By Bill Pruden
Seventy-three years ago today, on May 20, 1949, Major League Baseball was witness to one of the game’s more inauspicious starts to what would ultimately be an award-winning career. After striking out the first batter, the 23-year-old, 6-foot, 4-inch Don Newcombe, only the third Black hurler to appear in the big leagues, gave up three straight singles as well as a bases-clearing double, a performance that left more than a few observers wondering if he was up to the challenge.
But while the 81.00 earned run average that Newcombe sported when he exited was by no means impressive, by the end of the season the hard-throwing right-hander had made clear that in every way he belonged on a major-league pitcher’s mound.
Indeed, he brushed off that shaky start and went on to craft a memorable rookie campaign and a highly decorated career.
In fact, his receipt of Rookie of the Year honors, the Cy Young Award, the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series ring would not be replicated until Justin Verlander matched it in 2017.
Two days after the debacle in St. Louis, it was as though a different person toed the rubber at Crosley Field, as Newcombe led his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates to a 3-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds, throwing a five-hit shutout.
He would soon establish himself as a regular part of the Dodgers rotation, ultimately starting 31 games. He completed 19 of them and threw five shutouts on the way to 17 wins against 8 losses, with a final ERA of 3.17.
Not only did “Newk” win the Rookie of the Year Award but also made the All-Star team and placed eighth in the voting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player. By season’s end, his debut against the Cardinals was a distant memory.
Newcombe followed up his impressive rookie season with two more stellar efforts, winning 19 and 20 games while pitching over 265 innings in both 1950 and 1951.
Unhappily, like many ballplayers at that time, military service forced him to miss the next two seasons, but while he struggled a bit upon returning from the service part- way into the 1954 season, his efforts in 1955 and 1956 left observers wondering what might have been had he not missed the intervening two-plus seasons.
Indeed, in 1955, Newcombe won 20 games while losing only five as the Dodgers finally won the World Series, defeating their long-time nemesis, the New York Yankees, in seven games.
Then in 1956, Newcombe had a season for the ages, going 27-7. He threw 18 complete games and had five shutouts while crafting a 3.06. ERA.
His exploits earned him the inaugural Cy Young Award for the major leagues’ top pitcher, an award that was given to only one pitcher per year at that time. In addition, Newcombe was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
That season was the undisputed pinnacle of his career and while he amassed another 50 victories, he was never again the dominant figure he had been in the first half of the 1950s.
Newcombe struggled mightily after the team moved to Los Angeles and was no longer a part of the team’s African American big three, with Jackie Robinson having retired and Roy Campanella having been involved in a car accident that not only ended his career but initially left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Newcombe, who had been a sub-.500 pitcher with the Dodgers in their final year in Brooklyn, was 0-6 after the team moved to Los Angeles and before he was traded in mid-June to the Reds. By the end of the 1960 season, his career was over.
And yet for all he did on the diamond, he believed his greatest accomplishments and greatest contributions to the Dodgers and the community came off the field and later in his life.
Many years after his retirement, after he had finally gotten his post-baseball life in order, Newcombe, who had been known as a hard drinker — one whose drinking sometimes fueled an often-volcanic temper — publicly revealed the full extent of his alcoholism and its impact on his life.
He admitted that “for many years, he was a stupefied, wife-abusing, child-frightening, falling-down drunk.” But before he fully confronted his demons, he went through a period of great difficulty.
In 1965, he declared bankruptcy and became so desperate to drink that he pawned his 1955 World Series ring to pay for the habit.
His first marriage ended in 1960 but when his second wife threatened to leave and take their son, Don Jr. with her in 1966, Newcombe finally stopped drinking.
In fact, he did more than that. Recognizing what alcohol abuse could do, Don Newcombe dedicated much of the rest of his life to helping people who, like him, had struggled with alcoholism and its impact.
Newcombe became outspoken in his efforts to make people aware of the importance of recognizing and confronting the dangers of alcoholism and spreading that message was an important part of his role as the Dodgers’ director of community relations, a post he held from 1970 until 2017.
In that role, he made countless appearances throughout the Los Angeles area each season, speaking to youngsters and participating in the Dodgers' Alumni Association.
As part of his community efforts, he created the Dodger Drug and Alcohol Awareness program in 1980. He also served as a consultant for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and was the director for special projects for the New Beginning Alcohol and Drug Treatment program.
Upon his death on February 19, 2019, at the age of 92, one media outlet said that Newcombe had lived a consummate American life, noting that so many of the “the cultural touchstones that we today see as part of the American experience Newcombe lived through and experienced.”
So many of the things that every day people must confront—from addiction, to a failed marriage to struggling to control a temper—were things he experienced and the way he responded to them made him a role model as well as someone who could and would help others respond as well.
Over the years, Newcombe was often asked whether he thought he should be in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Minimizing his own pioneering aspects that were often overlooked as a teammate of Jackie Robinson, Newcombe generally and candidly, observed that his career was not very long and that his drinking had taken a toll, undermining the performances of his later years. And then he would go on to note, as he wrote on his website: “What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives – means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”
Cooperstown may not have come calling but when the President of the United States admiringly says, as Barack Obama did in 2010, that you have “helped …America become what it is,” and when former teammate Maury Wills credits you with helping him overcome his own addiction problems, saying “He wouldn’t give in and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe,” you know you have had an impact that many Hall of Famers can only dream about. What more can anyone ask?
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is: email@example.com.