Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Happy 90th Birthday, Don Newcombe!

June 14, 1926, 90 years ago: Donald Newcombe (no middle name) is born in Madison, Morris County, New Jersey, and grows up in Elizabeth, Union County. He might be the best pitcher not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He went to Elizabeth High School, when it was still named Thomas Jefferson High School, and signed with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues. He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and made their way through their minor league system at a time when they were bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.

In 1949, Newk was promoted to the Dodgers, winning 17 games, leading the National League in shutouts with 5, and having a scoreless streak of 32 consecutive innings. That year, the All-Star Game was at the Dodgers' home ground, Ebbets Field, and he, Robinson, Dodger catcher Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby, the Cleveland Indian center fielder who had been the 1st black player in the American League, were selected as the majors' 1st black All-Stars.

He was named NL Rookie of the Year, and manager Burt Shotton trusted him in Game 1 of the World Series, making him the 1st black pitcher to start a World Series game. Unfortunately for him, the Yankees started Allie Reynolds, and they traded goose eggs until the bottom of the 9th, when Tommy Henrich became the 1st player ever to hit what we would now call a walkoff home run in postseason play. The Yankees won the Series in 5 games.

In 1950, Newk won 19 games, and was on the mound for the last game of the regular season. If the Dodgers could beat the Philadelphia Phillies at Ebbets Field, they would force a Playoff for the Pennant. Again, Newk kept the game scoreless well past a point at which Joe Girardi would have taken him out. But, in the 10th inning, Dick Sisler hit a home run that gave the Phils the Pennant.

In 1951, Newk won 20 games and led the NL in strikeouts. But he pitched 272 innings, a number that would surely give Girardi a stroke, and was in the 7th inning of the Playoff tiebreaker with the New York Giants, when he told Robinson that he was tired. The version of the story I've heard is that Robinson told him, "You keep pitching until your arm falls off." I suspect that Jackie may have qualified "your arm" with an adjective, one beginning with the letter F. Newk kept going into the 9th, but he faltered, and was responsible for the runners on base when he was removed for Ralph Branca, and then Bobby Thomson hit the Pennant-winning home run.

This unfairly gave Newk a reputation as a pitcher who "can't win the big one." And he couldn't do anything about it in 1952 or 1953, as the Korean War was on and he was drafted into the U.S. Army. And the Dodgers didn't win the Pennant in 1954, either.

But in 1955, the Dodgers blew the League away, clinching the Pennant earlier than any NL team had ever done, and finally won the World Series. Newk won 20 games and hit 7 home runs -- a feat matched in baseball history only by Wes Ferrell, who did it twice, with the 1931 Indians and the 1935 Boston Red Sox; and by Don Drysdale, with the Los Angeles version of the Dodgers in 1965. No, Babe Ruth never did both in the same season. (For those of you who are British: Despite baseball's similarity to cricket, I don't know how that sport's stats work, so imagine a goalkeeper keeping 20 clean sheets and scoring 7 goals.)

Cy Young died that year, and the next year, 1956, the Cy Young Award for most valuable pitcher was established, since many people didn't think it was right that a pitcher, who appeared once every 4 days, should get the MVP. "Old Number 36," as Dodger broadcaster Red Barber might have called him, won both awards anyway, going 27-7. Those 27 wins have not been matched by a New York-based pitcher since. Not by Whitey Ford, not by Tom Seaver, not by Ron Guidry, not by Dwight Gooden, not by anyone.

But that would be his last All-Star season, at age 30 -- and he'd already missed his age 26 and 27 seasons in the Army. Injuries and heavy drinking began to take their toll. He went 11-12 in 1957, the last Brooklyn season. In 1958, the 1st Los Angeles season, he lost his 1st 6 decisions, and the Dodgers traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. He went 13-8 in 1959, but was shaky in 1960. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and called it a career.


His totals: 149-90, in only 10 seasons; an ERA of 3.56, an ERA+ of 114, and a WHIP of 1.203. Occasionally used as a pinch-hitter, he batted .271, and hit 15 home runs. Today, baseball Twitterers would call him one of the #PitchersWhoRake.

But it's not enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. Baseball-Reference.com puts him at 78 on their Hall of Fame Monitor, for which 100 represents a "Likely HOFer." They have him at 28 on their Hall of Fame Standards, which is weighted more toward career stats, and for which 50 represents the "Average HOFer." On their Similarity Scale, only 1 of his 10 most similar pitchers is in the Hall, and that's Dizzy Dean, who won 150 games before his own career was shortened by injury, and is in the Hall as much for being a cultural icon as for being a great pitcher.

And while there are players in the Hall of Fame who appeared in the majors but did more in the Negro Leagues (the late Monte Irvin is a good example, having done great things in both), Newk wasn't in the Negro Leagues for very long (11 games in 1944 and 1945, before the Dodgers signed him at age 19), so he can't get a boost that way: Like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, he was in them, but pretty much all of his great moments came in the majors. So he's not going to get in that way.

Maybe, before he dies, the Veterans' Committee will take his intangible impact into account, and elect him.

Then again, they haven't done that for his teammate Gil Hodges. Or for Marvin Miller.


In 1961, Newcombe pitched for the Spokane Indians of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and went 9-8, but had a high ERA. In 1962, he played in Japan, and Doby was a teammate. But he only pitched once, probably due to injury, dividing his time between the outfield and 1st base. That was his last professional season.

In 1967, he quit drinking, and became a substance abuse counselor. A Dodger legend from the early L.A. years, Maury Wills, credits Newk with getting him clean after years of boozing and cocaine use.

"What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again, means more to me than all the things I did in baseball," he has said.

Newk joined the Dodgers' front office, as Director of Community Affairs. In the 1977 and 1978 World Series, he wheeled out Campanella, who'd been paralyzed in a 1958 car crash, and assisted him in throwing out the ceremonial first ball. In 2009, he went into semi-retirement, and was named a special adviser to the team's chairman -- Basketball Hall-of-Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
In 2010, he attended a fundraiser for Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senator from California. So did President Barack Obama, who kidded nobody when he called Newk "someone who helped America become what it is," and added, "I would not be here if it were not for Jackie, and it were not for Don Newcombe."
He became one of the go-to guys for interviews about the Brooklyn Dodgers, including in Ken Burns' recent documentary Jackie Robinson. Because he was in the Army in 1952 and '53, the years in which Roger Kahn covered the Dodgers for the New York Herald-Tribune, he was not one of the Dodger players Kahn later looked up for his book The Boys of Summer, and as a result, he was not profiled in it. (Carl Erskine is now the last living player who was.)

Don Newcombe is alive and well, and lives in Woodbridge, New Jersey, 4 New Jersey Transit train stops from his former hometown of Elizabeth.

His son, Don Newcombe Jr., briefly played in the Dodgers' minor-league system.

More importantly, from my perspective, is that my grandmother, a Dodger fan who became a Met fan, was a big fan of his. She even met him once, in an elevator in an office building in downtown Newark. She said he looked huge. When I told her "Big Newk" was "only" 6-foot-4, and 220 pounds in his playing days, she wouldn't believe it. We saw him together in 1997, at the ceremony the Mets held at Shea Stadium to honor Jackie on the 50th Anniversary of his major league debut.

Happy Birthday, Newk. May there be many more.

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