Don Newcombe — part of my pantheon

June 3, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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Boys go through a hero worship stage from about 8-12. It is different than being a fan; it is more like worshiping a Greek god. Rarely is there only one hero; oftentimes the worshiping is of a pantheon. Many of the Brooklyn Dodgers made up my pantheon. There were major gods and minor ones. Snider, Hodges, Campanella, Robinson were first-tier gods. Reese, Furillo, Cox and some others were second tier, which mind you was still off the esteem charts.

The wonderful thing about hero worship is that it rarely has broken gods. It isn’t that my gods weren’t broken in one way or another; I just didn’t see it. Gods don’t have flaws. Some feel nothing human can be perfect, only those things created by the one God. That is why Michelangelo looked at his sculpture of David because everyone who saw it said it was perfect. He saw the perfection, took a hammer, and cracked the knee. It was no longer perfect. At eight or nine, I couldn’t see the cracked knees. If there were flaws, I was incapable of seeing them. Not seeing them was easy. His success was blinding.

Here are some examples. His HS had no baseball team, so he played semi-pro ball throughout high school.  He played for the first racially integrated baseball team in the US. That was not Brooklyn; it was the Nashua Dodger. 

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By 1949 he was in the “Bigs,” becoming only the third athlete of color to be a major leaguer. In a partial season, his first, he won 17 games and pitched thirty-two consecutive scoreless innings. “Newk,” as all called him, was the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards in his career, a record that stood until 2011. In 1949 he became the first black pitcher to start a World Series Game. In ’51, he blew through the league notching 20 wins and becoming the first black player to do that. In 1956 came the establishment of the Cy Young Award. He won it first along with being the National League’s MVP.

Two years of mandatory service during Korea hurt him. He came back and his first year he was a shadow of who he was. Something then snapped and in ’55 he went 20-5 with an ERA just over 3. ’56 was even better. 27-7, 139 strikeouts, and again an ERA just over 3.. He pitched five shutouts and 18 complete games.

By time he was a Dodger he was an imposing person, especially to a pint-sized me. He stood 6’4” tall and weighed in around 250. That was a lot of body to put behind a pitch. It was also a lot of body to put behind a swing. He had a great eye. Dodger fans would go nuts when he was called in as a pinch hitter. His average was more than respectable, particularly for a pitcher. He batted .271 lifetime and hit 15 dingers. Big John? He was “Big Newk” to me.

I don’t know how I missed the downfall. He had to live with being lifted in the play off game against the Giants for Ralph Branca. We know how good a move that was.

For me, after the Series win in ’55, I was either growing up or otherwise less engaged than I had been. So, while I remember Gil Hodges’ disastrous hitless streak, I have no memory of the ’56 Series where Newcombe got bombed by The Bombers, losing game seven 9-0. Berra touched him for two homers, three total in the series. Then came LA.

He started 0-6 and was traded to the Reds. For me, it was out of sight out of mind. If he wasn’t a Dodger, he wasn’t anything. In almost two years, he was pretty good, but greatness had left him.. He then ended up with the Indians, went 2-5 and was released. Then came a stint in Japan where he was more of a novelty than a ball player, a bug, black novelty. He played outfield and first base. His average was lower in Japan than was his lifetime average. He came back to Brooklyn and served several administrative positions. But here is what I never knew until I discovered that he was a June baby. He was an alcoholic self-described as “a stupefied, wife-abusing, child-frightening, falling-down drunk.” “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” it is said. He pawned his World Series ring to buy alcohol. How long can you go? His private life was a mess. Three wives, 3 children, and finally a threat by his third wife to get straight or get out. He got straight in 1966.

Then it got better. Don Newcombe lived until he was 93. From ’66 until his health failed, he helped innumerable people straighten out their lives, ball players or not. He was part of the initial calls of “Legends of Dodger Baseball and inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. “I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and it were not for Don Newcombe.” Barack Obama, 4/19/10. It had gotten a lot better.

I’ve come to realize that my hero had clay feet. The pressures he had to withstand on and off the field ate at him. How those other early African American players dealt with it, why many of them dealt with it far better than he, Robinson and Campanella are obvious examples, who knows. At the end, there was peace. May it be his eternally. He certainly fought the good fight for it.


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