Not everyone was a happy camper
The “ramshackle condition” of the living quarters at the former Navy base that the Dodgers converted to a spring-training home in Vero Beach in 1948 wasn’t the most onerous issue confronting the African American players whom the club had begun signing out of the Negro leagues, Don Newcombe said.
Florida’s segregation policies and the restrictions Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson encountered a year after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 were so distasteful, Newcombe said, that 60 years later, “I have no good memories of Vero.”
“You have no idea how difficult it was,” he said. “I don’t even know if I care to put it into words. It was just very disparaging the way we were treated because all we wanted to do was play baseball.
“We certainly couldn’t go into Vero to eat or get a haircut. If we wanted to get a haircut off the base we had to go into Gifford, a little black town six or seven miles from Vero, and we had to walk along the railroad tracks or U.S. 1 because we didn’t have a car and we weren’t about to hitch a ride.
“The three of us, me, Jackie, Roy, talked a lot about it and there was nothing we could do. We were there to try to do a job, and if we didn’t do the job, especially Jackie, we just would never get a chance again with 600 or 700 players in those camps.”
Robinson set it out for them, according to Newcombe.
“Jackie always said, ‘We’re bitter now but one day we’re going to change one letter, we’re going to change the “i” to “e” and things are going to get better.’ He would say that ‘the only way it’s going to get better is if we make it better, so we’re going to have to endure all this, take it because we can’t fight back, and just go out and be the best we can be.’ And we got our chance, and Jackie set the stage. He knew what we had to go through and we knew what he went through.”
Campanella made his major league debut in 1948, Newcombe the next year.
In time, then-Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley -- “He was sensitive to the situation and reacted to it,” his son, Peter O’Malley, said -- put a movie theater on the base, built a nine-hole golf course next to Holman Stadium so that African American players and others would have a recreational outlet (he would later build an 18-hole course) and provided Jim Gilliam with a car so he could drive players to Gifford or other black communities.
Maury Wills, a close friend of Newcombe’s, was reached in Dodgertown and said: “I came here in 1951 and was here long enough to see the world change, people change, and I’ve been here long enough that I’ve got some lifelong friends in Vero of all ethnicities. I’m really going to miss Vero. We’re all different people, different mind frames, and I’ve let a lot of things go. I rejoice in seeing the changes.”
Newcombe has found it tougher to let go. He said he has returned to Vero only twice in the 50 years since the Dodgers traded him in 1958, despite his long attachment to the club’s community relations department.
“I appreciate the fact that [Frank and Jamie McCourt] are going to move to Arizona,” he said. “I know there have been a lot of changes in Vero Beach, but my sense is that there’s still a lot of animosity and racism there, it’s just more subtle now. I don’t know if the McCourts will run into it in Arizona, but at least they’ll be out of Vero, out of Florida.”