium at Dodgertown.

One of baseball’s truly talented and great gentlemen, Carl Erskine made a name for himself on the mound for the Dodgers, winning 122 games, pitching in five World Series and throwing two no-hitters. Erskine also set a single-game record (since broken) of 14 strikeouts against the New York Yankees in the 1953 World Series. The 5-foot-10 right-hander nicknamed “Oisk” from Anderson, Indiana made his Dodger debut on July 25, 1948 and pitched his final game on June 4, 1959. Erskine had the honor of being named starting pitcher for two historic Dodger events: the first game at Dodgertown’s Holman Stadium, when it was dedicated on March 11, 1953 and the first game in Los Angeles at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on April 18, 1958. He won both games. Erskine pitched in the 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956 World Series, a total of 11 games, ranking him 10th on the all-time Series appearance list. Off the field, Erskine has enjoyed a remarkably successful career, first in the insurance business and later as President of Star Financial Bank (1982-93). In 1979, Erskine’s achievements were recognized as he was inducted into the Indiana National Baseball Hall of Fame. Erskine also is known for playing a “mean” harmonica, having performed our national anthem at Dodger Stadium. In recent years, he has penned two entertaining and acclaimed books: “Tales from the Dodger Dugout” and “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson.” He was the subject of a 2022 PBS documentary in Indiana, “The Best We’ve Got, The Carl Erskine Story”. His two Dodger no-hitters came against the Chicago Cubs in 1952 and the New York Giants in 1956. 

I just had one year in the minor leagues and they sent me to Cuba for winter league experience in ’47-48. That spring in 1948 is when I came to Spring Training at Vero. I was a very young player at that time, probably 20 years old. I started at Dodgertown on the Double-A Ft. Worth roster. Dodgertown was an old Naval Air Station and we had the original facilities, the wooden barracks and the mess hall when it was closed after World War II. I had heard that Mr. (Branch) Rickey had made some kind of a one dollar a year deal with Vero Beach. We lived in the barracks and it was a heady kind of an experience because, only in my second year, they had the names of the major league players on the roster on the doors of one of the barracks. I just remember three of them so significantly – Branca, Barney and Banta, three hard-throwing right-hand pitchers that had already made the club and I hadn’t made the club yet, so I was just awestruck to be down there in Spring Training that year. The facility itself was isolated from the town and none of us minor league guys had cars. It wasn’t a real tight building -- crowded barracks, double bunks, a lot of noise, wind blowing. I think rain would blow in once in a while on a windy, rainy night. But, it was the excitement of Spring Training and being a part of that. It was such a memory to me.

“And then looking back after many, many years, there is a very significant thing about Vero Beach and Dodgertown. The Dodgers in Brooklyn, which I played 10 seasons in Brooklyn, and then we moved, of course in 1958, to Los Angeles and it was a whole different atmosphere, everything, the city, the culture was all so different than Brooklyn had been. The significance is this: the one constant over 60 years has been Vero Beach and Dodgertown. That never changed. Oh, they have added new facilities and they have done all that. But, the workout fields, the pitching mounds are the same. All the great stars from 1948 through the rest of Brooklyn Dodger history and all of the stars up to this day, the L.A. part of the history, have all trained at Dodgertown.

“In the 60 years, that is the one constant that has linked the Brooklyn Dodgers with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Peter (O’Malley), I think, did something unique where franchises have moved. He’s kept the whole history together and part of that’s been possible because of Dodgertown. Peter was a youngster around the clubhouse in Brooklyn. He saw the historical significance of these two cities.

“It never changed and even when it was announced in ’57, that was our last year, nothing seemed any different because Spring Training in ’58 was just exactly the way it always had been. We went back to the same place, we played the same teams in Spring Training. We played in Holman Stadium. Everything was the same. Only when we boarded the plane at the airfield in Vero Beach, which was the Dodger plane and instead of playing our way north against the Braves or someone, as we always had done – we’d leave Vero Beach and go to Jacksonville and over to Mobile, maybe New Orleans, up to Atlanta, Nashville, playing our way north with another team – we didn’t do that. We boarded the plane and flew across country and landed in San Francisco, where we actually had the Opening Day there with Frisco first. And that’s when the whole team realized that era was absolutely gone, the Brooklyn era was closed. Everything from then on, we opened the season in Seals Stadium, a minor league park, and the crowds were different, the whole culture changed. That’s when we really felt the change, but not before that. Everything through the Spring Training time, nothing was any different.

“(The first game at Holman Stadium in 1953) I don’t remember what the score was even. I guess what people can’t realize those years we were on one-year contracts and you really kind of had to remake the team every year. I mean, you really didn’t have a blank check. I was coming off a pretty good season in ’52. I really kind of established myself. I had come into the league in ’48, had a little arm trouble the first couple of years and had to go back and forth to the minors a couple of times and then in 1950, ’51 and ’52, I was just really beginning to be recognized. I pitched a no-hitter in ’52 and that made me feel like I was finally settled into a starting assignment. In ’53 Spring Training, I was still a young pitcher, probably 25, maybe you didn’t feel all that secure. The Dodgers had almost 800 players under contract and about 200 of them were pitchers. You couldn’t falter much. I think my focus would have been like most of the players, Spring Training was a time that you kind of reestablish yourself. As a starting pitcher, I don’t know if this is a written goal of anybody’s, but if you have the strongest Spring Training, then you are almost certainly going to be the Opening Day pitcher for this coming season. That was sort of a badge of honor that if you had that kind of a spring and your manager selected you to pitch the opener, that was a mark of real prestige to get that done. I think when I’m pitching in that game, maybe the opening of the stadium and all of the other hype wasn’t as important to me personally as trying to make a good impression again in a spring game that would more or less solidify my spot as a starting pitcher. I don’t remember if I pitched a complete game or just a part of it; that escapes me too. Oftentimes in the spring, we didn’t pitch a complete game unless it was near the end of Spring Training and you were wanting to reach the point where you could finally go nine (innings). I do remember this; that over the many, many years after that the Dodgers always took the third base dugout as the home team, but Opening Day, the original Opening Day there, we were on the first base side. I don’t know when that changed and I do remember that we were on the first base side in that inaugural game. It’s the closest side to the clubhouse. I don’t know what the reason was there. I recall that clearly. The home movie that I’ve got, whoever took that for me, pitching and then hitting, was taken from the first base side. I fished (in the heart-shaped lake) many times. I had two young sons, probably five and seven years old, who would come over and play on the pier and I could see them there as I was working out at various points around it – over in the batting cages or some of those areas, I could watch my kids. I always remember how I thought to myself how lucky I am being in the major leagues and having those two fine young kids there. I’m not familiar with a lot of other training camps, but to this day I still do fantasy camps for the Dodgers so I’m down there on the same fields and same mounds and Dodgertown has always been very open to the fans. They could walk around through the complex and watch workouts and watch intrasquad games, go over to Holman Stadium, whatever. It’s just a kind of open atmosphere and I think that’s magic about the tourists who come to Spring Training. They are very close to players, they are very respectful – they know you are busy and they don’t really hammer on you for autographs when you are in the middle of workouts – but that’s one of the things.

“What I remember about Walter (O’Malley) was he had this bent towards engineering. I’ve always marveled at this stadium which I thought was uniquely built, because when he built the lake, it was not to build a lake, that was just a result of getting the earth that he moved and shaped around where the stands were built. My understanding was that the stands were built on these mounds of dirt that he had shaped, taken out of what became the lake, and shaped them around the perimeter behind home plate to build a stadium. That always fascinated me. That was such a unique, common-sense idea to me that Mr. O’Malley did that. I really had some very deep respect for him in terms of his business acumen and his unique way of building that stadium. Then, of course, once he built the stadium and acquired some additional acreage maybe, he built a golf course. And then, he became very fascinated with the game itself. The golf cart that was made for him, had the roof that was a Dodger cap. He was in that (cart) all the time after that. You’d see him moving around the camp in his golf cart and he also found a manufacturer to make a golf ball with (baseball) stitches on them that looked like a tiny baseball. Those were really fascinating things. He was really hooked on golf and so I remember Mr. O’Malley often in spring being on his golf cart, not only on the course but around the rest of the area. I played the (Dodger) Pines course many, many times and it was a first-class golf course. It had one unique hole on it. The third hole was a par six with a big dogleg, I mean a 90-degree, left and it took a tee shot of at least 300 yards to make the turn. So, most of us tried to play to the right off the tee and then cut the corner, which is out-of-bounds if you went too far left. I can remember that from the back tee it was over 700 yards. I don’t remember what the yardage was like they had maybe two or three tee stations, but the back tee station had the yardage, I think it was 742.

“As I mentioned, we do fantasy camps and we held a fantasy camp in November and then the last one was to be the first week in February ’08. They had so many sign-ups and over-sold these camps, so they’ve decided to have back-to-back camps in February, one in late January and the first week of February. We’ve never done that before, but because there is such a heavy sign-up because they presume that this will be the last time that Dodgertown will be available for fantasy camps. My high school has been replaced, Ebbets Field has been replaced, my goodness if they replace Dodgertown, I keep losing these significant places in my life. But, the Dodgertown experience for me was where I made the big leagues and where I had my best years in the big leagues was training at Dodgertown.

“Now, I have a son Jimmy who’s Down syndrome. It will be the hardest thing to convince Jimmy that we are not going back to Dodgertown any more for fantasy camp. That will be a hard one for him to understand. He’s become kind of a fixture down there and he just looks forward every year to his chance in the final game when the staff plays against the campers and he waits through the whole game – he has a uniform which (Tommy) Lasorda gave him some years ago – and he waits for his turn at bat. The last thing that happens that day after the whole game is over is he goes to the plate, I take a couple of balls out and toss them and let him take a swing. He hits the ball and runs the bases and slides into home plate. About half the campers stay out there to greet Jimmy coming in. I’ll tell you, that’s his World Series, All-Star Game and the whole thing rolled into one. For Jimmy, he’ll finally understand, I guess, but it won’t be easy for him to know why don’t we go back to Dodgertown.”

Carl Erskine