Don Newcombe, former Dodger great, dies at 92
Don Newcombe, the intimidating right-handed pitcher who was the first player in major league history to have won rookie-of-the-year, most-valuable-player and Cy Young awards, died Tuesday. He was 92.
Newcombe, who cut short a brilliant baseball career with alcohol abuse then spent much of the rest of his life helping others beat that addiction, died after a prolonged illness, according to his wife, Karen.
Armed with a blazing fastball and excellent control, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Newcombe played mostly for the Brooklyn Dodgers in his 10-year major league career. He posted a 149-90 record with a 3.56 earned-run average and 1,129 strikeouts. And in an era when pitchers were expected to finish what they started, he had 136 complete games in 294 starts.
He also compiled an impressive list of firsts:
He was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and the first, in 1949, to start a World Series game.
He was the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a single season, 1951.
He was the first player, in 1956, to win both the National League most-valuable-player award and the major league Cy Young Award as outstanding pitcher.
At the end of his career, he was the first former major league player to sign a contract to play in Japan.
Strong of arm — St. Louis Cardinals hall of famer Stan Musial called Newcombe’s fastball the most frightening pitch he ever had to face — a young Newcombe once even started both ends of a doubleheader. It was 1950, Newcombe’s second season with the Dodgers, and, after he had shut out the Philadelphia Phillies in the opener, was asked by manager Burt Shotton, “How about pitching the second game?”
So Newcombe, a graduate of the Negro Leagues, where pitchers did that sort of thing, took the ball again and went seven innings in the nightcap. He left on the wrong end of a 2-1 score, but the Dodgers rallied and won, leaving Newcombe with a victory and a no-decision for his 16-inning effort.
Late in the 1951 season, as the fading Dodgers tried to hold off the fast-closing New York Giants in a slam-bang pennant race, Newcombe started three games in the last eight days, winning two of them, then pitched in relief not even 24 hours after having thrown a complete game.
If he hadn’t made the majors as a pitcher, he might have gotten there with his bat. Although he was a natural right-hander, he swung left-handed, and very effectively. He hit better than .300 in four of his 10 seasons, had a .271 career average and 15 home runs, seven of them — still a National League record for pitchers — in 1955, the year he also went 20-5 and the Dodgers won their only World Series in Brooklyn. Not many pitchers are called on to pinch-hit, but Newcombe was one of them.
In Newcombe’s big season, ‘56, he won 27 games, lost only seven and posted a 3.06 ERA.
Then the slide began.
“In 1956, I was the best player in baseball,” Newcombe once said. “Four years later, I was out of the major leagues, and it must have been the drinking. When you’re young, you can handle it. But the older you get, the more it bothers you.”
And Newcombe knew about drinking at a young age. Born June 14, 1926, he grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., with three brothers and a sister. As a pre-teen, after sandlot games, he’d join his father for a few bottles of home brew, his father telling Newcombe’s mother that beer was good for kids, that it made them grow strong.
The postgame beer ritual continued, right along with Newcombe’s rise to fame. He’d have a few brews in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, then often stop for a six-pack to drink on his drive back to Jersey. Sometimes, when his father had been at the game, they’d buy a case for the drive home.
Gradually, Newcombe began substituting hard liquor for beer and, when plane travel became common, stepped that up as well.
“I’d take a bottle with me on the plane,” Newcombe told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1997, admitting that flying terrified him. “Sometimes, I’d come to the park hungover. The only time I didn’t drink was the night before I was supposed to pitch.”
At one point, after he was out of baseball but still in the bottle and needing booze money, he pawned his 1955 World Series ring and an expensive watch at a shop in Watts. The items were later redeemed by Peter O’Malley, then Dodgers vice president, who held them until Newcombe regained sobriety.
“He brought me into his office and handed me an envelope with the ring and the watch,” Newcombe recalled later in The Times. “I had forgotten all about it. 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 turned to Alcoholics Anonymous in 1967, then rejoined the Dodgers in the 1970s, as director of community affairs and in that position delivered speeches on the pitfalls of drinking while helping others address their substance-abuse problems.
Said another former Dodger, Maury Wills, after conquering his own demons, “I’m standing here with the man who saved my life. He was a channel for God’s love ... because he chased me all over Los Angeles, trying to help me. And I just couldn’t understand that, but he persevered, he wouldn’t give in, and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe.”
Newcombe, promoted to special advisor to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt in March 2009, considered his post-baseball work the most significant.
“What I have done after my baseball career, and being able to help people [get] their lives back on track and ... become human beings again, means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”
That takes in a lot of territory, because besides his “baseball” achievements — the pitching, the hitting, the awards — Newcombe had his “pioneer” achievements.
He joined the Dodgers in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s long-standing color barrier, but at one point was considered by Branch Rickey, Dodgers president, as the man to bring color to baseball. Rickey ultimately went with the older, more mature Robinson, sending Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella to the Dodgers’ Class B farm team in Nashua, N.H.
And even that was a second choice. Rickey had wanted to send the pair to Danville, Ill., where the Dodgers had a Class A team in the Three-I League, but the league president threatened to shut it down, rather than allow black ballplayers.
Using a “stairstep” approach, Rickey brought Campanella to the Dodgers in ‘48, the year after Robinson’s debut, then a chafing Newcombe in ’49. Newk promptly showed his readiness by winning 17 games and earning an All-Star game berth with the pennant-winning Dodgers.
Even amid such success, Newcombe, along with Robinson and Campanella, had to put up with the racial taunts of fans and opponents, death threats, the aloofness of some teammates, the substandard hotel and eating accommodations on the road.
In 1954, just back with the Dodgers after having served two years in the Army during the Korean War, Newcombe decided that being a second-class citizen in baseball was no longer good enough. On a trip to St. Louis, where the white players stayed at the elegant Chase Hotel, the black players were booked into a strictly black, non-air-conditioned flophouse.
“Here I’d served my country in the U.S. Army while my team had twice reached the World Series — costing me a lot of money — and I’m not allowed to stay at the same hotel as my white teammates!” Newcombe recalled for the New York Post.
He discussed the situation with Robinson, then the two of them went to the Chase, asking to speak with the manager. They told him they wanted to stay in his hotel, along with the rest of the team.
“Fellas,” the manager said, “you can stay here, but I don’t want you swimming in the pool.”
Sometimes, the victories seem small, but within a few years, baseball — and football and basketball — teams were staying at integrated hotels all over the country. Newcombe liked to tell how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once thanked him — and Robinson, Campanella and the others in the black ballplayer vanguard — for making his fight for equality easier. That happened in Los Angeles as Newcombe hosted the civil rights leader at dinner one night, about a month before King’s assassination in 1968.
Newcombe moved west with the Dodgers in 1958 but had lost his edge by then and, after losing his first six starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in midseason. He finished his big league career with the Cleveland Indians in 1960 then, after a year out of baseball, the Chunichi Dragons, where he spent part of the 1962 season pitching and playing first base and the outfield.
He is survived by his wife Karen Newcombe and three children.
Funeral services are pending, according to the Dodgers.
Kupper is a Times contributing writer
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