Obituary: Don Newcombe (1926-2019)

R.I.P. to Don Newcombe, a Dodgers legend and an All-Star pitcher who helped integrate the game of baseball. He died on February 19 at the age of 92 after a long illness. In making the announcement, the Los Angeles Dodgers called Newcombe, “one of the franchise’s final links to Brooklyn and the days of Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson.” Newcombe pitched for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues (1944-45) before playing for the Dodgers (1949-58), Cincinnati Reds (1958-60) and Cleveland Indians (1960), as well as the Chunichi Dragons (1962) in Japan.

Don Newcombe was born on June 14, 1926 in Madison, N.J. While Baseball Reference lists his pro career as starting with the Eagles in 1944, he was pitching earlier than that. There is a report of him from 1942 throwing a no-hitter for the Park Bombers, a black baseball team in Scotch Plains, N.J., against the New Brunswick Giants. It was the second no-hitter of the year for the 16-year-old. He played well enough in the amateur ranks that he was signed to the Eagles in 1944. There, he was playing with the likes of Larry Doby, Ray Dandridge and player/manager Mule Suttles. He had a 4-7 record in the Negro Leagues over two seasons per Baseball Reference, but keep in mind that those stats are sketchy at best. There’s a Seamheads database that has him at 5-6, and some contemporary stat lines are different from both of them. The important thing to note is that the teenager had exceptional promise, and the Brooklyn Dodgers added him to their collection of Negro League stars who would integrate baseball within a few years.

The Eagles played at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, and it was there that Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth first saw Newcombe and Roy Campanella play. He signed them in April, 1946 and believed that would both make the majors soon.

“He has all the makings of a great pitcher,” Sukeforth told the Pittsburgh Courier. “He is young, has a good fast ball and a sharp breaking curve ball. All he needs is a little experience.”

The article in the Courier mentioned that Dodgers GM originally hoped to send the duo to play in Danville, Ill., but changed his mind and sent them to the Nashua Dodgers of the New England League “[f]or some unknown reason.” The Los Angeles Times, in Newcombe’s obituary, noted that the president of the Three-I League, which included Danville, threatened to shut down the entire league rather than allow black ballplayers.

In his two seasons in Nashua and his parts of two seasons with the Montreal Royals, Newcombe lived up to expectations. He was called up to Brooklyn in May of 1949 when it seemed like the Dodgers were in danger of slipping out of the pennant race. They needed him, given the fact that the pitching staff was in a shambles, but manager Bert Shotton didn’t particularly want him. Newcombe had been described as “moody” and had had a few behavioral issues. Shotton said he was concerned that Newcombe would “undo everything these other two fellows have done,” — meaning Robinson and Campanella.

Back in Spring Training, Newcombe got into an altercation with catcher Mike Guera of the Athletics. Guera had managed Newcombe in Cuba over the winter and at one point suspended him, and Newcombe chose to renew that feud in Vero Beach. Later, Newcombe was sore that he wasn’t given a chance to start the season with the Dodgers, so Montreal GM Buzzy Bavasi gave him a week off to cool down. Newcombe was gone slightly longer than a week, but he called Bavasi and patched everything up. Apparently, that was enough for Shotton to make up his mind about the pitcher.

That’s the fine line that you had to walk if you were part of the small group of black ballplayers that was integrating baseball against it’s own will. Any minor issue that would have been dismissed if you were a white player was magnified instead. Newcombe, skin color aside, was a gifted young pitcher who was stuck in the minor leagues when he had nothing left to prove. He acted pretty much like any kid would have acted, but he was labeled as “moody” and “problematic.” Shotton, who had been in baseball for 40 years by that point, called him out in the papers for it and basically told him to shut his mouth. Worse yet, he essentially said that his attitude was going to undo all the progress the Dodgers were making with integration, glacial a pace as it was. That’s a hell of a burden for any 21-year-old to have to carry around. It shows the fortitude that the earliest black ballplayers had to have. They couldn’t afford to show any weakness or just be human.

At any rate, the Dodgers basically had one pitcher, Ralph Branca, who was healthy any/or effective, so Newcombe got his shot in the majors.

Newcombe’s debut wasn’t great. He was brought into a game in relief on May 20, 1949 against the Cardinals and was knocked out after retiring just one batter and allowing 3 runs. (And oh, did the Cardinals beat writer have a grand time writing up that game recap. He timed the length of Newcombe’s appearance at just shy of 3 minutes.) Two days later, Newcombe shut out the Cincinnati Reds on 5 singles and drove in a couple of runs at the bat. If Shotton had any further opinions about Newcombe’s attitude, he at least realized he had an ace pitcher on his hands and kept him in the rotation for the rest of the season.

From the Daily News, May 23, 1949. The caption reads, “Dodgers’ down-the-middle strength yesterday brought 3-0 triumph in Cincinnati opener. Catcher Roy Campanella (left) hit safety and scored once. Batterymate Don Newcombe (right) made his first major league start a five-hit whitewash job, driving in two runs besides. Second sacker Jackie Robinson (center) poked two doubles and drove in a run.

Newk was a revelation for the Dodgers, winning 17 games against 8 defeats and leading the NL with 5 shutouts. His ERA of 3.17 was good for 8th in the league, and his 149 strikeouts were only 2 behind league-leader Warren Spahn. Of course, Spahn had thrown about 60 more innings. Newcombe was named to the NL All-Star Team and was an easy choice for NL Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers won the NL pennant but lost to the Yankees in 5 games. Newcombe started Game 1, becoming the first African-American pitcher in the World Series. He struck out 11 Yankees but allowed a walk-off home run to Tommy Henrich for a 1-0 loss.

Newcombe won 19 games in 1950 and 20 in 1951, making the All-Star team each season. He also led the NL in strikeouts in ’51 with 164. He lost the next two years of his career to military service and struggled to a 9-8 record and 4.55 ERA upon his return in 1954. He returned the following year at full strength. He went 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA and completed 17 of his 31 starts. He walked just 38 batters in 233-2/3 innings and led the league with a 1.113 WHIP. Always a good hitter, he had a career year at the plate, with a .359 batting average and 7 home runs. Though he struggled in the World Series, the Brooklyn Dodgers did beat the Yankees to become World Champs.

Newcombe with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, when he was first called up to the majors. Source: Pittsburgh Press, May 18, 1949.

In a career with several excellent seasons, 1956 was probably Newcombe’s best. He had a 27-7 record with a 3.06 ERA, leading the NL in wins and WHIP (0.989). He finished first in both the Cy Young Award voting (there was only one handed out at the time) and the NL Most Valuable Player voting. Sadly, it was his last great season.

The Los Angeles Times noted that Newcombe had a drinking problem, and he admitted that it contributed to his sharp decline. He was about a league average pitcher in 1958, and when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1959, he went 0-6 with a 7.86 ERA before being traded to the Reds. He turned his season around with the Reds and was actually pretty good in 1959, with a 13-8 record, 3.16 ERA and 100 strikeouts. He struggled through 1960 for the Reds and Indians, going a combined 6-9 with a 4.48 ERA, and that was the end of his time in the majors.

For his 10-year career, Newcombe had a 149-90 record and 3.56 ERA. He struck out 1129 against just 490 walks for a career WHIP of 1.203. He threw 136 complete games and 24 shutouts. He was one of the game’s best hitting pitchers, with a career .271/.338/.367 slash line and 15 home runs. He logged 106 pinch-hitting appearances in his career.

Newcombe pitched pretty poorly in Spokane, the Dodgers’ AAA club, in 1961 and then signed with the Dragons of the Japan Central League. He only pitched in 1 game, but he played in 80 games as an outfielder/first baseman, hitting .262 with 12 home runs.

Happily, Newcombe got sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and spoke often about the dangers of substance abuse. The Times quotes him as saying that his post-baseball career ultimately meant more to him than his playing career.

“What I have done after my baseball career, and being able to help people [get] their lives back on track and … become human beings again, means more to me than all the things I did in baseball,” he said.

He worked in the Dodgers front office for decades and regularly came out to ballgames. In noting his passing, Dodgers President Stan Kasten said, “Don Newcombe’s presence and life established him as a role model for major leaguers across the country. He was a constant presence at Dodger Stadium and players always gravitated to him for his endless advice and leadership. The Dodgers meant everything to him and we are all fortunate he was a part of our lives.”


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