Dodgers NL MVP Annals: Don Newcombe (1956)
Welcome back to my series for Dodgers Nation, the Dodgers NL MVP Annals! In each installment, I take an in-depth look at every single MVP season by a Dodger and the player who won it. The Dodgers franchise can currently lay claim to 13 National League MVP awards, won by 11 different players. These span from 1913 to 2014, spanning from the lean nascent days in Brooklyn to the Guggenheim Era in Los Angeles today.
Despite the fact that the pitcher is the one who controls the action throughout each and every game, it’s become surprisingly rare to see one win MVP in either league. In all of history, only 25 pitchers have won it. That paucity is even more gaping in recent times, with only three pitchers earning the honor in the past 30 years as home runs have increasingly defined the game.
Of those few pitchers to win the coveted award, quite a few of them are Dodgers. Dazzy Vance was the first in 1924, but that came during the mostly lean years of the Brooklyn franchise. The second was claimed by Don Newcombe in 1956, the last year of the perennial glory days of “The Boys of Summer.”
When Newcombe passed away earlier this year, I wrote a reflection on his enormous life and legacy. Starting in the Negro Leagues, his contract was purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers, with whom he would smash the MLB color barrier alongside Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Like those two, he was majestic year in and year out, but it was ‘56 that truly witnessed him at the peak of his pitching prowess.
Don Newcombe, Integration Pioneer and the first “Black Ace” (1926-2019) https://t.co/57HkaXoP7s
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) February 20, 2019
In 1956, the former Newark Eagle was tops in almost every major pitching category. His record finished at a jaw-dropping 27-7, leading the majors in wins and win-loss percentage (.794). His 3.06 ERA would ultimately stand as his best ever, while also matching his career-high for complete game shutouts at five, which he set in his 1949 rookie season. Newk’s 268 innings pitched ranked second only to the 272 he tossed in 1951. For this, he not only won MVP, but also MLB’s first Cy Young Award (when it covered both leagues no less).
Newcombe wasn’t just useful on the mound in 1956. He continued to show his hitting prowess as well, launching two home runs, 16 RBIs and six doubles. Strangely, it wasn’t even close to his best season offensively, a testament to his consistency at the plate that would especially stand out in today’s game.
As is a common theme for many Dodger MVPs, however, October would provide a bitter end to an otherwise resplendent season. Having finally vanquished the Yankees for the first title in franchise history the year before, Brooklyn unsurprisingly met the Bronx Bombers once again in the 1956 World Series. Newcombe was shelled in both of his outings, starting with 1.2 innings and six earned runs in game two. The Dodgers would rally to win that one 13-8, but when he took the mound in game seven, the Yanks ambushed him again for five runs in three innings en route to a 9-0 blowout to unseat the Dodgers as champions.
After being traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1958, Newcombe’s career witnessed a significant decline, which he later attributed to his struggles with alcoholism. He eventually overcame that addiction, helping others with their substance abuse problems and working for the Dodgers organization for decades. He passed away aged 92 on February 19, to an outpouring of love and admiration from the Dodgers community.
In 2019, the Dodgers’ rotation (with a Newk #36 patch sewn onto their jerseys) have channeled his legacy by being the best in all of baseball. It’s truly the only way to honor the man who, in 1956 and many other years, defined what it means to be a Dodgers pitcher.
Previous NL MVP Annals