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BENNER: Erskine shows us why he's a Hoosier gem -- twice

March 6, 2010

For an 83-year-old former pitcher, Carl Erskine can really hit it out of the park.

On March 2, he did just that. Not once, but twice.

The first time he figuratively cleared the fences was in a moving, gracious and selfless acceptance speech upon receiving the state of Indiana’s highest individual award, the Sachem, from Gov. Mitch Daniels during a Statehouse ceremony.

The second came an hour or so later when, at the conclusion of a luncheon in his honor in the governor’s office, Erskine pulled out his ever-ready harmonica and spun a wonderful rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana”.

It gave this old Hoosier goose bumps, is all it did.

For those of you who somehow don’t know—perhaps you’re under 50 and you moved here recently from Nome, Alaska—Erskine is not from Anderson, Indiana. He is Anderson, Indiana.

In fact, he’s Indiana, period.

“A question that we’re all asked from time to time is, ‘What the heck is a Hoosier?’” Daniels said. “Well, you can tell them that it’s this man—Carl Erskine.”

Yes, there is that matter of his time spent away from Indiana during his career as a Major League Baseball player for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, where he won 122 games in a 12-year career, threw two no-hitters and starred in the Boys of Summer’s 1955 World Series victory.

But, as Daniels pointed out, “we would give this award to this man even if he had never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues.”

As background, the Sachem was an award conceived by former Gov. Ed Whitcomb. According to the literature, it’s a term taken from the Algonquin tribes who applied it to leaders displaying grace, wisdom and judgment.

Whitcomb bestowed a few Sachems during his administration, but when he left office, the award disappeared.

Daniels decided to re-elevate the Sachem to the truly elite among Hoosierdom, awarding but one per year. The first went to the Indiana Gold Standard: former Purdue all-American and UCLA coaching legend John Wooden. The next went to former University of Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. Next was New Harmony philanthropist and preservationist Jane Blaffer Owen, followed by Grammy award winners Bill and Gloria Gaither from Alexandria and New Castle resident and Indianapolis businessman Danny Danielson.

And now, fittingly, Erskine.

During the ceremony, ever-eloquent Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick drew parallels among Wooden, Hesburgh and Erskine in terms of service, loyalty, integrity and justice.

In terms of the last characteristic, Swarbrick pointed to Erskine’s defense of and unyielding friendship with his Dodger teammate, Jackie Robinson, when Robinson shattered Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

But fighting against biases became far more personal to Erskine and his wife, Betty, when their son, Jimmy, was born with Down syndrome. Fifty years ago, the first thought was to institutionalize such children. Not with the Erskines.

“At the hospital Betty said, ‘He goes home with us’ … and he did,” Erskine said.

That eventually led the Erskines to another passion, Special Olympics. As Jimmy competed, Carl and Betty became tireless advocates for those with intellectual disabilities. As with Robinson and the color barrier, Erskine saw this as another opportunity to “change the way America sees each other,” he said.

Jimmy Erskine, by the way, still competes in Special Olympics Indiana events.He’s also been a productive employee at an Anderson restaurant for years. Forty years ago, who would have thought? Carl and Betty Erskine were among those who dared to dream of a different life for their son, then set about to make it possible.

Thus, during the ceremony, Erskine displayed his World Series ring. But then he pulled one of Jimmy’s Special Olympics gold medals out of his pocket and asked, “Which is the greater achievement?”

Grace, wisdom, justice. Carl Erskine. Hoosier.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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