Every November when awards season comes around, the honors bestowed upon players go without saying: We get two Rookies of the Year, two Cy Youngs and two MVPs. But of course, all history begins somewhere, and the newest of these three player awards is the Cy Young.
It was first awarded in 1956 (66 years ago Sunday) to the sport’s most outstanding pitcher – singular, because there were not two awards, but one per league, until 1967. The first recipient was the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe, who won MVP honors that year in the NL, as well. The late Newcombe ushered in a new era of annual pitcher appreciation. What did it take to get to that point?
A New Jersey native, Newcombe’s father, Roland, would often take his sons to Ruppert Stadium in Newark, where two professional teams played: the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles and the Triple-A Newark Bears. Newcombe recalled later in life his awareness and appreciation of Satchel Paige, one of the Negro Leagues’ many legends – and a fellow pitcher.
As a high schooler, Newcombe played for a semi-professional team because his school did not have a team. The righty, listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds during his playing days, was already an impressive presence by the age of 17, and when he met Abe and Effa Manley, owners of the Eagles, in 1944, that made an impact and got him a spot in the team’s training camp in Virginia.
Negro Leagues career
Newcombe dropped out of high school that year to become a professional player, forgoing the remainder of his junior year and anything beyond. He debuted on May 14, 1944, as a reliever at the same stadium he’d visited in the 1930s as a kid with his father and brothers: Ruppert Stadium.
According to the Seamheads database, he pitched in nine games for the Eagles in ‘44 and seven in ‘45. One of those games in ‘44 included a faceoff with future Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella, who at the time was on the Baltimore Elite Giants. The young hurler was instructed to knock Campanella down, but, according to Newcombe, he missed with the pitch and the catcher went yard.
After the 1945 season, Newcombe, Campanella and others were part of an exhibition series between white Major Leaguers and Negro Leaguers – with the sport still not yet integrated at the MLB level. Both the pitcher and catcher impressed Branch Rickey to the point of being considered for the next wave of integration, after Jackie Robinson. With that, Rickey sought to bring both into the Dodgers’ organization, ending Newcombe’s brief Negro Leagues career.
Minors with the Dodgers
Entering the 1946 season, the Dodgers found a Minor League team in their organization open to rostering Newcombe and Campanella. After the league president in charge of the Three-I League, which housed the Danville Dodgers, refused, they were sent to the New England League’s Nashua Dodgers.
Much has been made of the preparation Rickey gave Robinson for the racism he would face in Minor and Major League Baseball, but he did not do the same for Newcombe or Campanella. Robinson met with them in New York and discussed what they would face, and Newcombe said later that they kept in touch with him throughout the season.
"I still am bitter to a large degree, but then I think about what Jackie Robinson once told me," Newcombe said in 2005. "He said, 'You've got to change one letter in that word. Change the "i" to an "e." Forget about bitter, try to make things better.' ''
In Nashua, the pitcher-and-catcher duo was managed by Walter Alston, in a player-manager role. Newcombe threw 155 innings across 26 games, 19 of them starts, with a 2.21 ERA, while also hitting .311 and slugging .541 in 84 plate appearances. The bond with Campanella continued to grow, too, as the five-years-older catcher often steadied the hurler.
After 1947 Spring Training in Havana, Cuba, Newcombe was sent back to Nashua, while Campanella moved up to Triple-A Montreal and Robinson prepared for his MLB debut. Newcombe threw 223 innings to the tune of a 2.91 ERA, earning a 1948 promotion to Montreal, where he continued to succeed. That year, Campanella made his Dodgers debut.
After ‘49 Spring Training, Newcombe expected to be promoted to the Dodgers, but was sent to Montreal again. Frustrated, he went home before eventually returning to Montreal. As the Dodgers struggled in May, it was finally time for Newcombe’s callup.
He debuted on May 20 in relief at the Cardinals, then made his first start two days later at the Reds, spinning a five-hit shutout. He was an All-Star as a rookie, part of the trio of first Black All-Stars along with Campanella and Robinson.
In 244 1/3 innings in his rookie year, he had a 3.17 ERA, five shutouts – tied for the NL lead – and 149 strikeouts, just four shy of MLB leader Virgil Trucks’ total. He won Rookie of the Year honors in the award’s third year of existence. His strength at the MLB level showed quickly: He was an All-Star in each of his first three seasons and received MVP votes in each, as well. He led the Majors in strikeouts with 164 in 1951. In ‘51, he won 20 games for the first time, becoming the first "Black Ace," a term later coined by Mudcat Grant for Black pitchers who post a 20-win season.
In 1952, Newcombe began two years of mandatory military service in the Korean War. Upon his return in 1954 he struggled a bit, but by 1955 he was his old self, with a 3.20 ERA and 143 strikeouts, and was an All-Star yet again.
After the legendary Cy Young passed away in 1955, a new award was minted in his honor, beginning with the 1956 season. The purpose was to honor the sport’s most outstanding pitcher across both leagues. And in ‘56, Newcombe was dominant yet again, with a 3.06 ERA, 139 strikeouts and an MLB-leading 27 wins.
In November, he was named the NL’s Most Valuable Player, beating out teammate and fellow pitcher Sal Maglie.
“It comes as a surprise to me,” he said at the time. “I didn’t think I was going to get it. I was sort of hoping I would win the Cy Young Memorial Award.”
The Cy Young had yet to be announced at that point. A week later, Newcombe officially completed the sweep, becoming the first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award. A photo of him jumping for joy on his lawn when he found out accompanied AP stories of his victory in newspapers nationwide.
For years, Newcombe was the only player to win Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young in his career. Justin Verlander joined him in 2011, but, as with being a Cy Young winner, Newcombe will always have the mark of being the first.