Remembering Don Newcombe

By Brent Shyer

Don Newcombe once said that he wanted to be remembered for the work he did in helping people following his baseball career, rather than the accomplishments he attained on the field. The baseball world today mourns the loss of one of the true pioneers of the game, who aided in the advancement of the civil rights movement, and a man who frequently spoke and counseled others about the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse. Newcombe passed in Los Angeles at age 92.

“Don Newcombe traveled a long and winding road through life and achieved so much,” said Peter O’Malley, President, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1970-1998. “By winning the three major baseball awards, Don’s success as a player is well-documented. In 1970, I am grateful that we provided him an opportunity to lead baseball’s first Community Relations department. He was the perfect choice to speak to young people and others about his career and how to avoid the pitfalls. Many were guided in the right direction from Don’s story and encouragement.”

(L-R) Don Newcombe; pitcher Sho Horiuchi; Dodger pitching coach Joe Becker; catcher Shigeru Fujio.

(L-R) Don Newcombe; pitcher Sho Horiuchi; Dodger pitching coach Joe Becker; catcher Shigeru Fujio. Don Newcombe shows a grip for one of his pitches to two Tokyo Yomiuri Giants players in 1957 Spring Training, as the Dodgers invited the two players along with the Giants’ Manager Shigeru Mizuhara to learn the Dodger way of playing baseball at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, FL.

Former Dodger star shortstop Maury Wills once said of Newcombe, “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.”

Along with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, Newcombe helped to make history, integrating minor and Major League Baseball in its early stages. In 1944, at age 17, Newcombe signed to pitch for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues. By 1946, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder played an integral role in integrating the Class B Nashua Dodgers of the New England League, along with catcher Roy Campanella.

At the same time, first baseman Jackie Robinson was integrating the International League with the Montreal Royals, making the trio of Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe the first African Americans in baseball’s minor leagues. When Dodger President Branch Rickey tried to place Newcombe and Campanella at the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Danville, Illinois, the Three I League threatened to shut down if African American players were sent there. Rickey had to find a place that would accept them and Nashua in the New England League did.

While Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball for the Dodgers in 1947, Newcombe and Campanella followed the American hero not far behind. Campanella arrived in 1948 to play for the Dodgers and Newcombe made his debut May 20, 1949. Major challenges on and off the field were prevalent in the form of death threats, Jim Crow laws, staying at separate hotels from his teammates and insults. But, the trio let their actions speak louder than hurtful words.

An imposing figure on the mound, Newcombe was named 1949 Rookie of the Year, winning 17 games for the Dodgers. In fact, in six of his first seven major league seasons, he had double digits in wins. Newcombe was a three-time 20 game winner. He was named to the National League All-Star team on four occasions, including his rookie season.

  • Don Newcombe holds the double honors presented to him in 1956 with the Cy Young Award in his right arm and the 1956 National League Most Valuable Player Award.
  • (L-R) Don Newcombe; Dodger Vice President Buzzie Bavasi. Don Newcombe, the ace of the Brooklyn Dodger staff and Dodger Vice President Buzzie Bavasi both try to estimate Newcombe’s win total for the coming season with Bavasi pointing to a hope of 20 wins.
  • (L-R) Don Newcombe; Duke Snider.
  • Walter O’Malley and Don Newcombe smile while shaking hands.

Newcombe always spoke about hosting a 1968 dinner for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just 28 days before Dr. King’s assassination. At Newcombe’s home in Los Angeles, Dr. King told him, “Don, you’ll never know how easy you and Jackie (Robinson) and (Larry) Doby (the first African American player in the American League) and Campy (Roy Campanella) made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.

“Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billyclubs, bitten by dogs, and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier.”

In the Dodgers’ eight seasons that Newcombe played for them (1949-1956), they played in five World Series and won their first World Championship in 1955. Newcombe won 20 games and hit a National League record for a pitcher with 7 home runs to help the Dodgers finally beat the New York Yankees, their longtime rivals, in the 1955 World Series. Then, in 1956, Newcombe had a career year, as he went 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 268 innings pitched. That earned Newcombe the Cy Young Award and National League MVP honors. In 10 seasons, he won 149 games. The New Jersey native amassed 1,129 career strikeouts, 136 complete games and 24 shutouts. His career was interrupted in 1952-1953 when he served the U.S. military in the Korean War.

For 55 years, Newcombe was the only player in baseball history to have won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award and league MVP honors, until Detroit’s Justin Verlander repeated the triumvirate in 2011.

Besides these accomplishments, Newcombe is one of a handful of major league pitchers who started both games of a doubleheader. In 1949 against the New York Yankees, he was the first African American pitcher to start a World Series game (Game 1) and he became just the second rookie pitcher to start a World Series game. Maybe inspired by his friend Jackie Robinson, Newcombe also achieved a straight steal of home on May 26, 1955 after hitting a ninth inning triple. He batted .300 or better in five seasons.

Newcombe received numerous honors from Major League Baseball, the City of Los Angeles, the State of California and the President of the United States for his message of encouragement to youth and volunteer work. On April 19, 2010, President Obama spoke at a fundraiser for California Sen. Barbara Boxer and referred to Newcombe as “someone who helped…America become what it is. I would not be here if it were not for Jackie (Robinson) and if it were not for Don Newcombe.”

Former Dodger pitcher Bob Welch, who struggled during his career with alcoholism, credited Newcombe for saving his life in his book, “Five O’Clock Comes Early, A Young Man’s Battle with Alcoholism”.

Newcombe once said, “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.”

RIP Don Newcombe – a courageous man of character who made a lasting impact on the world around him.