ANDERSON -- Not long before Johnny Wilson died at the age of 91, he gave a gift to his lifelong friend Carl Erskine. It was a tiny figurine of two little boys, one Black and one white, sitting next to one another, smiling.
"That was you and me," Wilson told Erskine.
That was Wilson and Erskine. At a time when racism ran rampant and segregation ruled in Anderson and the rest of the nation, the two shunned societal forces and became lifelong friends.
In their early days, they walked to school together and shared their deepest secrets. In their high school years, they wowed crowds of thousands on the basketball court at the Wigwam gym. As they grew older, they went to schools and talked to kids about race. They showed what life could be like if you just see one another human to human.
The friendship of Wilson and Erskine will be memorialized with a mural that will debut this spring in downtown Anderson.
The mural was revealed Thursday at the world premiere of "The Best We've Got: The Carl Erskine Story," a film that celebrates Erskine as one of the great human rights champions of his time.
"In the spring of 2023 you will see (Wilson and Erskine) rise on this building in downtown Anderson," said filmmaker Ted Green, who produced the documentary. "We believe this is a portrait of brotherhood and it will light a path ... for generations to come."
'You wanna play?'
Erskine went on to be a World Series-winning pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He has always said his fight for human rights couldn't have happened without Wilson.
The two met as young boys on a basketball court in the 1930s. Erskine was playing with his friends, all white. Wilson walked up. "You wanna play?" Erskine asked.
Wilson said yes. Basketball turned to being friends off the court, best friends.
But as that friendship played out, Erskine had a problem with the way people treated Wilson. When Wilson had to sit in the upper level of the Paramount Theatre because he was Black, Erskine followed him up and sat there, too.
When Wilson wasn't allowed at the public pools in Anderson, Erskine went with Wilson to the pool designated for Blacks.
In the documentary Thursday, Erskine remembered those times, how he just wanted Wilson to be treated like any other person. And he remembered that figurine.
"It was just a Black boy and a white boy."
More from the Carl Erskine world premiere
>> The premiere of Erskine's film was sold out at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday. During the showing, it brought laughs, applause and tears. The VIP reception was decked out like Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played. There were baseball bats, old uniforms, including one Erskine wore when he pitched a no-hitter, and ball field food served, including boxes of Cracker Jack.
>> Before the film was shown, an organist played "Back Home Again in Indiana," a tribute to Erskine and teammate Gil Hodges, also from Indiana. That was the song played when Erskine and Hodges went up to bat.
>> Jody Blankenship, Indiana Historical Society CEO and president, spoke on Erskine. "He used his ability and his platform not only to compete at the highest levels in his sport, but also to fight for civil rights. He embodies the values that all Hoosiers hold dear."
>> Beyond fighting for racial equality, Erskine also has been a fierce advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. His son, Jimmy, was born in 1960 with Down syndrome. Erskine and his wife, Betty, brought Jimmy home when doctors at the time said he should be institutionalized. The Erskines went on to be champions for people with special needs and the Special Olympics.
"Sports opens doors, doors of opportunity and Carl and Betty opened so many doors," said Jeff Mohler, president and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana. "And through opening those doors, you were able to open hearts and minds of communities around the athletes to be more accepting and inclusive of the values that they give. Carl and Betty, on behalf of the Special Olympics, thank you and we love you."
-- Bob Costas appeared in a video message with these words for Erskine:
"I'm just among the many who can claim that they were lucky enough to be acquainted with Carl Erskine. And what you understood upon meeting and interacting with Carl was that this was not just a person who was polite, was gentlemanly, which are fine qualities, you could sense his deep decency," he said. Costas went on to talk about Erksine's great accomplishments in baseball.
"But for the most part, the story of Carl Erskine's life is not one that played out in bold faced headlines," Costas said. "It was a story told softly...but a story that cumulatively speaks to a person who is deeply admirable."
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @Dana Benbow. Reach her via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Carl Erskine: Mural with Johnny Wilson coming to Anderson