One of Last Links to Negro Leagues Still Pitching Against Alcoholism
Baseball legends like Don Newcombe don’t come along often. Newcombe began with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League of the 1940s, he was an ace pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the Jackie Robinson era, and won the Cy Young and National League MVP Award in 1956, the first time the Cy Young Award was offered.
Newcombe also was on the mound for some of the most famous defeats in baseball history and had his career prematurely ended by alcoholism. He ultimately may have cemented his status among all time baseball legends by overcoming alcoholism and actively campaigning against the disease during his 30 year career in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.
According the late Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi in 2004, Newcombe was almost selected ahead of Robinson to be the first African American player in the big leagues. “It was Newcombe rather than Robinson the Dodger scouts thought should have been the first Black player,” Bavasi said. “But Mr. (Branch) Rickey in his infinite wisdom thought Newcombe was too young too handle the situation.”
When the 1946 baseball season opened Robinson was 27 and playing for the Dodgers’ top farm club in Montreal. Newcombe was just 19 and was getting ready for his debut in White organized baseball for Class B Nashua of the New England League. So while it is impossible to second guess Rickey on his selection of Robinson, Newcombe did everything possible to justify the scouts’ faith in him.
In a little more than three seasons in the minors, Newcombe went 52-18 with an ERA well under 3.00. After joining Brooklyn early in the 1949 season he quickly established himself as the staff ace with a 17-8 record, five shutouts to lead the league, and a 3.17 ERA, enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors. With the Dodgers winning the pennant, Newcombe was given the start in game one of the 1949 World Series.
That game was the first in a series of high-profile losses that came to mark his career in the eyes of some and is said to have a connection to his later battles with the bottle. He gave up a homer to Tommy Henrich in the bottom of the ninth inning for the only run in a 1-0 Yankee win. The next season, Newcombe surrendered a three-run homer to Dick Sisler in the tenth inning on the last day of the season to give the Phillies the pennant over the Dodgers.
In 1951, Newcombe allowed the Giants to rally in the ninth inning of the third game of a best of three series for the pennant, ultimately knocked out when Whitey Lockman doubled. Ralph Branca replaced Newcombe to face Bobby Thomson and surrendered a three run homer that won the game and the pennant for the Giants, making Thomson and Branca baseball legends.
In 1955, Newcombe followed a 20-win season by laying an egg in game one of the World Series, allowing the Yankees to come behind for a 6-5 win and convincing manager Walter Alston to leave him on the bench for the rest of the Series, the first and only won by Brooklyn. Then, in 1956, Newcombe had his greatest regular season (“The best pitcher I’ve ever seen for one season,” according to Bavasi), but his two World Series starts were a different story.
In the two games he surrendered 11 earned runs in four and two thirds innings, including five runs in three innings of a 9-0 Dodger loss in game seven. Newcombe left Ebbets Field early, had an altercation in the parking lot with a disappointed fan and is said to have shown up inebriated for the Dodgers’ trip to Japan for an exhibition series that followed the World Series that year.
From there, it was all downhill. Newcombe went from a 27-7 baseball legend in 1956 to 11-12 in 1957. In 1958 he was 0-6 for the Dodgers before a trade to Cincinnati. By 1960 he was a 34-year-old has been giving up nearly five earned runs per game and was finished in the major leagues. Newcombe acknowledges that alcoholism affected the latter stages of his playing career.
“In 1956 I was the best pitcher in baseball. Four years later, I was out of the major leagues. It must have been the drinking. When you’re young, you can handle it, but the older you get, the more it bothers you.”
After his playing career Newcombe spent years counseling athletes on the consequences of alcoholism, and says he has been sober since 1967. He began working in the Dodgers’ Community Relations department in 1979, expanding his alcohol-related messages to the greater Los Angeles community, and was promoted to a special advisor role to owner Frank McCourt in 2009 when he was 83. He is still working for the team and active in Democratic Party politics.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.