Peter King

N.Y. baseball, from Carl Erskine to Bartolo Colón


Two recent baseball events caused fond memories to come charging back, while reinforcing the inter-generational hold that New York baseball has on my family.
Baseball has been called America’s national pastime. To New Yorkers of a certain generation, it was our national religion. Growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I was a witness not only to baseball’s Golden Age, but also to the three greatest teams of that age, the Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. From 1947 to 1956, at least one of those teams played in the World Series, and seven of those Fall Classics features two New York teams. The Yankees played in eight, the Dodgers in six and the Giants in two.
I was a fanatical fan of the Dodgers, the famed “Boys of Summer,” and my world crashed when, at the close of the 1957 season, the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles and the Giants left for San Francisco.
Two weekends ago, former Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Carl Erskine received the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to baseball and society. No star player on the Dodgers team of my youth personified class and professionalism more than Erskine, the ace of the pitching staff, a 20-game winner who threw two no-hitters and set a record for strikeouts against the Yankees in the 1953 Series. He also played a major role in standing with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line. (The Lifetime Achievement Award is named for Negro League star Buck O’Neil.)
More than his baseball prowess, however, Erskine’s greatest achievements have been off the field. Since his retirement from baseball in 1959, he has served as a bank president and a college baseball coach in his native Indiana, but most importantly, he has devoted himself to the Special Olympics. Carl’s son Jimmy was born with Down syndrome in 1960, and helping people with the disorder and their families has been Carl’s life cause. He’s now 96, and is the only living member of the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series championship team.

I had always told my son Sean about the Dodgers and their star players — particularly Erskine. In 2008, the Brooklyn Cyclones invited me to be on the field in their Coney Island ballpark when they honored Erskine by retiring his number 17 as a permanent memory of what he has meant to New York baseball. Sean was on the field with me, and he and I had a great conversation with Erskine, who reminisced with us about New York baseball’s Golden Age and what it meant to him to be a part of it. It was a moment Sean and I will always remember.
To me, the Mets were the direct descendants of the Dodgers, rekindling the blue-collar spirit of the Boys of Summer. The Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team. A few days before last month’s Hall of Fame ceremony, the Cyclones held their annual 9/11 Wall of Remembrance ceremony. This year they honored the chaplains of the New York City police and fire departments. I was asked to participate and throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Also taking part was longtime Mets favorite Bartolo Colón, who, in his 40s, had more wins than any Mets pitcher over the course of three seasons during his years with the team from 2014 to 2016.
Colón’s exuberance embodied the spirit and vibrancy of New York baseball. He was also my grandson Jack’s favorite player. When Jack was just 11, he had the chance to meet Colón at the Mets’ spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Colón couldn’t have been more friendly or gracious. Jack, now 19, was also on the field at the recent Cyclones remembrance event, and again enjoyed a friendly meeting with Colón and had his photo taken with him. It was another special New York baseball moment and memory for our family.
Play ball!

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security.