Longtime Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe dies

LOS ANGELES — Don Newcombe, the hard-throwing Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who was one of the first black players in the major leagues and who won the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, has died. He was 92.

The team confirmed that Newcombe died Tuesday morning after a lengthy illness.

“Don Newcombe’s presence and life established him as a role model for major leaguers across the country,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “He was a constant presence at Dodger Stadium, and players always gravitated to him for his endless advice and leadership. The Dodgers meant everything to him, and we are all fortunate he was a part of our lives.”

Newcombe, like Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson, was signed by Branch Rickey from the Negro Leagues and then made a huge mark in the major leagues.

“Newk” was a fierce presence on the mound, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound bear of a man who stared down hitters and backed up anyone foolish enough to crowd the plate. He was a four-time All-Star and won 20 games in three different seasons.

“Don Newcombe had a ton of talent, and he was a great competitor,” former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a teammate of Newcombe, said in a statement. “He was a helluva pitcher, and he was one of the best hitting pitchers I have ever seen.”

His greatest year was 1956, when he went 27-7 and won both the Cy Young Award, then given to only one pitcher for both leagues, and the National League MVP award.

“He was a powerhouse. I don’t think he really got enough credit for his overall performance,” said former teammate Carl Erskine. “He threw a fastball that had great location and a curveball that was a short, hard breaking pitch.”

Newcombe, Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella were black players for the Dodgers who supported each other.

“We came up with a strategy,” Newcombe later recalled. “We knew the impact we were attempting would have. We had to endure. (Robinson’s) character, his backbone, his guts — those were the keys. Jackie was the leader under Mr. Rickey.”

Newcombe’s Dodgers were perennial also-rans who specialized in winning the National League pennant then losing the World Series to the Yankees. Newcombe played on three pennant winners with the Dodgers and the World Series champions in 1955, the year they finally beat the Yankees.

Born June 14, 1926, in Madison, N.J., Newcombe pitched in the Negro Leagues starting in 1944 at age 18. In 1945, he had an 8-3 record with the Newark Eagles and won the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization.

Current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Newcombe was a friend and mentor who had a great impact on his life.

“What he did for baseball, as being one of the first African American players, his career with the Dodgers and how he impacted the organization,” Roberts said after spring training workouts in Glendale, Ariz. “Sharing stories about Jackie Robinson and his plight helped me and furthered my education on our history, so we lost a great man, a great Dodger today.”

When asked if he shares Newcombe’s history with current players, so they understand his accomplishments and his sacrifices, Roberts said, “Absolutely, Don was around a lot for games, and he would spend time with our players individually and as a team. So, for his legacy to live on, through me, through other players is paramount.”

Newcombe played in Nashua of the New England League and for teams in Montreal, Venezuela and Cuba before joining the parent club in 1949.

He went 17-8 in 1949, his first season with the Dodgers, and was NL Rookie of the Year.

Newcombe, Robinson and Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians became the first black players to appear in an All-Star Game that season, which the Dodgers hosted at Ebbets Field.

On July 8, 1949, Newcombe and Hank Thompson of the New York Giants became the first black pitcher and hitter to face each other in a major-league game.

In 1950, Newcombe went 19-11, and in 1951, he went 20-9, but he failed to win the season’s most important game. He was the starting pitcher in the decisive playoff-series game between the Dodgers and the Giants, and he held a 4-1 lead going into the ninth inning. He allowed three hits to the first four batters and was replaced by Ralph Branca, who gave up Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run, “the shot heard ’round the world.”

Like many ballplayers of his generation, Newcombe lost some prime years to military service, giving the Army the 1952 and 1953 seasons. “Wait until next year” had become a virtual mantra in Brooklyn as the Dodgers won the National League title in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, only to lose the World Series every time.

Then came 1955, “the year next year finally came” in Brooklyn parlance.

The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series and Newcombe went 20-5 during the regular season, winning 18 of his first 19 decisions.

Newcombe usually struggled in the postseason. He lost the first game of the 1955 Series to the Yankees and was skipped in favor of Johnny Podres after preparing to pitch in Game 7. Newcombe was 0-4 with an 8.59 ERA in five World Series appearances.

Newcombe faded quickly after 1956 as he pitched for the transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. He had a brief resurgence for the Reds, going 13-8 in 1959.

In a 10-year major-league career, he had a 149-90 record and a 3.56 ERA.

Alcoholism helped lead to his early retirement. He gave up drinking in later years and worked for drug- and alcohol-prevention programs. He continued working for the Dodgers, most recently as special adviser to the chairman.

Newcombe outlived most of his Dodgers teammates and was deeply affected when Campanella and Don Drysdale died within a week of each other in 1993.

“When tragic things happen, it gets the guts out of you,” he said at the time. “You try to be strong, but when those things happen, you break down and cry like a baby.”

Newcombe is survived by his wife, Karen Newcombe, son Don Newcombe Jr., daughter Kellye Roxanne Newcombe, son Brett Anthony Newcombe, grandchildren Cayman Newcombe and Riann Newcombe and stepson Chris Peterson.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Dodger-great-Don-Newcombe-dies-13628230.php.

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