The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum continues to celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues, and MLB.com’s Bill Ladson has written a series of articles on some of the league’s legends. Today, the focus is on right-hander Don Newcombe.
Don Newcombe lived a long life. Ninety-two years to be exact. “Newk,” as he was affectionately known during his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a guy who was never afraid to show his emotions -- happy or sad.
A perfect example just might be the 2012 New York Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s dinner. Newcombe was a hoot that night, making fun of himself and roasting then-Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander. The two had a lot in common. At the time, Newcombe and Verlander were the only pitchers to win a Cy Young and MVP award in the same season. Newcombe accomplished the feat in 1956; Verlander won both awards 55 years later. (In 2014, Clayton Kershaw also accomplished the feat.)
Newcombe was honored that the BBWAA invited him to the dinner in New York to roast Verlander.
“Justin is going to look out for me because we are partners now,” Newcombe said at the dinner. “We are the only two. Remember, I’m 85 years old. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. Somebody has to carry this on.”
Newcombe’s best season was in 1956, but he had one hell of a career on the diamond and was one of the best pitchers in Dodgers history. He was the first African American pitcher to appear in a World Series game. In the ’49 Fall Classic, Newcombe appeared in two games against the Yankees, but lost both after allowing four runs in 11 2/3 innings. That season, he won National League Rookie of the Year honors. After missing two years of action because of military service (1952-53), Newcombe came back to the big leagues and didn’t skip a beat, recording 20-win seasons in 1955 and ’56.
Before all that, however, Newcombe’s baseball career started as a 17-year-old in the Negro Leagues for the Newark Eagles in 1944. As young as he was, Newcombe was not overmatched. During his two years with Newark, Newcombe had a 2.96 ERA and struck out 125 batters in 239 2/3 innings, according to Seamheads.com's Negro Leagues Database.
“He is an important figure because he played at the height of Negro Leagues Baseball. It was difficult for the Negro Leagues to lose a guy of his magnitude,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “I remember when I first met him, the thing that struck me was how big he was. He was an imposing figure. You get the impression of what he was on the mound and why he was dominant.”
Newcombe succeeded despite the racism that surrounded him during his baseball career. Often emotional when talking about the racism he faced, Newcombe often credited Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 and paving the way for others to follow.
If one listened to Newcombe, one would have thought Robinson went through the abuse alone, but like many of the African Americans who played baseball during 1940s and ’50s, Newcombe faced the same discrimination.
“I really don’t know how he survived and performed the way he performed on the baseball field, going through all of these things,” Newcombe told Ken Burns in a documentary about Robinson. “It was wrong. They wanted you to be like they wanted you to be. And we were not going to be like they wanted you to be. We were going to be like we wanted to be, because someone owed us something and they owed it mostly to Jackie Robinson.”
Newcombe often talked about not being able to stay with his teammates at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, but he and Robinson became the first African Americans to reside at the hotel after talking to the hotel manager in 1954. After integrating the hotel, Newcombe called Giants legend Willie Mays and told him what he and Robinson accomplished. It turns out Mays and the Giants were headed to St. Louis the following week.
“I told him what we did, and [Mays] said, ‘You guys are great. You are great.’ I said, ‘That was the only time you said anything great about me, Mays,’” Newcombe told Los Angeles reporter Doug Kriegel in 2015.
During his 10 years in the big leagues, Newcombe won 149 games and helped the Dodgers win three pennants and one World Series title (1955). Newcombe also helped himself at the plate. He could hit for power and was often used as a pinch-hitter. Newcombe’s best year at the plate was in ‘56, when he hit a career-high .359 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs.
Newcombe’s career was not the same after 1956. In fact, he bounced around, playing for three professional teams, including a stint with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan’s Central League. Alcohol played a role in his baseball decline, but Newcombe overcame his addiction and helped numerous people with their battles with substance abuse.
He would later become an employee for the Dodgers. That lasted over 40 years, starting as the first director of community relations before becoming a special adviser to the chairman.
“He was not only the ambassador to Brooklyn, but he was the social conscience of the Dodgers,” Mark Langill, Dodgers historian, said about Newcombe. “You can read all the history books you want. You can claim to know Dodgers history, but this was a man who was in the Negro Leagues, [went through a lot in the Major Leagues], served in the military and came back to the big leagues. He really was the social conscience, because for the longest time, it was Newcombe. He was the ambassador. He was the one who could put it in perspective, as far as what things were really like.”
Newcombe passed away in February 2019 after a lengthy illness.