Born: June 14, 1926
Died: February 19, 2019
Donald Newcombe was born June 14, 1926 in Madison. He grew up in Elizabeth. Don was one of four boys. Don’s father was a chauffeur. He made a good living. He also made his own beer. Don and his brothers were allowed a taste from time to time. Drinking was part of the family culture.
Don was a big kid. At age 15 he stood over 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He could walk into any bar and get a drink, and often he did. On the Sunday Pearl Harbor was being bombed, he was getting bombed in a Staten Island bar.
Although at this point Don could see how alcohol was affecting his home life, he didn’t see how it could hurt him. He was an elite athlete—a right-handed pitcher and left-handed batter who seemingly could do no wrong on the ball field. Don was so talented that high school baseball was barely a challenge. He dropped out after his junior year to play with the Newark Eagles.
Finally, some competition! Don went 0–3 for Newark in 1944, but returned to go 8–3 for the Eagles as a 19-year-old in 1945. In 1946, he signed a minor-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had previously broken baseball’s color barrier when they announced the signing of Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers sent Robinson to play with the Montreal Royals in 1946.
Don was assigned to the Nashua Dodgers in the Class-B New England League. His catcher there was Roy Campanella, a 24-year-old “veteran” of the Negro Leagues. Their manager was Walter Alston, who also played first base for the team. Nashua thus became the first integrated pro baseball team in the United States during the 20th century.
Don was the youngest player for Nashua, but he went 14–4 in 19 starts and also batted .311—second-best on the club. In 1947, as the Jackie Robinson experiment played out in Brooklyn, Don spent a second season in Nashua and went 19–6. Don was promoted to the Montreal Royals in 1948 and went 17–6 against top minor-league talent. In 1949, after five games with the Royals, he was called up to Brooklyn in May.
Almost immediately, Don established himself as one of the National League’s finest pitchers. He towered over hitters at 6–4 and had great control of his explosive fastball. He blanked the Reds in his first start and went 17–8 with a league-best 5 shutouts, and was among the most effective strikeout pitchers in the game. Don was selected to pitch in the All-Star Game and even received a few MVP votes at the end of the year. He was a no-brainer for Rookie of the Year. That fall, he pitched the World Series opener against the Yankees. Despite striking out 11 Yankees, he was on the losing end of a 1–0 score, victimized by a Tommy Henrich homer. From that point on, the postseason would be unkind to Don.
Don turned in All-Star season again in 1950 and 1951, winning 19 and 20 games respectively. In 1951, he was the NL’s strikeout king. That season, the Dodgers and Giants engaged in a thrilling three-game playoff to decide the pennant. Don held the Giants to seven hits in 8 1/3 innings but ran out of gas with Brooklyn leading 4–2 with two runners on base. Ralph Branca relieved Don and gave up Bobby Thomson’s famous Shot Heard ’Round the World.
Don lost the 1952 and 1953 seasons to military service. He returned to pitch in 29 games in 1954, but was ineffective. He returned to form in 1955, winning 20 and losing 5 as the Dodgers won the pennant. Don was picked to start Game 1 of the World Series against the Yankees and was bombed in a 6–5 loss. Walter Alston did not use him again in the series, but Brooklyn won nonetheless in seven games.
The 1956 regular season was Don’s finest. He went 27–7 and won both the MVP and Cy Young Awards. To this day he is the only player to win Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young over the course of a career. Unfortunately, Don faltered against the Yankees again in the World Series. He gave up 6 runs in a Game 2 loss and yielded three homers in Game 7 as the Dodgers fell 9–0.
Statistically, Don ranked among baseball’s best pitchers at this point. Personally was another story. The strain of being a baseball pioneer wore heavily on Don, and he usually turned to the bottle hoping to take the edge off. His postseason disappointment only exacerbated the problem. He was an alcoholic. Recognizing that beer drinking was starting to affect his weight, Don decided to switch to whiskey, which could do the job with fewer calories.
In 1957, a sore arm limited Don’s effectiveness. In 1958, the Dodgers moved to the West Coast. After losing his first six decisions in LA, Don was traded to the Reds. He rebounded with a good year in 1959, but things went down hill quickly from there. After a year in the minors, he tried to revive his career in Japan in 1962 as a first baseman with no luck.
Don owned a cocktail lounge in Jersey City. In the years that followed he decided the best way to build up the business was to drink with friends and fans. The plan failed, the bar went under, and his alcoholism worsened. His young son, Don Jr. was afraid of him and so was his (second) wife, Billie. In 1966, she threatened to end the marriage if he didn’t stop. Don got help, quit drinking and revived his professional life by traveling the country lecturing about the dangers of drinking.
In the years that followed Don became a respected member of the African-American community and also the baseball community. A month before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he visited with Don to thank him for the sacrifices he made as one of the first black ball players. King said that he and Jackie and Campy made the things he was accomplishing possible. When Barack Obama was elected president, Don broke down and cried; he wished his old teammates were alive to see this day.
Don’s final record as a big-leaguer was 149 wins and 90 losses, with a 3.56 ERA and 24 shutouts. He was in the Top 10 among NL pitchers in ERA four times, wins five times, and strikeouts five times. As a hitter, Don batted .271 with 15 homers and 108 RBIs in 878 at bats. He was a four-time All-Star.
He passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 92.