Filmmaker hopes Erskine documentary enlightens public on special-needs community

Nov. 1—Some Terre Hauteans may not realize the deep connection Carl Erskine and his son Jimmy felt for this city.

Yet, those who've experienced the Indiana Special Olympics summer games — an event born and conducted annually on the Indiana State University campus since 1971 — fully understand. They probably saw Carl Erskine, a pitching great for the 1940s and '50s Dodgers teams, cheering on his son Jimmy, as well as all the other competitors.

"They were a fixture in Terre Haute for a half-century, lifting people up," filmmaker Ted Green said of the Erskine family, which includes Carl, his wife Betty, Jimmy and his three siblings.

Carl Erskine had just retired from a spectacular career with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960, when Betty gave birth to Jimmy, their youngest child. He was born with Down syndrome.

Defying recommendations by hospital staff, Carl and Betty not only opted against institutionalizing Jimmy, common in that era, they brought him home and included their son in everyday life. They networked with fellow parents of special needs kids to push for opportunities, like attending schools and participating in sports.

The birth of the Indiana Special Olympics opened that chance for Jimmy Erskine, and his high-profile father's support shined a light on that breakthrough.

Likewise, Ted Green hopes his new documentary, "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story," enlightens viewers about folks with special needs. A screening of Green's film is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the downtown Terre Haute Convention Center. (Tickets are $10 per person and available online at https://bit.ly/3FzvWGQ or at the convention center's administrative office until 5 p.m. Wednesday.)

The film highlights the life of Erskine, who at age 95 is the last surviving member of the Dodgers' first world championship team in 1955. It depicts Erskine's friendship with pioneering teammate Jackie Robinson, as well as boyhood friend Johnny Wilson, defying entrenched racial boundaries of the time. Green includes footage of Erskine's exploits, which include two no-hitters, appearances in five World Series and the '55 title season.

But "The Best We've Got" also illuminates Erskine's love for his son, and his determination to let him experience a full life.

"A lot of people come into [the film] thinking they're going to see a baseball film," Green said Tuesday morning at a downtown Terre Haute coffeeshop. Those with that expectation "will be happy with what they see," he added.

"But then Carl will take them into a world they've never really seen before — the special-needs community," Green said.

In a phone interview with the Tribune-Star last month, Erskine

The Erskines affected "major social change" for special needs people in Indiana, Green said, by quietly walking alongside fellow families. A state once known for its horrid treatment of intellectually disable people has since become a national leader in that regard, driven by families such as the Erskines, Green said.

"I hope that people walk out of this film, quite like they did with ["Eva: A-7063] — flabbergasted at what this one family did," he said, referencing his 2018 documentary on late Terre Haute Holocaust survivor Eva Kor.

As Green spoke Tuesday about the project, his wife, Jenny — the recently retired sports editor of the Indianapolis Star — sat with him, listening. The new film's expansive look at Erskine's life impresses her. "It's the perfect sports story, because it's a story about people, not stats," she said.

There haven't been many dry eyes in the theaters where it's been shown, Jenny Green added.

The Greens attended Betty Erskine's 94th birthday celebration in Anderson, where the couple still lives. "They're just genuinely nice people," Jenny Green said.

Her 55-year-old husband's earlier documentaries detailed the lives of Hoosier icons such as Kor, Terre Haute native and Indiana Pacers coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard, college basketball legend John Wooden, Pacers star Roger Brown and others. "The Best We've Got" took two years to complete, and Ted Green acknowledges the Erskines displayed great patience in granting him so much time, while in their 90s.

"It's been the greatest two years of education for me," said Green, who moved to Indianapolis in 2001 from Florida, where he and Jenny met while working for the Miami Herald and raised a family.

The Erskines' efforts to give special needs kids better lives in Indiana affected their neighbors. Green described the moment when Jimmy finally got the chance to attend school, and Carl and Betty put him on a school bus for the first time.

"The bus pulls away, and there's Carl and Betty tearing up," Green said.

Then the Erskines notice their neighbors watching from their front porches, cheering Carl, Betty and Jimmy.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.