Shortly after my book “42 Faith” about Jackie Robinson’s life was published two springs ago, I was riding high with elation — until I received a phone call that left me feeling downright queasy.
On the other line of the phone was Carl Erskine, a wonderful man who pitched for the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and it was not his fault I was suddenly racked with anxiety.
It’s just that Erskine, now well into his 90s, is one of Robinson’s last living teammates. Erskine had the guts to be one of the first white players to stand up and defend Jackie at a time when others were denigrating the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Jackie died far too young in 1972, when I was just an infant, so as an author I was worried about the verdict from Erskine about whether I succeeded in doing Robinson’s awesome legacy at least a tiny measure of justice in the book.
As the famed historian Ken Burns told me recently in an exclusive interview for a new documentary being released Monday by Fox Nation, it is difficult to comprehend just how much grace Robinson demonstrated under the most extreme pressure.
“Jackie was somehow able to understand what he represented and the fact that his whole life of fighting back had to be supplemented in favor of what this would mean if he was a success,” Burns told me. “He's in under a microscope. He's living in a glass house. Everybody is looking at his every word, his every gesture, his every deed.”
Erskine is a critical link to all of that because he saw up close what I believe to be the key ingredient that enabled Robinson to persevere over all of the discrimination. Robinson and Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers who had the guts to sign Jackie to the contract, were both Christians with a deep faith in God who knew all about the virtue of turning the other cheek.
Erskine recounts the details of the dramatic first meeting between Robinson and Rickey in the new Fox Nation documentary, “42 Faith,” timed for release on Jackie Robinson Day, when every current ballplayer in the big leagues wears Jackie’s number 42 to honor the hero.
“Mr. Rickey said to him, ‘Jackie if there's a fight on the field I got no question you will win it,’” recounted Erskine. “‘You’re quicker, you're faster, you're stronger but are you strong enough not to fight?’”
Fox’s Juan Williams, who has written several terrific books about the civil rights struggle, adds in that documentary that Rickey carefully chose Robinson to be the first black player because he had compiled careful scouting reports about Jackie’s core as a man, not just his skills as a ballplayer.
Erskine had agreed to an interview over a modest breakfast at the local IHOP. In other words, if my book was not so hot this plain-spoken man from the Midwest would not hesitate to tell me so!
“Because he understands that if people are coming into second [base] with their spikes up intending to cut him, he wants a man of character, Jackie Robinson who's not going to retaliate, but who understands he just has to get his foot on the bag and get out of the way more quickly and leave the field,” said Williams. “That [Robinson] understands that when people in the stands are shouting epithets at him that it's not his business to start shouting epithets back at the stands because that will just prompt race riots.”
That brings me back to my 2017 phone call with Erskine, where I was concerned about whether I had been able to capture the gravity of all that in my book.
Adding to my angst was the fact that Erskine is a genuine article. After making it big as one of the vaunted “Boys of Summer,” the pitcher never forgot where he came from. When he was done playing in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, he moved back to his hometown of tiny Anderson, Indiana.
That was the very place where I had met Erskine when I was in the middle of my initial research. He had agreed to an interview over a modest breakfast at the local IHOP. In other words, if my book was not so hot this plain-spoken man from the Midwest would not hesitate to tell me so!
I cleared my throat and hesitated as I delivered my own pitch to this hurler who had thrown two no-hitters in his career: “What did you think when you read ‘42 Faith’?”
To my delight, Erskine said he loved it. “You really nailed it,” he said in his typically sunny tone.
I breathed a sigh of relief as Erskine added, “You had everything in there — I mean you had that bit about my own very first meeting with Rickey that was so critical.”
“Yes,” I said calmly to Erskine. “Rickey called you in and asked you whether you went to church every week and you were surprised by the question but told him yes and he said that was good because Rickey believed any person who did that — whether a teacher or a truck driver or a ballplayer — would have a ‘quiet confidence’ about him. It is such a key part of the book.”
“Well uh — but that was not the key thing he said in that meeting,” Erskine said matter of factly.
My heart sank. Had I recounted the meeting all wrong in the book?
“Um the book has already been published Carl,” I stammered. “I thought that is what Rickey told you.”
“Oh yes, Rickey said all that,” Erskine said as I exhaled. “It’s just that the next thing he said was most critical.”
I gulped. At least I got the key story right, and Erskine felt like the overall narrative about Robinson was right on target, but what on Earth had I missed?
“After I talked about that quiet confidence, Rickey pulled out a baseball,” recalled Erskine. “And he said, ‘Carl, you see those red stitches on the ball? That’s your faith. It’s what keeps you together.’”
I was stunned, and tears welled up in my eyes as I heard the passion in Erskine’s voice about the divinity he believes there was in Rickey’s signing of Robinson. Maybe Erskine had simply forgotten to recount that part in our initial conversation years ago. I am just glad he remembered a simple moment of clarity that helped guide this beautiful documentary you can now see on Fox Nation.