Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the first ever to win the prestigious trio of baseball honors, earning the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards. He also won a longtime struggle with alcoholism and won thanks and admiration from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the way he helped open doors to civil rights.
Newcombe ultimately helped other ballplayers overcome substance abuse and was considered baseball royalty to the end of his long and accomplished life. He died Tuesday [February 19] after a long illness at the age of 92.
“Don Newcombe’s presence and life established him as a role model for major leaguers across the country,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten said in a statement. “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.”
Newcombe first pitched for the team in 1949, after having played in the Negro Leagues then withstood taunting and threats as he integrated the Class B New England League and proceeded through the higher minors.
He always credited teammate Jackie Robinson for clearing the way for African-American players. During a 1997 interview leading up to the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the major leagues’ color line (an event the then-minor league pitcher witnessed firsthand), Newcombe said, “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.”
But it could have been Newcombe who made history. Buzzie Bavasi, an assistant in 1947 to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, said in a 1997 Newsday interview: “Jackie wasn’t the first choice. Newk was. But Mr. Rickey decided that even though Newk would only have to face the press every fourth day, he was too young at 20.”
At the height of his career, Newcombe was one of baseball’s elite talents. He was a three-time 20-game winner and four-time All-Star (he, Robinson, Roy Campanella and Larry Doby were the first black players to appear in the Midsummer Classic, in 1949). The righthanded starting pitcher went 20-5 in 1955, the year Brooklyn finally won the World Series. A year later, he won a career-high 27 games in a performance that earned him the inaugural Cy Young (then awarded to only one pitcher, not one in each league) and National League MVP honors. It was not until 2011 that another player, Justin Verlander, matched his feat of having collected the rookie, pitching and most valuable player awards during his career.
In a few ways, Newcombe fell just a bit short. He struck out 11 Yankees in Game 1 of the 1949 Series before allowing Tommy Henrich to break a scoreless tie with a home run in the bottom of the ninth. Newcombe held a 4-1 lead in Game 3 of the 1951 tiebreaking series against the New York Giants but was removed in the bottom of the ninth. Reliever Ralph Branca allowed the decisive home run to Bobby Thomson that still is called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
Newcombe lost two years in his prime, 1952 and 1953, to military service. Later, he conceded that his career was curtailed by a drinking problem that eventually cost him his first marriage, his life savings and most of his memorabilia. The Dodgers helped him regain his footing and put him in charge of their drug and alcohol abuse prevention program.
His stature never wavered among admirers, notably King, who visited him shortly before his death in 1968 and told Newcombe, according to Time magazine, “You, Jackie and Roy will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job.”
Donald Newcombe was born on June 14, 1926 in Madison, N.J. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Elizabeth, but dropped out reportedly after having repeatedly failed biology. He began pitching full time as a teenager.
More than a half-century after the end of his 10-season career, he still was held in high esteem by baseball people. Just before the 2015 World Series, Mets manager Terry Collins, who had worked in the Dodgers system, excitedly announced that he had received a congratulatory call from Newcombe. The former great told Collins that the World Series “is the greatest experience you’ll ever have in baseball.”
Collins added that, right after he got off the phone, he told his wife, “There are a lot of people who are not going to understand what an important call that was.”
Newcombe is survived by his wife Karen, sons Donald Jr. and Brett Anthony, daughter Anna, stepson Chris Peterson and two grandchildren.
Don Newcombe was the first player to win Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP Awards.
1949: Debuted with Brooklyn Dodgers on May 20. Went 17-8, made NL All-Star team, named NL Rookie of the Year.
1950: NL All-Star, went 19-11.
1951: NL All-Star, went 20-9, led NL in strikeouts.
1952-53: Mandatory military service.
1955: NL All-Star, World Series champion, went 20-5, 3.20 ERA.
1956: His best season: NL MVP, winner of first Cy Young Award, went 27-7 (major league-best .794 win percentage), 139 strikeouts, 3.06 ERA, 5 shutouts, 18 complete games.
1958: After 0-6 start with Dodgers in Los Angeles, traded to Reds in midseason.
1960: Sold to Cleveland in mid-season.
1962: Was outfielder-first baseman with Chunichi Dragons in Japan, hit 12 HRs and batted .262.
Career numbers: Went 149-90, 3.56 ERA, also batted .271 with 15 HRs.