Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2019

A Hero On And Off The Field

They are almost all gone now. Jackie, the pioneer, eaten up by the enormous burden of being so, died three months shy of his fifty-fourth birthday. Others lived longer, but now, more than seven decades removed from that April day when Jack Roosevelt Robinson first took his position on a major league diamond, time has claimed almost all the men who turned the lily-white national pastime into a game that looked like America.

There were sixteen black ballplayers who, team by team, broke baseball’s color barrier. Hank Thompson did so twice, in the summer of 1947 for the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles), and again two seasons later for the New York Giants; while the Cincinnati Reds had not one but two black players in their lineup for an early season contest against Milwaukee in 1954. Of that number only the Cincinnati duo of Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, along with Ossie Virgil and Pumpsie Green, who integrated Detroit and Boston, the two teams that proved to be the last bastions for segregationists, are alive today. Gone too are so many others in what’s best described as the first wave of the integration of baseball. To that list this week was added the name of Don Newcombe, who died at the age of ninety-two.

Newcombe became the third African-American player on Brooklyn’s 1949 roster, joining Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella in May of that year. He was also the third black pitcher in the majors, after Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige. But during a decade in the majors and in his life after the Great Game Newcombe came in first in so many ways.

A month shy of his twenty-third birthday, Newcombe debuted with the Dodgers in May of that year, after three seasons in Brooklyn’s farm system. He was an immediate sensation, as reflected in the numbers of his rookie campaign. A record of 17-8, a league-leading five shutouts, and at one point thirty-two consecutive scoreless innings were all instrumental in the Dodgers’ march to the National League title. That fall Brooklyn lost the World Series to their bitter cross-town rivals from the Bronx, four games to one. Newcombe was tagged for two of the losses, but in Game 1 he pitched magnificently, tossing a complete game five-hitter and striking out seven, before yielding a walk-off solo home run to Tommy Heinrich in the bottom of the 9th for the game’s only run.

Voted the Rookie of the Year in 1949, Newcombe proved that he was no flash in the pan by winning nineteen games the following year and then posting a record of 20-9 in 1951, becoming the first black twenty-game winner. After losing two full seasons to military service during the Korean War, Newcombe turned in two more twenty-win years, going 20-5 in 1955, when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series, and 27-7 in 1956. In that long-ago age before pitch counts and situational relievers, thirty-five of Newcombe’s forty-seven victories over those two seasons were complete games. He was the NL leader in winning percentage both years while also posting the lowest WHIP. In 1956 Newcombe surrendered 219 hits and just 46 walks over 268 innings, a miniscule 0.989 walks or hits per inning pitched.

That season baseball commissioner Ford Frick commissioned the Cy Young Award in honor of the all-time leader in career wins, who had passed away the previous year. While a decade later the award would be divided, with one winner in both leagues, initially the Baseball Writers Association voters elected just a single winner. Newcombe was the runaway winner of that first Cy Young Award, and he also topped the balloting for the National League’s MVP honor. In the decades since only nine other pitchers have scored the double honor in the same season, and only fourteen other African-American hurlers have recorded twenty-win campaigns.

Yet even at the peak of his career Newcombe harbored an ill-kept secret that would shortly sap his abilities. He had grown up “in a drinking family,” as he later described it, recalling drinking beer in a bar at the age of fifteen while listening to radio reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He drank heavily throughout his playing days, and after that epic 1956 season his career quickly went into a steep decline. He never came close to another twenty-win season, in fact Newcombe only once more managed to post a winning record, in 1959 when he went 13-8 with the Reds. One season later his major league career was done.

Yet what had all the makings of a sad tale of decline and dissolution in fact had a far happier end note. In 1965 Newcombe had descended to such depths that he pawned his World Series ring to sustain his drinking habit. But less than a year later, faced with an ultimatum from his wife, he foreswore liquor and began a slow but steady climb back into society. Eventually he became an active speaker for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and helped many current and former baseball players struggling with substance abuse, including Maury Wills, Bob Welch, and Steve Howe.

He also rejoined the Dodgers organization and served for decades in a variety of roles, mentoring young players and helping the team with community outreach. With the same strength of will that he had displayed on the mound at Ebbets Field, Newcombe first saved himself, then many others. As he went about doing so, he was rewarded in ways both personal and symbolic. On the day he was hired as the Dodgers director of community relations, Peter O’Malley, son of the owner who had moved the team from Brooklyn to L.A., called Newcombe into his office. O’Malley had learned about Newcombe’s pawning of his World Series ring and had managed to purchase it. In that office in Los Angeles, a continent away from Flatbush, O’Malley returned the ring to its rightful owner.

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Responses

  1. A true hero and a great story of redemption.
    Ω


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