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Newcombe's '56 season one for the ages

Big right-hander captured first-ever Cy Young, along with NL MVP
MLB.com @LyleMSpencer

For baseball historians, 1956 is largely remembered as Mickey Mantle's greatest season. Winning the Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 home runs and 130 RBIs, The Mick was the unanimous American League Most Valuable Player Award winner.

But Yankee Stadium wasn't the only New York ballpark that was roaring that summer.

For baseball historians, 1956 is largely remembered as Mickey Mantle's greatest season. Winning the Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 home runs and 130 RBIs, The Mick was the unanimous American League Most Valuable Player Award winner.

But Yankee Stadium wasn't the only New York ballpark that was roaring that summer.

In Brooklyn, Dodgers fans were celebrating a pennant-winning powerhouse featuring the National League MVP Award winner, Don Newcombe. Big Newk was 27-7 with 18 complete games and a 3.06 ERA in 268 innings. He was a threat at the plate as well, a .271 career hitter with 15 homers, 108 RBIs in 878 at-bats and a .705 OPS.

The Cy Young Award debuted in 1956, covering both leagues. It went to Newcombe, who drew 10 of the 16 first-place votes. Few pitchers have ever had a season better than Big Newk did that year, when he was in his prime at age 30. Sal Maglie, Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn followed him in the balloting.

Video: Newcombe remembers teammate Robinson

On the 60th anniversary of his selection as the first Cy Young Award winner, Newcombe remains in the Dodgers organization in community relations, visible at Dodger Stadium sharing his wisdom with a new generation. Contemporaries remember him with awe in their voices.

"Newk was a ballplayer, an athlete," Al Downing, the first African-American pitcher to flourish for the Yankees, said. "He was the standard-bearer. He made it fashionable, gave young black kids the inspiration to pitch. A guy like Bob Gibson was a great athlete, a basketball player, but he looked at Newk and said, 'I can do that at the highest level.'

"When I was a kid growing up in [Trenton] New Jersey, there were three players we followed religiously -- Newk, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. They were all Jersey guys. The Negro Leagues were still strong, and Satchel Paige was the pitcher getting all the attention. Satch made it to the big leagues in '48 with Cleveland, but he was an old guy by then.

"Newk was the Rookie of the Year in '49. He was bigger than everybody else -- a big dude. He had that big windup and was a power pitcher. Newk was something to watch, a real force."

Newcombe was born in Madison, N.J., on June 14, 1926. After one season with the Negro League Newark Eagles, he signed with the Dodgers in 1946, along with Roy Campanella.

After three Minor League seasons, Newk emerged -- full force at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- in 1949 at age 23. Going 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA in 244 1/3 innings, he was eighth in the NL MVP Award balloting while claiming the Rookie of the Year Award.

Before Justin Verlander was the AL MVP Award winner and AL Cy Young Award winner in 2011 to go with his 2006 AL Rookie of the Year Award, Newcombe was the only man to have the distinction of winning all three awards.

"I had that honor for 55 years," Newcombe said. "It was about time someone else did it. It's good to have a partner."

Video: SEA@LAD: Newcombe on MLK's admiration for Jackie

While 1956 found Newcombe at his zenith, '55 was equally memorable. Brooklyn rocked as never before with its first World Series championship, Newk going 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA while leading the league in WHIP and strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

Newcombe also had gone 20-9 in 1951 with a strikeout title but was deprived of win No. 21 -- and a trip to the World Series -- when Bobby Thomson and the rival Giants seized the historic third playoff game in the Polo Grounds.

Newcombe made it to the ninth with a three-run lead before handing the ball to Ralph Branca, who saw Thomson launch the "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Newcombe lost two peak seasons, at ages 26 and 27, to military service during the Korean War in 1952 and '53. He finished his 10-year career with a 149-90 record and 3.56 ERA, never getting close to election to the Hall of Fame.

Video: Don Newcombe on his favorite Jackie Robinson memories

When a longtime friend maintained recently that he belonged with the legends in Cooperstown, N.Y., for his impact on the game as well as his dominance, Newcombe shook his head and said, "No, I was done at 33. I have only myself to blame for that.

"What I have done after my baseball career -- being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track so they become productive human beings again -- that means more to me than all the things I did in baseball."

Downing was 15 in 1956 and made his Yankees debut five years later, going 72-57 with a 3.23 ERA in nine seasons in pinstripes. Downing disagrees with his old friend's assessment of his own Cooperstown worthiness.

"Newk was a consummate pitcher," said Downing, a 20-game winner with the 1971 Dodgers. "It's different now, guys playing 15, 20 years. When Newk was playing, your frontline starters were expected to go nine [innings]. They weren't protected. He'd pitch three times in a week if necessary. He was all about winning.

"He should be there, in the Hall, for what he represented to so many young African-American ballplayers -- and for what he meant to the game. Newk was an all-time great."

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Los Angeles Dodgers