Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Brooklyn Dodgers Legend Don Newcombe Passes Away at 92

Don Newcombe warming up at Yankee Stadium.

Brooklyn Dodgers legend Don Newcombe passed away at the age of 92 on Tuesday. He was the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards during his career.

Newcombe was born in Madison, New Jersey on June 14, 1926, and was raised in Elizabeth. He had three brothers and a sister. His father worked as a chauffeur.  Newcombe attended Jefferson High School in Elizabeth. The school did not have a baseball team, so he played semiprofessional baseball while attending high school.

Newcombe began his career in the Negro leagues with the Newark Eagles in 1944 and '45. He then signed with the Dodgers. He joined the the 1946 Nashua Dodgers of the New England League. With catcher Roy Campanella, Newcombe played for the first racially integrated baseball team based in the United States in the 20th century. He continued to play for Nashua in 1947 before being promoted to the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League in 1948.

Newcombe joined the Dodgers in 1949, and he won the Rookie of The Year Award with a record of 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA in a season they took home the National League pennant. He became the first black pitcher to start a World Series game.

The Dodgers' burgeoning ace went 19-11 with a 3.70 ERA in 1950. The following season, 1951, he became the first black pitcher to win twenty games in one season, as he went 20-9 with a 3-28 ERA.
Newcombe missed the next two seasons due to service in the military.

In 1954, he went 9-8 with a 4.55 ERA before winning 20 games once again the next season.
In the World Series championship season of 1955, Newcombe went 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA as the Dodgers finally vanquished the Yankees.

The next season was Newcombe's best yet, as he took home both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, the first pitcher to achieve that feat, when he went 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA. 1956 was the inaugural year of the Cy Young Award.

The Dodgers were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees in a season made famous by Don Larsen's perfect game.

Newcombe started the seventh game of that series at Ebbets Field, and he gave up a pair of two-run homers to Yogi Berra (in the first and third innings), and a home run to Elston Howard to lead off the fourth inning that ended his afternoon. The Yankees went on to win 9-0.

In Jon Weisman's book Brothers In Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers' Extraordinary Pitching Tradition, Newcombe is quoted as saying, "In 1956, I won 27 games. I was 27-7! We win the pennant, and because in the World Series Yogi Berra hits a couple of home runs off me, they say I choke up. You know, that knocked the hell out of me that year."

The next year was a rough one for the Dodgers and Newcombe. In 1957, their last year in Brooklyn, he went 11-12 with a 3.49 ERA. This was amidst a season in which they took a step back amidst the turmoil of their move to Los Angeles, and they finished with a record of 84-70 and a third-place finish.

In Los Angeles in 1958, Newcombe went 0-6 with a 7.66 ERA before he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, where he went 7-7 with a 3.85 ERA.

Newcombe stayed with Cincinnati until 1960, when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians, where he finished what turned out to be his last season.

Newcombe finished with a career record of 149-90, a 3.56 ERA and 1,129 strikeouts  in 10 major league seasons. Newcombe went 0-4 in postseason play, which included two appearances in the 1949 World Series, one in 1955, and another in 1956, all against the Yankees.

In his time with the Dodgers, Newcombe went 123-60 with a 3.51 ERA and 913 strikeouts.

Newcombe was a solid hitter, as he compiled a career batting average of .271 with 15 home runs and was used as a pinch hitter, a rarity for pitchers.

Weisman, in Brothers In Arms, wrote how Newcombe was haunted by the fact he never got a win in the World Series and his place in Dodgers history, "Newcombe was a sad byproduct of the sporting world's primal impulse to tear down those it doesn't quite understand. The fixation on his failings cruelly denied how often he carried the Dodgers on his broad shoulders.
"From the moment Newcombe made his Brooklyn debut until the team's move west no Dodger threw more innings - even though Newcombe spent two full seasons in Army green. He had nearly twice as many complete games, 110, as any other hurler. Despite only eight seasons in a Dodger uniform, he ranked 20th in team history with 22.7 wins above replacement. (Johnny) Podres, as we'll see, was the hero of the '55 World Series. But without Newcombe, there is no Podres.
"That all those pressures drove Newcombe down would have been enough, but there was also a Damoclean sword hovering over his entire life, that came down on the Dodgers' 1956 postseason goodwill tour of Japan, a voyage that came and went in a haze for Newcombe.
"'It was only years later, when he elevated his story to the realm of tragedy, when he admitted to the alcoholism Labine had seen on sorry display on the flight from New York, wrote (Michael) Shapiro. "He told of starting to drink beer when he was eight years old: His father, his greatest fan and booster, thought it would help him grow up big and strong. He never pitched drunk, but he did pitch hungover. Schaefer Beer, the team's sponsor, kept the clubhouse stocked. He would drink a six-pack and then stop and buy another for the drive home. By 1956 he was mixing liquor with grapefruit or grape juice.'
"'On December 7, 1941,' Newcombe said, 'I was sitting in a Staten Island bar. The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor, and I was getting bombed on a barstool.' He was 15.
"According to Shapiro, Newcombe 'stopped drinking in 1965, when his family found him passed out on the floor.' He turned his life around, becoming an alcoholism counselor. In 1970, Dodger president Peter O'Malley hired him as the Dodgers' director of community relations. Newcombe was instrumental in saving the career of Bob Welch, a Dodger pitcher born 24 days after the '56 World Series ended.
"'I wasn't going to let that boy go down the drain,' Newcombe said. 'I know what happened to my career, and it wasn't going to happen to Bob Welch.'
"In his later years, Newcombe became a super-generational figure at the ballpark, a mentor to so many, particularly Dodger closer Kenley Jansen. He won the level of appreciation, the unequivocal love, that was withheld from him at the height of his prowess. Newcombe rehabilitated himself, and time rehabilitated the rest of us. No great Dodger was less understood in his prime, but no one will ever question him again."

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