There are people who live in Indiana.
Then, there are people who are true "hoosiers" and who wear that identity proudly.
Then, there are people like Carl Erskine.
Carl Erskine, the last man standing of those Brooklyn Dodgers' fabled "Boys of Summer," is a man who practically sets the definition for what it means to be a hoosier and he's the subject of Ted Green's latest feature doc The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story." The now 95-year-old Erskine was born and raised in Anderson, Indiana and played his entire career from 1948 through 1959 for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, a career that saw Erskine become a pitching mainstay on Dodgers teams that won five National League pennants with a peak in 1953 when he won 20 games and pitched 14 strikeouts in a single World Series game. Erskine pitched two of the National League's seven no-hitters in the 1950's.
Erskine, as is beautifully captured by Green, may have been just as, if not even moreso, impressive off the field. Erskine played a seminal role in two of the major human rights movements of the 20th century. As a teammate of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era, Erskine became known as one of the first to openly welcome him to the team and to, in fact, become a trusted friend throughout Robinson's time in the league.
As personal as this was to Erskine, disability inclusion became an even greater part of Erskine's life with the birth of his son, Jimmy, who was born with Down Syndrome. During a time when people with Down Syndrome and other disabilities were regularly institutionalized, Erskine and his wife Betty became determined to raise Jimmy at home even though at the time IDEA was still years away and there were no real options for schooling or support services.
Instead, the Erskines became relentless advocates for their son and for many others with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They started grass-roots programs, pushed for legislation that ultimately abolished prison-like institutions, and worked tirelessly toward full societal integration for those with disabilities. Erskine became integral to the Special Olympics movement. Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver would fly Carl around the country to give his call to action and Jimmy became an annual presence at Dodgertown.
“Without the Carl Erskines of the world,” said Tim Shriver, Eunice’s son and CEO of Special Olympics International, “we would never know the real power of sport.” Indeed, it's that real power of sport that comes vividly to life in The Best We've Got, a title taken from a declaration made by former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels about Erskine.
Erskine originally had decided that his family would relocate to California once his baseball career ended to pursue professional opportunities, however, once Jimmy was born he knew that he wanted to raise his son around the community that he'd grown up in and surrounded by his friends and family.
So, he did.
It's hard to find a hoosier, and certainly a hoosier within the disability community, who is not familiar with Erskine's many contributions to hoosiers with disabilities. From his legislative push toward increased rights for those with disabilities to his work with what would become Anderson, Indiana's Hopewell Center to the Erskine-Green Training Institute, a Muncie vocational training program owned and operated by Arc of Indiana that honors Erskine's lifelong contributions to those living with disabilities in Indiana and simply wanting a shot at their own good life.
Green weaves together a tapestry of unpublished home movies dating to the 1930s, classic archival baseball footage and more than 40 interviews, including with Shriver, Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Slick Leonard, Mitch Daniels and experts in the evolution of supports for people with disabilities, filmmaker Ted Green captures Carl’s powerful story that is both universal and yet feels undeniably hoosier.
Music by Tyron Cooper complements the narration by Charley Steiner quite nicely and Green's work here is both emotionally resonant and intellectually satisfying. The Best We've Got is the kind of documentary that will likely have you heading to the web to find out more about Carl Erskine and, if you're like me, wondering how this remarkable man isn't in Cooperstown.
The Best We've Got is set to screen at the 31st annual Heartland International Film Festival and will also soon be broadcast locally on WFYI. To further amplify the film's impact, Green has partnered with Special Olympics Indiana in developing the Erskine Personal Impact Curriculum (EPIC), presented by Duke Energy — a set of educational materials for elementary, middle, and high school students. This unique, adaptable curriculum promotes Social and Emotional Learning for every age level, using stories and experiences from Carl’s life to create lessons and activities with themes including empowerment, friendship, inclusion, and leadership. It's one of many ways that Green continues to use his filmmaking career to make the world a better place to live or everyone.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic