The Passing of Don Newcombe is a Seismic Loss – For the Dodgers, and All of Baseball

Only 12 days after baseball civil rights legend Frank Robinson passed away, one of the game’s original barrier-breakers has also gone to that great Dodger in the sky. Don Newcombe, lovingly known to generations of Dodgers faithful as Newk, passed away on February 19 at the age of 92. His death was officially announced on the team’s Twitter account.

Born in Madison, New Jersey on June 14, 1926, Donald Newcombe honed his playing skills with a semiprofessional team while in high school. He excelled in the mid-’40s with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. Eagles business manager Effa Manley (currently the only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame) agreed to let Branch Rickey sign Newcombe to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His impact in his rookie year of 1949 was immediate, winning 17 games, leading the league in shutouts, and pitching 32 consecutive scoreless innings as the Dodgers won the National League pennant for the second time in three years. For this, he was justly awarded National League Rookie of the Year.

In terms of award-winning prestige, Newcombe was not only prolific but an original. In 1949, he was one of the first four African-American players in the All-Star Game, alongside Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Larry Doby. In 1955, his 20-5 record and 3.20 ERA fuelled the long-awaited first championship in Dodgers franchise history, purging decades of futility and heartbreak in the process. He was also the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year, MVP, and a Cy Young, a feat not matched until Justin Verlander completed the hat trick in 2011 for Detroit.

It was 1956 in particular, however, that marked his zenith. He won a league-leading 27 games against only seven losses, which also gave him the best W-L% and lifted Brooklyn to another pennant. For this, he not only won National League MVP, a rarity for pitchers to this day but also MLB’s first ever Cy Young Award. The award covered both leagues at the time, making the distinction even more remarkable.   

He didn’t just dominate on the pitcher’s mound either. Newk was comparably dangerous with a bat in his hands, hitting .271 lifetime and corking 15 home runs, 108 RBIs, 238 hits, and three triples. Seven of those 15 homers came in the championship season of 1955. To boot, he was often used as a pinch-hitter, a rare move for even the best hitting pitchers. With the specter of a universal DH rule drawing ever closer, Newcombe’s status as a “pitcher who raked” could become all the more sacrosanct.

Of course, as Vinny always loved to remind us, nothing has ever come easy for the Dodgers, and Newk was present for some of their toughest defeats. It was he who was relieved by Ralph Branca in the 1951 playoff game against the hated Giants, who then surrendered Bobby Thomson’s pennant-clinching Shot Heard “Round the World.” His MVP and Cy Young year of 1956 ended on a bitter note, being roughed up in game seven of the World Series by the also-hated Yankees.

He was also human off the field, After experiencing a sudden decline in 1958 that led to him being traded to the Cincinnati Reds, Newcombe revealed years later that he fell off due to severe alcoholism. In his words, he was “a stupefied, wife-abusing, child-frightening, falling-down drunk.” Rock bottom came in 1965 when he pawned his 1955 World Series ring to afford more booze. He quit drinking the following year when his wife threatened to leave him and would go on to help many others battle their own substance abuse issues.

Newcombe’s departure from the mortal coil is also the loss of a crucial link to the franchise’s exalted Brooklyn heyday. Except for 1958, the inaugural season in Los Angeles, every year he spent with the franchise was with the curved B emblazoned on his cap. While there is no shortage of exhaustive, sepia-toned chronicles of the Brooklyn Dodgers, knowing that golden age of baseball is even less physically present brings a tear to one’s eye.

By any measure, we can take solace in the fact that Don Newcombe lived as full a life as possible. He did everything a pitcher could hope to, shattered racial barriers alongside an armada of other regal black players, and remained true to the Dodgers organization until his dying day.

Don has retold the story of a conversation between himself and Civil Rights hero Martin Luther King Jr:

“He said, ‘Don, you’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy and Doby made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,'” Newcombe said. “After everything he’d been through, here he was telling me how we’d helped him with the movement. I’ll never forget that.”

All that’s arguably missing is a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor he merits consideration for. But that doesn’t make him any less special to the history of baseball. And, for that, matter, our history. At a fundraising event in 2010, President Barack Obama, with Newcombe in attendance, said, “I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and were it not for Don Newcombe.”

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