Don Newcombe: When Boys of Summer Had to be Men of Summer

For all that Don Newcombe accomplished over an exceptional 92-year life, he never quite shook the murmurs that he should have done more.

It’s a cruelty inflicted on those perceived to be so gifted they are expected to always succeed at everything.

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Don Newcombe, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a long illness, did a lot of succeeding.

He was the first great black pitcher in Major League Baseball, not because he was the first great black pitcher, but because until he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, Major League Baseball had not let any previous great black pitchers in.

He won 17 games his first season and the National League rookie of the year award. He won 20 games in a season three times and in 1956, when he went 27–7, he won both the first Cy Young award — given to the best pitcher in all of baseball — and the National League Most Valuable Player award.

He pitched 10 seasons in the Majors, winning 149 games. In 1955, when he won 20 games, he also hit .359 with seven home runs.

He did all this while helping teammates Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Junior Gilliam, Dan Bankhead and others integrate a sport where they belonged, but were widely not wanted.

“There was much hate and animosity once we black players got there,” Newcombe told Danny Peary for Peary’s oral history We All Played the Game. “We were going to take away someone’s job.”

That wasn’t just Newcombe’s perception. Roger Kahn, in his classic Boys of Summer, recounts a conversation with white third baseman Billy Cox, who lost his starting position when Gilliam joined the team.

“How’d you like to lose your job to a n — — ?” Cox asked.

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Don Newcombe, top center. (In front of him: Gil Hodges.)

That’s not a baseball-specific question, either in its implication or its bitterness. Insert any racial, ethnic or religious group into that sentence and you have a sentiment that drives political conversations today. But in the context of 1940s and 1950s baseball, Newcombe told Perry, there were tangible and visceral consequences beyond the verbal insults and the frustration of being turned away at hotels and restaurants the white players could patronize.

When a white batter charged the mound in a minor league game, Newcombe recalled, he could not fight back — because Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey had asked all those early black players to avoid physical confrontation for fear it would jeaopardize the fragile integration experiment.

That particular incident had a happy ending, Newcombe added, when Dodgers first baseman Chuck Connors — who would later trade in his glove and become TV’s The Rifleman — intercepted the charging player and “beat the s — — out of him.”

But having to be on constant guard took a toll. “We were bitter,” Newcombe told Peary. “We were angry.”

Robinson later admitted he almost had a breakdown from the pressure in those early years. Newcombe’s antidote of choice was alcohol, eventually turning him into what he later called a “stupefied, wife-abusing, child-frightening, falling-down drunk.”

Unsurprisingly, that shortened his career and among other things probably cost him a chance to make the Hall of Fame. That quest was further hampered by Rickey’s “not too many blacks at a time” strategy, which delayed his promotion to the Majors, and by the fact he lost the 1952 and 1953 seasons, potentially prime years, to military service.

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He found both those obstacles frustrating, and they doubtless fueled his admission to Peary that when he was playing baseball, he liked it and never “loved” it. It was a job, he said, a job at which he succeeded through constant vigilance and attention.

Perhaps because he famously maintained a laser focus on the science of his work — “Never,” went one of his rules, “let Willie Mays hit the first pitch” — Newcombe was never known as a socializer. The black and white guys on the Dodgers didn’t hang out anyway, he told Perry. He was friends with the black players and they would talk all the time, but at night they went to their separate homes — Robinson on Long Island, Campanella in Queens, Newcombe to New Jersey. At the end of the day, he said, he needed to get away from it all.

After he quit drinking in the mid-‘60s, he loosened up a little. He worked in the Dodgers organization for more than 50 years after his retirement, at times helping players like Maury Wills with their own substance abuse issues.

While he professed great affection for the team, he spoke out when he felt it wasn’t living up to the diversity promises it had made all those years ago. He remained an advocate for an open playing field in baseball and beyond, suggesting America should declare a national Jackie Robinson Day holiday.

He spoke with pride about his own career, a reflection that inevitably evoked a slight defensive tinge.

The knock on Newcombe, not always refuted even by his own managers, was that he couldn’t win big games.

He lost the first game of the 1949 World Series by giving up a home run to Tommy Henrich.

He lost the last game of the 1950 regular season to the Phillies, giving up a Dick Sisler home run that clinched the National League pennant for Philadelphia.

He couldn’t hold a 4–1 ninth inning lead in the notorious third game of the 1951 National League playoffs, when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that gave the Giants the pennant.

He lost the seventh and deciding game of the 1956 World Series.

For his career, his World Series record was 0–4 with an 8.59 earned run average. For those who aren’t baseball statistics followers, those numbers are terrible.

If facts don’t lie, however, they have context.

In the ’49 Series opener, he pitched eight shutout innings. In the ’50 finale, he gave up one run through nine innings. In the ’51 playoffs, he gave up one run in eight innings — less than five days after he had pitched a shutout and then 5 2/3 innings of one-hit relief to win the games that got the Dodgers into the playoffs in the first place.

Guys, he could have used some run support.

On the other side of the important game ledger, he got the Dodgers into the ’49 Series by beating St. Louis in the last game of the season. He got the Dodgers into the ’56 Series by beating the Pirates on the last day of the season.

But when you’re 6-foot-4, weigh 220 and can throw a fastball at almost a hundred miles an hour with good control, you’re expected to win every time.

After losing the last game of the ’56 Series, the Dodgers flew off to a series of exhibition games in Japan. Needless to say, this wasn’t the preferred activity for anyone, including Newcombe, whose traveling companion was the bottle.

When his pitching confirmed he was feeling pretty down on the whole business, he received a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower, which began, “Hard luck is something that no one in the world can explain.”

According to author Michael D’Antonio in his Dodgers history Forever Blue, the president went on to point out that without Newcombe’s 27 wins, the Dodgers would have been watching the World Series on television.

D’Antonio says this cheered him up a bit, and Ike wasn’t the last important person to remind Newcombe he was important, too.

After the game where an opponent charged the mound, Newcombe got a visit from another Robinson who happened to have been in the stands — Bill Robinson, the iconic tap dancer. Bojangles congratulated him for refusing to be provoked.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he met with Newcombe, Robinson and other athletes, told them his campaign for integration was made measurably easier because of what they had endured and pushed through.

President Barack Obama, some years later, said, “I would not be where I am today without Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe.”

Same for the rest of us, Mr. President.

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