Don Newcombe, the major leagues’ first outstanding black pitcher and a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their glory years, the 1950s, died on Tuesday. He was 92.
The Dodgers announced his death but did not say where he died.
An imposing right-hander, at 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds, with an overpowering fastball, Newcombe claimed a string of achievements: National League rookie of the year in 1949; four-time All-Star; the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1956, when he also won the first Cy Young Award as baseball’s top pitcher. Moreover, he was the first black pitcher to start a World Series game.
But his career was cut short by alcoholism, and he was tormented by an undeserved reputation for failing to win big games, particularly in the World Series.
While Newcombe was proud of his accomplishments as a pitcher, he was gratified as well to have played a role in the civil rights struggle by helping to shatter modern baseball’s racial barrier after the arrival of the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella.
He once said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came to his house in the weeks before his assassination in 1968 and told him, “I would never have made it as successfully as I have in civil rights if it were not for what you men did on the baseball field.”
Newcombe had a career record of 149-90 with a 3.56 earned run average in 10 seasons with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians, missing two years of play because of military service.
In his rookie season, he won 17 games and lost 8 and led the league in shutouts with five. He had the league’s best winning percentage in 1955, .800, when he posted a record of 20-5, and in 1956, at .794, when he went 27-7.
He was also remarkably proficient at the plate for a pitcher. He set a single-season National League record for home runs by a pitcher with seven in 1955, and over his career hit 15 homers with a .271 batting average.
Carl Erskine, the outstanding right-hander who was Newcombe’s teammate on the “Boys of Summer” teams, felt that Newcombe had not been given his due.
“If Newcombe had not had two years away in the service, he could very well have been a Hall of Fame pitcher,” Erskine told Peter Golenbock in his book “Bums” (1984).
Donald Newcombe was born on June 14, 1926, in Madison, N.J., and grew up in Elizabeth. His father was a chauffeur.
Newcombe pitched for the Newark Eagles of the Negro leagues in 1944 and 1945 and then was signed by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager, to a minor-league contract before the 1946 season. Rickey went on to break the modern major league color barrier the next year by signing Robinson to a Dodger contract.
Newcombe had two outstanding seasons with the Dodgers’ farm team in Nashua, N.H., and another at Montreal before joining the Dodgers in May 1949.
Dan Bankhead, who debuted for the Dodgers on Aug. 26, 1947, was the first black pitcher in the majors. Satchel Paige, pitching for the Cleveland Indians in 1948, was the second, following a long and brilliant career in the Negro leagues.
But Newcombe was the first to be a star in the majors. He followed up his rookie-of-the-year season with a 19-11 record in 1950 and a 20-9 mark in 1951.
After two years in the Army, he had a mediocre season in 1954, then regained his form with 20 victories in 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series championship, and 27 in 1956.
But his heavy drinking took its toll, and after going 0-6 with the Dodgers at the outset of the 1958 season, their first year in Los Angeles, he was traded to Cincinnati. He lasted two more seasons in the major leagues, finishing his career with Cleveland.
Newcombe’s reputation for failing in key games came largely from his 0-4 record in World Series play facing the Yankees, but he had proved himself in many a key moment. He pitched an outstanding game in his first Series defeat, in 1949, losing by 1-0 on Tommy Henrich’s ninth-inning home run. He was a mainstay for the Dodgers in the final weeks of the 1951 season, then pitched superbly on little rest in Game 3 of the playoffs against the New York Giants before Ralph Branca, who relieved him in the ninth inning, yielded Bobby Thomson’s memorable pennant-winning home run.
Newcombe’s worst moments came in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series, when Yogi Berra hit two home runs off him in the Yankees’ 9-0 victory.
Long afterward, he remained bitter over his treatment in the press.
“Bob Feller never won a World Series game, either, but nobody said he choked,” Newcombe told The Plain-Dealer of Cleveland in 1997. “Ted Williams and DiMaggio had bad World Series, but nobody said they choked. But they said it about me.”
He acknowledged that he had never been on good terms with reporters. “I wasn’t the nicest guy in the world,” he said. “My attitude told them I didn’t care what they wrote.”
Newcombe drank heavily throughout his baseball career, and his problems worsened afterward. He said he stopped drinking in 1966, when his second wife, Billie, threatened to leave him and take their three children. He later spoke extensively on behalf of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“We were a drinking family,” he once recalled. “I remember drinking beer Pearl Harbor Day in a bar when I was 15. The drinking kept me from pitching another four or five years.”
Newcombe had returned to the Dodgers’ organization in 1970, when he became director of community relations. At his death, he was a special adviser to the Dodger chairman, Mark Walter.
His survivors include his wife, Karen Newcombe; his sons Don Jr. and Brett; a stepson, Chris Peterson; a daughter, Kellye Roxanne Newcombe; and two grandchildren.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2010, Newcombe described pitching to Joe DiMaggio in 1949 in the first All-Star Game to include black players.
“We never, ever dreamed we’d have a chance to play in the major leagues, so why even think about it?” he said. “We never talked about it, never thought about, never watched it. When I faced DiMaggio, I really didn’t know who he was.”