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Dodgers Dugout: Remembering Don Newcombe

Dodgers Dugout: Remembering Don Newcombe
Don Newcombe with the Dodgers in 1951. (Associated Press)

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Dodgers Dugout. My name is Houston Mitchell and this entire newsletter is dedicated to Don Newcombe.

Don Newcombe (June 14, 1926 – Feb. 19, 2019)

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Dodger great Don Newcombe died on Tuesday at age 92. It’s difficult to write that. One of the truly great figures in the history of baseball. One of the most important figures in Dodgers history.

Newcombe came to the majors in 1949, becoming only the third African American pitcher in the major leagues, after Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige. He was selected to the All-Star game that year and won rookie of the year honors after going 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA.

He was only 15 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Soon after, he went to the nearest Army recruiting base and lied about his age to enlist. After a couple of days at boot camp, people found out he was only 15 and the Army called his father to come pick him up. A couple of years later, he dropped out of high school to become a pro baseball player in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey saw him and eventually brought him to the Dodgers. He spent three full seasons in the minors, throwing the only no-hitter of his career with triple-A Montreal in 1948, when he went 17-6 with a 3.14 ERA. He was in the majors the next season.

In his first start, he pitched a shutout. He finished second that season in strikeouts to Warren Spahn, who struck out only two more batters than Newcombe while pitching 58 more innings.

He had his best season in 1956, going 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA, becoming the first pitcher to win the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same season. That also made him the first player to win all three major awards. Justin Verlander has since matched that feat.

My favorite Newcombe stat: After he left the majors, he played in Japan for a season, in 1962. He didn’t compete as a pitcher. As a hitter in the majors, Newcombe hit .271 with 33 doubles, 15 homers and 108 RBIs in his career, including an astounding .359 with nine doubles, seven homers and 23 RBIs in 1955. So in Japan, he played first base and the outfield, only pitching in one game. In 81 games as a hitter, he hit .262 with 23 doubles, 12 homers and 43 RBIs.

But as good as he was on the field, it was what he did off the field after his career ended that lifted him into greatness.

While playing, Newcombe was known around the league as a heavy drinker in a sport that had many heavy drinkers. After he was done playing, he didn’t stop drinking and eventually came to realize that he was an alcoholic. He often said he knew he had a problem when his wife threatened to take the kids and leave him after he pawned his 1955 World Series ring to get enough money to buy more alcohol.

Newcombe stopped drinking and began to counsel other athletes who were having alcohol and other substance abuse issues. He started the Dodger Drug and Alcohol Awareness Program in 1980.

To celebrate his sobriety, then Dodgers vice president Peter O’Malley had a surprise for Newcombe. “He brought me into his office and handed me an envelope with the ring [I had pawned,]” Newcombe once said. “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.”

He eventually came to blame his disease for his failure to make the Hall of Fame, telling Danny Peary in “We Played the Game” that “the alcohol took its toll. I think it shortened my major-league career by about six or seven years. I regret that I didn't take better care of myself in the latter part of my career because I would like to have made the Hall of Fame, where I think I belong.”

Maury Wills is one of the players Newcombe helped with substance abuse and once said at an event honoring his fellow Dodger, “I’m standing here with the man who saved my life. He was a channel for God’s love for me 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.”

Clayton Kershaw, after learning of Newcombe’s death: “Any time you lose someone that you’ve known for a little while, it’s a sad thing. But it was a pretty incredible life. Great story. He was a pioneer for a lot of different things in baseball. Just getting to know him over the years, great man. And he’ll be missed for sure.”

Kenley Jansen: “I learned to be a better father to my kids. Better husband. So definitely learned a lot from him.”

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But this quote from Newcombe does a perfect job of summing up what made him great: “What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again — means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”

The Dodgers will wear a patch with the No. 36 this season to honor Newcombe.

And finally

Don Newcombe talks about his career. Watch it here. And read this great appreciation of Newcombe by Bill Plaschke.

Have a comment or something you'd like to see in a future Dodgers newsletter? Email me and follow me on Twitter: @latimeshouston.

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