This is Part 2 of a series of interviews with Brooklyn Dodger great Carl Erskine about his experiences playing with the storied franchise. Erskine appeared recently in New York on behalf of the Bob Feller Museum and was kind enough to grant us access to produce this series of vignettes regarding his career.
The late Branch Rickey earned the reputation as a shrewd negotiator, rarely ever budging during talks of raises or bonuses. It makes the story even more impressive that Carl Erskine was able to squeeze two signing bonuses out of the fabled Dodger General Manager. In Erskine’s book, Tales from the Dodger Dugout, Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean called Mr. Rickey, “The cheapest man who ever lived.”
Erskine was only 18 years old when he entered the Navy straight from high school in Anderson, Ind. After only one month in the service, Erskine was scheduled to go off to Japan. A twist of fate altered his plans to go overseas.
“While I was in boot camp, the bombs were dropping in Japan, so my orders to go out on a carrier which we were ready to do after four weeks. Can you imagine that? Take an 18-year-old high school kid, give him four weeks of boot training and send him to war!” Erskine remarked. Just as they were about to leave, their trip came to a sudden stop.
“We were ready to leave on a carrier, they halted us and said, ‘The war is winding down, orders were changed.’ They sent me to the Boston Navy Yard. I went there and stayed through the rest of my Navy time.”
It was his placement in Boston that set the scene for Erskine to persuade Rickey for his first bonus. “While I was in Boston in the Navy, I was pitching for a town team, a semi-pro team and the guy that managed that team, his name was [Ernie] Sorgi. He was a scout for the Braves. He took me in to workout with the Braves. Billy Southworth was their manager. He put his arm around the first day I threw. He said, ‘Son, I want you back.’ The Braves tried to sign me,” he said. News traveled quickly to the Dodgers brass about the Braves interest in Erskine. “It was the All-Star game in 1946 and Mr. Rickey learned about [the offer]. … Mr. Rickey had me come up to his suite in the Kenmore Hotel, the night before the All-Star game.” The following exchange occurred between Erskine and Rickey.
“He said, ‘I understand the Braves are trying to sign you.’
I said, ‘Yes sir, but I really want to play for the Dodgers.’
He said, ‘The Braves offered you some money?’
I said, ‘Yes sir.’
He said, ‘I don’t care how much. How much do you want?’
I told him ‘$3,300.’ Mr. Rickey, I think he knew that the Braves offered me twenty-five [hundred].
Mr. Rickey said, ‘Why don’t we make it 3,500?’ He upped me $500. And, so I got this bonus.”
Rickey jumped the gun signing Erskine before the end of his military service, which was against the rules during World War II. His attempt to steer Erskine away from the Braves wound up having unforeseen financial consequences. “There was a directive by the commissioner. For a major league club to sign a player, he had to have completed his military responsibilities,” said Erskine. Not knowing this, he accepted Rickey’s offer and after his discharge he reported to Class-B Danville.
“A few weeks later, I got discharged. I went out and joined Danville, Ill., which was in the Three-I league, Class-B in those days. The season was about over. I was there through the last few days of the season. When I got home, Commissioner [Happy] Chandler called me and said, ‘I want you and your dad in my office.’” At only 19, Erskine was taken aback by the commissioner’s request.
“He said, ‘Son, I’m declaring you a free agent because the Dodgers signed you were signed before you were discharged.’ The Braves blew the whistle,” said Erskine. This blew any chance the Braves had to acquire Erskine and set the stage for another chance at a bonus payment from the Dodgers. This time, Erskine raised the stakes for Rickey, to which he happily obliged. “A lot of clubs were offering me money … I said, ‘If Mr. Rickey will pay me another $5,000, I’ll resign with the Dodgers.’ I did, [for] which I’ve always been thankful.”
Special thanks also goes to the promoters of JP Sports’ East Coast National Show for accomodating us during Mr. Erskine’s appearance.