Hi all. The baseball world lost a very special man today, at age 92. Brooklyn Dodger star Don Newcombe, “Big Newk” to his teammates and fans has passed away. In two ways he was a pioneer. He was the first black pitcher to start a World Series game. He did this in 1949 when he was Rookie of the Year. He was a pioneer in a far more important way a quarter of a century later and five years earlier than anybody else. Don Newcombe traveled the major league baseball circuit in 1975, going from team to team and telling them of the evils of alcohol. In his soul he believed alcohol ended his career early, had ended those of many men he knew and was ending players’ careers early even as he spoke. The next baseball man to open up about what booze could do was another Dodger pitcher Bob Welch, but his book wouldn’t come out until 1980. Until Newcombe and then Welch, baseball men just didn’t talk about what John Barleycorn had done or was still doing in their lives.
Donald Newcomb began life in Madison, New Jersey just outside of Morristown. However, he grew up in the much less affluent city of Elizabeth, just a long fly ball from Newark. The state’s one major airport (called Newark Airport) is physically in Elizabeth. From the time he was a small boy Newcombe heard Ford Trimotor airplanes nicknamed “Tin Geese” and Boeing Model 80s taking off and landing. As World War II approached the sound of military planes filled the air while Newark was closed to commercial travel. Newcombe played baseball in this atmosphere. Before joining the Dodgers he is best known for his play with the Newark Eagles where his catcher and sometimes manager was Roy Campanella. “Campy” would in fact make the Dodgers a year before Newcombe did, but when he did the new guy quickly became the Dodgers’ ace. He won 17 games, then 19, then 20 in his first 3 seasons. No pitcher had been Rookie of the Year until 1949 when Newcombe took the prize. He lost in heartbreaking fashion in game 1 of the 1949 World Series. He had struck out 13 Yankees and given up no runs, but the Dodgers hadn’t scored any through their 9 turns at bat. In the home 9th, aging but still reliable Tommy Henrich slammed a shot over Yankee Stadium’s distant fence. Red Barber described the end coming “With the startling suddenness of a pistol shot.” The only award Newcombe didn’t get in 1949 was the Cy Young award, and that was because no Cy Young award was given until 1956. When it was given, it went to him.
He had been brilliant in 1949 and a shade better in 1950. If possible, Newcombe pitched even better in 1951–but all in vain. This was when he won 20 games and led his league in strikeouts. He had pitched 4 games in 8 days leading up to game 3 of the Dodgers’ playoff series against the Giants. The Dodgers had amassed a lead of 13.5 games over the Giants by mid-August, but in spite of all Newcombe’s efforts the Giants whittled the lead down and caught the Dodgers leading up to that incredible playoff. Each team won a game leading to game 3. The wild card in the deck was Roy Campanella. He had been hurt and was on the bench during game 3. Through 8 innings the Dodgers led the Giants 4–1. Decades later, listening to New York’s WFAN radio I have heard Dodgers’ fans say that if Campanella had played the bottom of the 9th inning the Dodgers would have held the lead. There was a bond between the two that the fans could sense. I personally believe such a bond can exist. As a broadcaster I had the same partner for a dozen years. Sometimes he would step aside so our intern might take the reins and get a feel for real broadcasting. One of those interns was Joe Block, now broadcasting for the Pirates. Those interns gave their all but many a time I felt I would have done a better game if Jim were there. Whatever it took to get my ultimate effort, he had it. Such was the bond between Newcombe and Campanella.
As history shows, Campanella continued to ride the bench and Newcombe faded in the 9th. A run had scored and Giants’ runners manned second and third with one out when manager Charlie Dressen brought out the hook for Newcombe. Nobody could have imagined he wouldn’t pitch again until 1954. Ralph Branca gave up “The Shot Heard Round the World,” which was Bobby Thomson’s 3-run home run. The Giants faced the Yankees in the World Series rather than the Dodgers. Newcombe would be drafted along with the Giants’ Willie Mays. Both would lose the entire 1952 and 1953 seasons to Uncle Sam.
While Mays flourished as never before when he returned from Korea, Newcombe had a poor year with only 9 wins against 8 losses. A year later he was back on his mettle, putting up 20 wins against 5 losses and a 3.20 ERA, which was an accomplishment in tiny Ebbets Field. That was the year the Dodgers won their only World Series in Brooklyn. A year later Newcombe was 27–7 with an even stingier 3.06 ERA. In the World Series he gave up 3 home runs to Yogi Berra, 2 of these in game 7 which the Yankees won 9–0. That series will always be remembered for Don Larsen’s perfect game. game 7, which Newcombe pitched would be his last World Series appearance. He was traded to Cincinnati in 1958, then sent to Cleveland In 1960 where his career ground to a halt.
Later, he would tell his story to ball players and soldiers alike, knowing men in both of those professions have a history of killing time by drinking. In his own case, Newcombe told author Mike Shropshire that he was deathly afraid of flying. Until the Dodgers left Brooklyn, they traveled by train almost exclusively. The move to Los Angeles meant constant air travel, and I don’t mean the comfortable jet airplanes we know. The first Boeing 707 wouldn’t fly until Newcombe was finished. His teams bumped and banged across the skies in DC8’s, DC6’s and other piston-engine planes. Pressurized cabins were just coming in. Crashes were far more common and Newcombe couldn’t have been the only white-knuckle flyer in baseball. He was sent to Cincinnati after an 0–6 start in L.A. While he pitched more effectively with the Reds, they still had to fly and he felt he had to drink to survive the flights. There were no strictures for players concerning drinking on flights then. When the cheering stopped, he drank more. By 1965, Newcombe pawned his one and only World Series ring to buy booze.
He turned his life around a year later when his second wife Billie threatened to leave him. That won’t stop every drunk, but it stopped Newcombe in his tracks. His first stop was Alcoholics Anonymous. From there he became a crusader which he did for decades. He had access to the players, and through the USO he was given access to soldiers to counsel them about the wisdom of avoiding drinking. The Dodgers’ Maury Wills is just one man who has gone public saying that Newcombe turned his life around. Without Newcombe’s help, Wills would never have gotten to broadcast games on the radio for Fargo in the twilight of his life. I met and interviewed him there where he told me what Newcombe had done for him. Now, at age 92 Don Newcombe is gone.
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