Lately our Black notables are departing the earthly plane faster than our pages and resources can give them their due. Last week we lost Dodger ace Don Newcombe, whose remarkable career has often been overshadowed by his teammate Jackie Robinson’s barrier breaking moment in 1947.
Newcombe, a big right-handed pitcher with a sonic busting fastball and wicked curve, arrived in the Major Leagues in 1949, and was rookie of the year (17-8 won-lost record with a 3.17 ERA) and also selected to the All-Star game. He was the third African-American pitcher in the Majors, preceded by Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige.
Born on June 14, 1926, in Madison, N.J., Newcombe was raised in Elizabeth and attended Jefferson High School there. His father was a chauffeur, providing for a family of six. Since there was no baseball team at his high school, Newcombe played semi-professional baseball, eventually joining the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League in 1944 and 1945.
But even before starring on the diamond, Newcombe, at 15, having lied about his age, enlisted in the Army in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He had spent but a couple of days in basic training before his age was disclosed and the Army contacted his father to take him home. Unable to serve his country, he devoted most of his time and energy to becoming a baseball player.
After a successful stint in the Negro Leagues, Newcombe—an imposing physical specimen over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds—was signed to a Brooklyn Dodger contract by Branch Rickey, who had recruited and signed Robinson. The same pitching skills that made him practically unhittable in the Negro Leagues continued during his three seasons in the minors, where as a starter with the triple-A Montreal team he compiled a record of 17-6, including the only no-hit game of his career.
A year later, in 1949, he left the farm team and joined Robinson in Brooklyn, and continued to chalk up fantastic numbers. His debut in the Majors featured a shutout performance, and over the course of the season, he was second only to Warren Spahn in total strikeouts, even though he pitched far fewer innings. His next two seasons were equally productive, and in 1951 he had the league in strikeouts.
Despite his impressive mound performances the 1951 season is best remembered by Bobby Thomson’s homerun in the playoff game between the Dodgers and the Giants. Newcombe started that game but was relieved by Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning. Branca delivered the pitch and blast heard around the world, as some reporters wrote, thereby giving the Giants the National League pennant.
Following this disappointment, Newcombe spent two mandatory years in the military during the Korean War. It took him a couple of seasons to return to top form, leading the team to its first World Series victory in 1955.
Less memorable was Newcombe’s performance in the 1956 World Series when he gave up two homeruns to Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, leading the team to a 9-0 victory. Although his record that season was perhaps his most impressive (he won the Cy Young and MVP awards, along with the earlier rookie of the year award, something not matched until Justin Verlander), the press savaged Newcombe and he took such an exception to the notion that he choked.
“Bob Feller never won a World Series game, either, but nobody said he choked,” Newcombe told The Plain-Dealer of Cleveland in 1997. “Ted Williams and DiMaggio had bad World Series, but nobody said they choked. But they said it about me.” These comments typified the contentious relationship he had with the press. “I wasn’t the nicest guy in the world,” he said. “My attitude told them I didn’t care what they wrote.”
The Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles did not portend well for Newcombe. He had a deplorable record of 0-9 and was eventually traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Steve Bilko and other players during the season. With the Reds he posted a 24-21 record before his contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians in the middle of 1960. At the end of the season, finishing with 2-3 marks, he was released and that ended his Major League career. His precipitous decline was abetted by his alcoholism, something he finally had to admit.
Newcombe’s decade in the Majors culminated with a record of 149 victories and 90 losses. He had 1,129 strikeouts; 136 complete games; 24 shutouts and a total of 2,154 innings; and an overall 3.56 ERA. He was a pretty decent hitter, highlighted by his belting of seven home runs during the 1955 season. His batting average of .271 is the ninth best among pitchers in the Majors. And it should be noted that he stole eight bases, hit three triples and 33 doubles, so he was no slouch on the base path.
In fact, when he signed with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League in the spring of 1962, he played one season; he only pitched one game, and was primarily an outfielder and first baseman. His prowess as a hitter was clearly in evidence during the 81 games, hitting .261, with 12 homeruns and 43 runs batted in.
His feats on the diamond were extraordinary, but many believe he could have even been better had he curbed his intake of alcohol. That indulgence apparently increased once he was no longer in uniform. Things got so bad that his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t stop and seek treatment. He confessed that he was an alcoholic, which may have been the source of his abusive behavior to his family. When he pawned his 1955 World Series ring to buy alcohol, he knew something had to be done.
The threats from his wife proved effective and he stopped drinking and became actively involved in helping others with the same dependency, launching the Dodger Drug and Alcohol Awareness Program in 1980.
One very poignant moment occurred when Dodger Vice President Peter O’Malley surprised Newcombe with the ring he had pawned. “I had forgotten all about it,” he said. “When I opened the envelope, I cried like a baby. That’s how alcohol took a big, strong body to the depths of despair.”
Newcombe, who helped so many others to a life of sobriety, including former Dodger great Maury Wills, believed that his alcoholism not only shortened his career but also kept him from earning a place in the Hall of Fame. He may not have received that highest acclaim, but many remember how influential he was in helping them avoid the pitfalls he faced.
Newcombe was 92 when he died Feb. 19 and during the coming season Dodger players will wear a patch of No. 36 to honor him.