Pioneering Newcombe eyes top honor
Former Dodgers hurler is one of 27 players on Veterans ballot
A pioneer in every sense of the word, former Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Don Newcombe's 10-year Major League career was marked by one first after another.
Not only is he widely regarded as the first great African-American pitcher, he was also the first black pitcher to win 20 games -- a feat he accomplished three times -- and the only player to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards. In fact, the Cy Young honor came in 1956, the first year the award was introduced.
Newcombe, now 80 years old, is one of 27 former Major League players on the 2007 Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee ballot. In the 2005 Veterans election, he garnered 10 percent of the vote. In the 2003 election, Newcombe received 13.6 percent of the vote. A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote to gain election. Results of the 2007 Veterans Committee election will be announced on Feb. 27 and the induction ceremony will take place on July 29 in Cooperstown.
Newcombe -- known as a quiet man who kept to himself but was infamous for being a prankster in the clubhouse -- began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues, playing for the Newark Eagles not far from his hometown of Madison, N.J.
After a year in the Negro Leagues, he made his big-league debut with the Dodgers in 1949. Newcombe posted a 17-8 record and had 32 consecutive scoreless innings that season, which earned him the Rookie of the Year Award and helped Brooklyn win the National League pennant. That same year, he was named an All-Star along with teammates Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 240 pounds, Newcombe was a threatening image to opposing batters.
"He was a very big guy," said baseball historian and author Ray Zardetto, who has chronicled Newcombe's career. "This was at a time when there weren't a lot of big pitchers. He had a very intimidating look about him on the mound. He wasn't a real fireballer. He was a more of a control pitcher. His fastball, however, Stan Musial called it the most frightening pitch he ever had to face."
Newcombe didn't show any signs of a sophomore slump as he posted 19 wins in 1950 and his first of three 20-win seasons the following year.
At age 30, Newcombe's career reached its pinnacle in 1956 when he finished with a 27-7 record in addition to 139 strikeouts, a 3.06 ERA, five shutouts and 18 complete games. His strong season earned him both the Cy Young Award (which was then awarded to just one player in all of baseball) and the MVP Award.
The next year, his career quickly unraveled due to an arm injury and his battle with alcohol, which he publicly admitted contributed to the demise of his career.
Newcombe went 0-6 for the Dodgers to begin the 1958 season after the club made its cross-country move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for four players halfway through the summer. He ended his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1960.
August Busch Jr.
"In 1956, I was the best player in baseball," Newcombe has said. "Four years later I was out of the Major Leagues, and it must have been the drinking. When you're young, you can handle it. But the older you get, the more it bothers you."
If he had one shortcoming as a pitcher, it was his inability to win big games and his lack of success in the postseason. Newcombe was 1-2 with an 8.59 ERA over the course of five starts in three trips to the World Series.
Newcombe wasn't just an intimidating presence on the mound, however, as he also knew how to handle a bat. He hit .271 in 878 lifetime at-bats and compared favorably to many of the position players of his time. Newcombe hit over .300 five times in his career and in 1955, he hit .359 with seven home runs.
While he was one of the first great black pitchers in baseball, Newcombe has said that he hopes to be remembered for his efforts off the field in addition to his playing career.
"I'm glad to be anywhere, when I think about my life back then. What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again -- means more to me than all the things I did in baseball," Newcombe said.
Newcombe has helped other former big leaguers overcome their addictions, as well. He has been sober since 1967 and returned to the Dodgers as a part of the front office in the 1970s.
"I'm standing here with the man who saved my life," said former Dodger Maury Wills. "He was a channel for God's love for me, because he chased me all over Los Angeles trying to help me and I just couldn't understand that -- but he persevered -- he wouldn't give in and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe."
Today, Newcombe remains active as the director of the Dodgers' community relations department, a job he has held for more than 30 years. In August 2006, the team honored Newcombe and his memorable 1956 campaign.
"Don Newcombe's contributions to the Dodger organization, the Los Angeles community and the game of baseball are incalculable," said Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. "His Dodger roots trace all the way back to Brooklyn and we are honored to have him as part of our team. His legacy as one of the greatest pitchers in the game endures today."
"Sixty years ago this month, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe made history in this country," Newcombe said at the event. "We made changes that went on for so long that black men couldn't play Major League Baseball in the so-called All-American sports pastime. Now all that has changed after 60 years.
"I'm the only one left from that team who is still here to talk about it, and to remind people that 60 years ago, it was not like this."
Lindsey Frazieris an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.