Newcombe, Don 1926–
Don Newcombe 1926–
Professional baseball player
Don Newcombe is the only man in baseball history to win all three of the sport’s major awards, winning Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young award, and Most Valuable Player. While he got his start in the Negro Leagues, it wasn’t long before he followed Jackie Robinson into Major League baseball, where he was one of the first four African Americans to play in the major leagues during the late 1940s. In his prime, Newcombe was one of the most feared pitchers in baseball and is considered one of the best-hitting pitchers of all time.
Newcombe was born June 14, 1926 in Madison, New Jersey to Roland and Sadie (Sayers) Newcombe. One of five children, he was nine years old when his older brother managed a semiprofessional baseball club. Newcombe took batting and pitching practice there, but it wasn’t until a few years later in junior high school that he played both football and baseball. He preferred baseball to football, but when Newcombe attended Jefferson High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, there was no baseball team.
In 1942, Newcombe joined the U.S. Army. However, because he was only 16 years old at the time, he was released. He joined the Navy in August of 1943, but was discharged a month later. Newcombe had planned to be a truck driver, and never seriously considered baseball as a career option. He tried out with the Newark Eagles, which was a Negro League team, and signed a contract in 1943. He posted seven wins and five losses as a pitcher in 1944. The following year, Newcombe proved that he was also an excellent hitter. He posted a 14-4 record, and was named to the Negro National League All-Star team. In October of 1945, Newcombe pitched at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn. It was the first time that he had faced white big league players. He pitched three scoreless innings before leaving the game with a sore elbow. Newcombe’s performance impressed Clyde Sukeforth, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He invited Newcombe to try out for the team. The tryout was successful, and Newcombe was signed to the Dodgers’ Class B farm team at Nashua, New Hampshire along with catcher Roy Campanella.
At a Glance…
Born Donald Newcombe, June 14, 1926, in Madi son, NJ; wife’s name Freddie; children: Gregory and Evit. Religion: Methodist.
Career: Played for Newark Eagles in Negro Leagues beginning 1944 season; signed by the Dodgers organization and assigned to Class B New England farm team at Nashua, NH in 1946; promoted to AAA team, Montreal Royals, in 1948; promoted to Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. Was a starting pitcher most of his Major League career; director of community relations with Los Angeles Dodgers.
Awards: Negro National League All Star Team, 1945; National League All Star Team, 1949; National League Rookie of the Year, 1949; National League Al I Star Team, 1950; National League All Star Team, 1955; Cy Young award, 1956; Most Valuable Player, 1956; Honorary Doctorate, Daniel Webster College 1997.
Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers and the man who is credited with integrating major league baseball, tried to have Newcombe and Campanella assigned to the Class A affiliate in Danville, Illinois. However, league officials refused to accept them and threatened to shut down the league if they were forced to integrate.
Newcombe did not know what to expect when he and Campanella arrived in Nashua. Segregation and racism were still the norm in the United States at the time, and African Americans were often barred from many hotels and restaurants. Newcombe would tell The Telegraph (Nashua) over fifty years later, “When Roy Campanella and I came to Nashua in 1946.…We were embarking on a mission. This was a mission in Nashua that was helping to revolutionize the game of baseball, that was going to impact on black people all over the world.…It was in April of 1946, and the graciousness of how we were accepted here really shocked us.” Both men were pleasantly surprised that they did not experience racial prejudice during their time in Nashua.
In 1947, which was Newcombe’s second season in Nashua, he compiled a record of 19 wins and 6 losses. He pitched 223 innings, and struck out 186 batters. He also led the New England league in wins and strikeouts. That same year Jackie Robinson, who would become the first African American to play in the major leagues, was transferred from the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal to the major league club in Brooklyn, New York. In 1948, Campanella and pitcher Dan Bankhead joined Robinson in Brooklyn. Newcombe, however, remained in Nashua.
Newcombe was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, but not before he nearly walked out of baseball for good. In 1948, Newcombe was promoted from Nashua to the Montreal team. However, he was eager to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and he began to believe that owner Branch Rickey would never promote him. Newcombe decided to quit baseball, and left Montreal. Three days later, he called Montreal general manager Buzzie Bavasi and asked to be reinstated to the team. Bavasi agreed to Newcombe’s request, and he remained in Montreal until 1949. At the time, Newcombe did not realize that Rickey was gradually adding African American players to the major leagues in a “stair-step” plan, so as to avoid problems with other Dodger players and fans.
Newcombe joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in May of 1949, and compiled a record of 17 wins and eight losses. He struck out 149 batters in 244 innings and had a 3.17 earned-run average. He also pitched 32 consecutive scoreless innings, and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. Reflecting on the year of 1949, Newcombe told Art Rust, Jr. in Get That Nigger Off the Field, “I was the first black pitcher ever to take the mound in a Major League World Series game. At the time I remember I had a double set of feelings: a modicum of fear about the Yankee dynasty we were playing and that I was only a rookie.” Newcombe also told Rust about his debut with the Newark Eagles, “I didn’t have a dream back in 1944 that I would be pitching against the Yankees in the 1949 series. Back in 1944 there was no way that a kid from the ghetto in Elizabeth, New Jersey, could ever think along those lines.” While pitching in the fourth game of the 1949 World Series against the New York Yankees, Newcombe gave up a home run to Tommy Henrich. The Yankees won the game 1-0, and went on to win the series. Despite the loss, Newcombe was considered one of the best pitchers in the major leagues.
During the early 1950s, Newcombe was drafted into the army and served during the Korean War. Although he was nearing the end of his eligibility for the draft, Newcombe related to The Telegraph, (Nashua, New Hampshire) that he was told that the American public needed to see that baseball players did not receive special treatment. Following his discharge, Newcombe resumed his baseball career. After a shaky start, he returned to form and enjoyed a remarkable season in 1955. That year, Newcombe was named to the National League All-Star team and ended the regular season with the National League’s best pitching record. He also faced the Yankees again in the World Series, losing the first game in his only World Series start. However, the Dodgers went on to defeat the Yankees in seven games. The following year, Newcombe again led National League pitchers with a 27-7 record. He compiled a .794 winning percentage, striking out 139 batters while walking only 46. Newcombe also captured both the Most Valuable Player award and the Cy Young award.
Despite the tremendous success that Newcombe enjoyed, he grew tired of the segregation that was prevalent in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. Until 1954, Newcombe and other African American players had to stay in segregated hotels during road trips. These hotels were not nearly as comfortable as those enjoyed by their white teammates. They were often not air conditioned, and the food was of poor quality. Newcombe told Rust in Get That Nigger Off the Field that he complained to Jackie Robinson that he had had enough, “I’ve just spent two years in the Army fighting for my flag, for my country. I’m not going to live like a substandard human being anymore unless somebody can tell me why Ive got to live like that.” Robinson agreed, and they both went to the hotel and talked with the manager about the situation. They were told that as long as they didn’t use the swimming pool they could stay in the hotel. “Eventually Jackie, I, and Roy Campanella moved into all the hotels with the team on a regular basis and incidents like these became part of baseball lore,” Newcombe told Rust.
Newcombe often appeared lethargic and seemed unwilling to work hard. However, former Dodger Jim Gilliam told Rust, “Everyone thought he [Newcombel was a lazy pitcher, but actually Don was the hardest-working pitcher around.” One of Newcombe’s former opponents, Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks, told Rust, “A lot of fans have asked me who’s the toughest pitcher I had to face in the majors. I would say Don Newcombe. He had tremendous drive. He loved competition, was a winning-type pitcher.…He had great control, and he could hit like hell; he was the type of man everybody would like to be like.”
In 1957, Newcombe struggled throughout the season and finished with a mediocre record of 11-12. He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds during the 1958 season. In 1959, Newcombe finished the season with a 13-8 record and 3.16 ERA for the Reds. The following year, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians and posted a dismal 6-9 record. Upon completion of the 1960 season, Newcombe retired from baseball.
Throughout most of Newcombe’s career, he waged a battle against alcoholism. As Steve Daly of The Telegraph remarked, “[the alcohol was] an evil which, though it may have been an attempt to help him deal with the hatred and racism around him, essentially cost him his career.” Newcombe sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, and has stayed sober for many years. In his work as director of community relations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Newcombe travels around the country to speak about alcohol and drug dependency. He told Mike Lupica in Esquire, “Everybody wants to do something about the drug problem in sports, but they just sort of wink at the main drug, which is alcohol.” Newcombe specializes in drug and alcohol awareness and prevention programs. He also served as a spokesman for the National Institute on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, a presidentially appointed position.
Newcombe’s battle with alcoholism and his work in alcohol abuse prevention prompted him to file suit against Coors brewing company over an ad for George Killian’s Irish Red beer that appeared in a 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated. According to an Associated Press release, Coors admitted that the ad had been based on a newspaper photo of Newcombe pitching in the 1949 World Series. In the suit, Newcombe claimed that people would recognize him in the ad, even though his facial features, uniform number, and team insignia were not visible. The judge did not allow the suit to go to trial, however, claiming that the picture in the advertisement did not bear a strong enough resemblance to Newcombe.
In addition to his work for the Dodgers organization, Newcombe is active in several causes, including The Paralysis Project, the Starlight Foundation, the Wiesenthal Center, and the City of Hope. He also had a pediatrie wing named for him at the White Memorial Hospital in 1997. He has also sought to have a national holiday declared in honor of Jackie Robinson. On a spring day in 1997 in Nashua, New Hampshire, Newcombe was honored with an honorary doctorate by Daniel Webster College and was also honored by the city of Nashua for his contributions to the integration of baseball. In his typically modest fashion, Newcombe told The Telegraph, “Jackie Robinson means everything to Don Newcombe. Don Newcombe could not have the life he’s had and the life he has today without him. Wherever he is, I thank him.”
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Rust Jr., Art. Get That Nigger Off the Field, Book Mail Services, 1992, pp. 110, 112, 125.
Esquire, June 1988, p. 54.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers Web site at www.acmewebpages.com/dodgers and www.dodgers.com.
The Telegraph, (Nashua, New Hampshire) April 17, 1997 at www.nashuatelegraph.com/Archive/Sports/Dodgers/dalynewk.htm.
The Sporting News at www.sportingnews.com/fea-tures/jackie/newcombe.html.
—Sandy J. Stiefer
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