The integration of Major League Baseball, so heroically carried by Jackie Robinson and ingeniously engineered by Branch Rickey, occupied one spring and summer season in 1947.
The boys of summer occupied the baseball seasons of the early 1950s, the boys being the stellar lineup of Brooklyn Dodgers who would win the World Series in 1955. Among them was pitcher Carl Erskine, a teammate of Robinson’s, whom I interviewed for my column.
“The Boys of Summer” is the title of Roger Kahn’s seminal, beloved baseball book, the one he wrote 20 years after spending the long golden seasons with the team.
The part you don’t hear is the rest of the line from the Dylan Thomas poem: “The boys of summer in their ruin.”
Carl Erskine is no ruin even now. He’s active in local civic matters in Indiana, and he came to Pasadena in 2008 to ride a Rose Parade float to celebrate the Dodgers’ 50th anniversary in Los Angeles. Kahn, he said, “is a talented writer, and all you writers have this gift of seeing beyond the words to the passion, the feeling behind the scene.”
The boys had hung up their heroes’ uniforms when Kahn came calling again 25 years later, Erskine recalled, “so he saw us in our ruin, in our aging time, where [Gil] Hodges had heart trouble, and died from it. Clem Labine was struggling with his son [a Marine who had lost a leg in the Vietnam War].”
Kahn also visited Erskine in his hometown, where he found a fit and well-adjusted man with four kids -- the youngest, Jimmy, with Down syndrome. “In those days the medical term for Jimmy was ‘Mongoloid.’ That is a harsh term and a reflection of the culture of the time.” Erskine himself later wrote a book, “The Parallel,” about how Robinson’s groundbreaking career toppled barriers for “different” Americans, including Erskine’s son.
As for the book “The Boys of Summer,” it regularly places among the top books about baseball, but not everyone thought so when it was published in 1972. “Mr. Walter O’Malley, who [then] owned the Dodgers, felt Roger had branded this team as snake-bit, because he went back into [our] lives when [we] were dealing with real-life problems that everybody else has,” Erskine said. “I always thought it was a slice of life.”
“Yes, we were gifted to play baseball, but we also lived the lives that we were given, and the circumstances we were put in just like everybody else.”
The run-up to those glory days has been brought back to vivid, virtual life onscreen with the film “42.” Most of its events happened before Erskine joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, but when he saw the movie, there, astoundingly, was Ebbets Field as he remembers it -- he can even see his old locker.
And as for Harrison Ford, who plays the formidable Branch Rickey, Erskine -- a man who knows a lot about trophies -- says with conviction, “He’ll get the Academy Award.”