Saturday, October 22, 2016

He Threw the Curve

  • They called him L'il Abner, after a popular comic strip character.
  • A blonde-haired Swede, with huge hands, he was a strapping 6' 3" and carried 180+ pounds on his lanky frame.
  • He lived what is many a boy's dream - he played in the "Bigs" - a professional ball player.
  • Although it was more than just "a cup of coffee" (1941-1948), his big league career was rather mediocre according to most standards. Cooperstown will not be calling anytime soon.
  • BUT ... his claim to fame was that he was on the mound at venerable Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, PA on that fateful day of September 28, 1945 when the Cubs clinched the pennant, and he threw the pitch, a curve ball, that punched the Cubs ticket to the World Series.
  • His name was Paul Walford Erickson.
  • He came from small-town Zion, Illinois - the only Zionite ever to make it to the big time.
  • AND, he's part of our family history - the brother of my Aunt Estella Erickson Dolan!

Here's the story.

Paul Erickson was born on December 14, 1915 in Zion, one of 10 children of Lewis and Bertha Paulson Erickson. They lived and grew up in the big house on the northeast corner of Elim Avenue and Shiloh Blvd. The impressive house is still there. There were 5 boys, all athletes, and six girls. One of his sisters, Estella, married my uncle, Ernie Dolan.

The right-hand pitcher who wasn't a bad hitter either was one of baseball's "war years" players of the 1940s. And he was a "fireballer" with a long stride and sweeping motion - his fastball they said "left his hand like a shell from the battleship Missouri where the Japanese had surrendered earlier in the month." One of his catchers back in the day in Zion said he had to wear sponges in his mitt because Paul threw so hard. If there was a problem, it was that he threw as many balls as strikes, which made him a feared opponent. A Chicago sportswriter commented "he rattled hitters with his wildness," and during the winter off-season "he rattled the bottles as a Chicago milkman." Paul himself remembered a game in the minor league which he won and knocked the opposing team out of the league lead by striking out 18. "I also walked 12 or 13" he laughed, "so you can see it was a busy evening." It was this wild streak that may have limited Paul Erickson's potential stardom.

My boys Aaron and Jeff will appreciate this - and pay attention grandson Isaiah Schaser! Back in his boyhood days in Zion, Paul Erickson didn't exactly have big league star potential, and most would have laughed at the thought, Paul included. He hardly competed in sports at all because he was too small. His brother John commented that "he was so small the coaches wouldn't even look at him." He himself chuckled about this, "When I entered high school (Waukegan then, since Zion didn't have a high school yet) I was only about that high, as he gestured with his tremendous hand. About 5 foot. I wasn't much bigger in my senior year, when I suddenly started to shoot up in the air. By the end of that year I was close to 6', but so awkward I couldn't have played in any sport without being my own biggest handicap."

That changed. He overcame the clumsiness and adjusted to his newly acquired height and bulk. He tried catcher, played both infield and outfield, but it was his ability to throw a baseball hard that eventually took him to that hill 60 feet 6 inches from home plate.
Paul Erickson bottom row 2nd from right
My Uncle Ernie Dolan bottom center next to Paul, and cousin Axel Dolan in back row between them.
He played for various local teams in Zion like the Zion Merchants and Johnson Motors, and then made his way through the minor league circuit. It was a St. Louis Cardinal scout who spotted him first in a game in Half Day, IL, saw him pitch and wanted to sign him. But Paul asked for a tryout with the Cubs who wasted little time in signing him. Paul said, "I think it was Bill Veeck's father that signed me." That was in 1936. He played for the Cubs farm team in Ponca City, St. Joseph, MO, the Los Angeles Angels (then a Triple A team), the old Triple A Milwaukee Brewers, and Indianapolis under White Sox legend, Al Lopez. He became the strikeout king of the Western Association. It was while he was with the Cubs Tulsa team that he developed into a potential star.

According to sportswriter Eddie Gold of the Chicago Sun-Times Paul got the nickname in the minor leagues, from Al Capp's hillbilly comic strip character (look it up.)The team bus had a flat tire and there was no jack. Erickson lifted the bumper off the ground to help fix the tire. Or so the story goes.

But it was in 1945 when the star shone the brightest. It's Cub's lore, and I'm disappointed it doesn't get more attention today. It was the clincher! It was mid-way through the '45 season and the Cubs were in first place with a 71/2 game lead. By the time September rolled around it was down to a game and a half. They went into Pittsburgh on the last weekend of the season needing to win just one game to clinch. A sacrifice fly from center-fielder Andy Pafko gave the Cubs a lead in the top of the ninth, but the Pirates had last raps.

Starting pitcher Hank Borowy left the game in the bottom of the ninth with one out and and men on first and second. They brought in a left reliever, Bob Chipman, who got a ground out, but runners advanced to second and third. The stage was set for Chicago Cub and Dolan family history to be made. It's the bottom of the 9th - two ducks on the pond -  two out - the Cubs had a one run lead. Manager Charlie Grimm gambled big-time making the bullpen call for the often wild Paul Erickson. With the count 0-1 he threw a wild fastball - Pirate pinch hitter Tommy O'Brian ducked out of the way, but the ball his bat for a foul-ball strike two. Another fastball to punch him out was a sure thing, right? That's what Tommy O'Brian thought too. But as the Chicago Tribune headline reported, "Erickson Threw the Curve." O'Brian could only watch as the sweeping "Uncle Charlie," "Sir Charles," wicked curve ball dropped in for a called strike three, and the Cubs uncorked the champagne! "That pitch clinched the pennant for the Cubs, something that no thrown or batted ball has done in the (71) years since."

The Cubs lost the series in four games to Detroit. Paul pitched as a reliever in all four of the games, but a world series ring was not to be. "Pitching beat us" Paul said. "They had such hurlers as Dizzy Trout." But they still had that exciting and memorable day in Pittsburgh. In 1977 Chicago Daily News sportswriter,  George Vass wrote, "Boys have graduated from high school, attended college, gotten jobs, married, reared children, put them through school, and become fat, prosperous and middle-aged since the Cubs last won a pennant." And now in 2016 there are few Cub fans who were even born when Paul Erickson threw that pitch. But "that golden moment and the succeeding, disappointing World Series against the Detroit Tigers, nevertheless remain fresh in the memories of those who won the Cubs last pennant. Call them the 'Men of Autumn' rather than 'the Boys of Summer', because for the most part they were an aging crew, veterans and jumped-up minor leaguers, not physically suited for the demands of uniformed service in World War II. But they were a good team, and they won the last pennant flown over Wrigley Field.

In 1948 after the Cubs traded him to the Phillies, the Chicago Sun-Times had an article about why "the fireballing Swede never attained stardom. Roy Johnson, the coach who was with Paul both in the minors and with the Cubs gave a four part answer to that question. "1) He was scared to death out there; 2) he lacked pitching smartness, 3) he was brought up to the majors too quickly, and 4) (This is interesting) he was handicapped by playing in home-town territory cluttered by relatives and friends." The article went on to explain the "being scared" comment. It "wasn't belittling his physical prowess...since "we had seen him battle two guys at once in the stands a couple of years ago and had heard other tales of his fighting prowess." Coach Johnson said, "...If I were picking anybody, I'd want him on my side. I saw him get mad down in Texas League once and he was trowing guys around like they were paper bags." He went on to say that rather, "He's always afraid that he'll throw it in the wrong place or that somebody will hit the hell out of the ball. As a result he gets himself in a hole, slows down a bit as he comes down the alley with it and blooie...I told him many a time that with the weapon he's got with that fastball of his, the hitters ought to be scarred...He doesn't know the art of pitching...he tries to be smart and makes all sorts of mistakes, throws sidearm to left-handed batters and everything else...and that would be all right too, if he'd just content himself with blowing that ball in there." It was the feeling of some that if Paul only would have had the chance to have a big year in the minors before being brought up, he would have been better. But in 1940, manager Jimmie Wilson was so impressed with the way he fired the ball in there, they kept him on the major league team. "I knew in the minors that he wasn't ready. Finally, It was said that no manager wanted a hometown boy on his team. Too many distractions. "Just moving to Philadelphia might help Paul. I hope it does. He was always a likable fellow."

But like many before and after him. Paul Erickson's arm went bad and he lost his stuff. He finished up playing for the Phillies, New York Giants and Pittsburgh. He retired to Fond du Lac, WI where he did some scouting for the Braves, and even had a one month stint as the manager of the Appleton Foxes. He lived out his life in Fond du Lac and was retired from W.J. Woodruff Roofing Company. He and his wife Margaret had three children, who until later on didn't know he was a big leaguer and had helped clinch a National League pennant. Paul Erickson died at the age of 86 on April 5, 2002. He is laid to rest at the Shrine of Rest Mausoleum in Fond du Lac.
Paul and Margaret Erickson
Like the Cubs in September of 1945, on this day in October 2016, the Northsiders find themselves one win away from the Fall Classic. Time will only tell if the 71 year Wold Series drought will come to an end this weekend. Whether they do it or don't, I think its a good time remember that day when the baseball world (and Pirate Tommy O'Brian) were shocked when "Erickson threw the curve."

1976 in Zion on Eschol Ave
John, Carol, and Sarah Dolan, Uncle Ernie Dolan, Dad Harry Dolan
and Paul Erickson

One of my prized possessions is one of Paul Erickson's ball mitts. Don't know if it is the one he used in September of '45 - but it is special! Paul gave it to his brother-in-law and my Uncle Ernie Dolan. Ernie loved baseball too, and was a pretty darn good pitcher himself  (he also had a tryout and met the famous Dizzy Dean). Every once in a while, Ernie would show me the glove when I went over to their house on Eschol Ave. in Zion. And my Uncle Ernie took good care of me - took me to my first Cubs game at Wrigley and later he would take me once a summer to Milwaukee to watch the the White Sox play. After my beloved Milwaukee Braves (Ernie would say, "'dem Bums from  Milwaukee") broke my heart and moved to Altlanta, the Cubs would play a few games in Milwaukee. And finally - I don't remember when - Uncle Ernie gave the glove to me. (He knew!) I will always treasure it. I keep a baseball in it, still take it out and pound the pocket a few times, and think about how at one time long ago that glove was on the hand of a big leaguer - which is as close as I would ever get.
The Glove was Paul Erickson's
(The ball is mine - diving catch over two rows of bleachers in the '90s at old Country Stadium)


  1. Ha! We all remember the "catch" at County Stadium. Luckily you didn't kill yourself 🙄

  2. I never knew there was such a story behind that mitt! Pretty cool! And I giggled about the catch at County Stadium. :) His hands are humongous on those pictures!!