Don Newcombe, the first major black pitcher of the major leagues and a star of the Brooklyn Dodgers in their glory years in the 1950s, died Tuesday. He was 92 years old.
The Dodgers announced his death but did not specify where he died.
An imposing right-hander, at 6-foot-4 and 225-pound, with an overpowering fastball, Newcombe boasts a series of achievements: rookie of the year in 1949; four times star; and the most valuable player in the National League in 1956, when he also won the first Cy Young Award as the best baseball pitcher. In addition, he was the first black pitcher to start a World Series game.
But he also faced challenges beyond racial taunts against the first major black leagues, including his teammates Dodger, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. His career was interrupted by alcoholism and he was tormented by an undeserved reputation for not having won major matches, especially in the World Series.
Newcombe had a career record of 149-90 with an average of 3.56 points in 10 seasons with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians, missing two years of play due to his military service.
During his rookie season, he won 17 games and 8 losses. He led the league in laundering with five. He earned the league's best winning percentage in 1955, 800, when he recorded a record of 20-5, and in 1956, 0.794, when he beat 27-7.
He was also remarkably competent at the plate for a pitcher. He set a season-long record in the National League for home runs by a pitcher with seven goals in 1955 and, during his career, he scored 15 homers with a batting average of .271.
Carl Erskine, the formidable right-hander who was Newcombe's team-mate on the Boys of Summer teams, felt that Newcombe had not been honored.
"If Newcombe had not spent two years in the service, he could very well have been a Hall of Fame launcher," Erskine told Peter Golenbock in his book "Bums" (1984).
Donald Newcombe was born June 14, 1926 in Madison, New Jersey, and grew up in Elizabeth. His father was a driver.
Newcombe pitched black leagues for the Newark Eagles in 1944 and 1945 and was then signed by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager, for a minor league contract before the 1946 season. Rickey then broke the league's color barrier modern majors the following year by signing a contract between Robinson and Dodger.
Newcombe had two exceptional seasons with the Dodgers Farm team in Nashua, N.H., and another in Montreal before joining the Dodgers in May 1949.
Dan Bankhead, who made his debut with the Dodgers on August 26, 1947, was the first black pitcher of the majors. But Newcombe was the first to be a star. He then continued his rookie season of the year with a record of 19-11 in 1950 and a mark of 20-9 in 1951.
After two years in the Army, he had a mediocre season in 1954, then regained his form after 20 wins in 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Championship title, and 27 in 1956.
But his heavy consumption of alcohol had adverse consequences and, after playing 0-6 with the Dodgers early in the 1958 season, their first year in Los Angeles, he was traded to Cincinnati. He spent two more seasons in the majors, finishing his career in Cleveland.
Newcombe's reputation for failing in key matches is largely due to his record of 0-4 in the World Series against the Yankees, but he has proven himself in many key moments. He played an outstanding game in his first series loss in 1949, tying 1-0 in the ninth inning of Tommy Henrich. He was a mainstay of the Dodgers in the last few weeks of the 1951 season, and then enjoyed a great rest in the third game series against the Giants before Ralph Branca gave up the memorable homerun by Bobby Thomson. .
Newcombe's worst moments came in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series when Yogi Berra scored two home goals in the Yankees' 9-0 win.
Long after, he remained bitter over his treatment in the press.
"Bob Feller has never won a World Series match either, but no one has said that he's been smothered," said Newcombe at Cleveland's The Plain-Dealer in 1997. "Ted Williams and DiMaggio had a bad World Series, but no one said that they were choking, but they said it about me.
He acknowledged that he had never been on good terms with the reporters. "I was not the nicest boy in the world," he said. "My attitude told them that I did not care what they wrote."
Newcombe drank a lot during his baseball career and his problems worsened afterwards. He stated that he had stopped drinking in 1966, when his second wife, Billie, threatened to leave him and take their three children. He then spoke at length on behalf of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
"We were a family who drank," he once remembered. "I remember drinking Pearl Harbor Day beer at a bar at the age of 15. This consumption prevented me from launching another four or five years. "
Newcombe returned to the Dodgers organization in 1970, when he became director of community relations. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2010, he described the launch of Joe DiMaggio in 1949 during the first all-star game involving black players.
"We never imagined having the opportunity to play in the major leagues, so why even think about it?", He said. "We never talked about it, never thought about it, never looked at it, when I confronted DiMaggio, I really did not know who he was.
Survivors include his wife, Karen Newcombe; his sons Don Jr. and Brett; a son-in-law, Chris Peterson; a girl, Kellye Roxanne Newcombe; and two grandchildren.
Newcombe was proud of his achievements as a pitcher. But he was also extremely pleased to have played a role in the fight for civil rights by helping to break the racial barrier of baseball.
"We were paying our dues well before the civil rights march," recalled Newcombe in an interview with The Sporting News in 1952. "Martin Luther King told me one night," You will not know never what you, Jackie and Roy did to make my job possible. "