Don Newcombe, RIP: The enemy within

2019-02-20 DonNewcombe

Don Newcombe, the first black pitcher to start Game One of a World Series, who could put racists in their place but couldn’t stop questioning himself.

Brooklyn Dodgers legend Don Newcombe looked and acted gruff on the mound but it masked a genuine sensitivity, to people in general and about his own triumphs and shortfalls. His successes were profound but his failures gnawed at him because, it seemed to him, people were more unwilling to forget them than they were to remember his triumphs.

If people were unwilling to forget, Newcombe himself seemed even less so. He could put baseball racists in their place with a well-timed knockdown pitch, but he couldn’t put himself in his own place comfortably.

He was the National League’s first Rookie of the Year, in 1949, when the award was made into one for each league; he was the first black pitcher to get the start in Game One of a World Series, also in 1949; he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner when it was introduced as a one-across-the-board prize for the game’s best pitcher at the end of the 1956 season.

But Newcombe, who died Tuesday at 92, was an intimidating looking 6’4″ who inspired writers to describe him in larger-than-life terms so often that whenever he came up short he was seen and written up as a grave disappointment. A deeply human man who wasn’t allowed to be human; a man too well aware of his flaws who wasn’t allowed to be flawed, who waged a quiet war with himself when he came up short time after time, no matter what, in some of the Dodgers’ biggest games.

“Though his build gave him a great advantage on the mound,” wrote Michael Shapiro in The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together,

it put him in that unfortunate position of being the object of unreasonably high expectations: like all big men, he was supposed to beat lesser men. And when he did not his failure could not be dismissed as a physical limitation, say, like Carl Erskine’s chronically sore shoulder. Worse still, Newcombe’s failures—like all pitchers, he did fail to win games his team needed—seemed to come in the big games. That is not to say that he had not won important games, many of them, and that he had been anything other than up to the task. But when the beat fellows broke out their record books and old scorecards it did not take long to notice that Newcombe had never won a game in the World Series.

Newcombe’s first World Series failure wasn’t even close to being for lack of trying. He took the distinction of being the first black man to get a Game One start and used it to fight the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds to a scoreless draw until the bottom of the ninth, with Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich leading off.

Blessed with a live fastball (and remarkable control of it), Newcombe also owned a curve ball with a break so ferocious that umpire Jocko Conlan once spent an entire game trying to catch Newcombe throwing spitters. Now, on 2-0, Newcombe threw Henrich one of those curve balls. And Henrich drove it over the right field fence. Game over.

“[Hall of Famer Roy] Campanella said, ‘You missed the first two pitches. Let’s give him your best stuff’,” Newcombe remembered to Peter Golenbock for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “And I threw him a curve ball. I had a good, sharp breaking curve ball. And I’d throw the same pitch to him today and dare him to hit it again. I’d like to see him hit it again. And he hit it over the right field fence. That winter we’d go around speaking, and I asked him if he knew what it was. He said, ‘No. All I knew, I hit what I saw.’ They didn’t call him Old Reliable for nothing.”

Newcombe lost again in Game Four when he couldn’t get out of the fourth alive, Cliff Mapes hitting a one-out two-run double and, a fly out later, Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat hitting an RBI double. Those were nothing compared to arguably the biggest game of Newcombe’s career, Game Three of the 1951 National League pennant playoff. With a two-run lead, one out, and two on in the bottom of the ninth, Newcombe ran out of gas.

Much later it came forth that Newcombe said he was spent before he went back out to start the inning. Out came Newcombe, in came Ralph Branca (when bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth panicked over Erskine bouncing a curve ball while warming up), and into the short left field seats went Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer.

We know now that the playoff was made possible in the first place because Giants manager Leo Durocher installed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that was instrumental in the Giants’ unlikely comeback from thirteen games out of first place. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Thomas Boswell crowed after reading the Wall Street Journal column that first exposed the scheme, flipping broadcaster Russ Hodges’s famous radio call smack on its head.)

Shapiro recorded “many believed” the first seeds of Newcombe’s choking reputation were sown by Durocher himself, who’d managed Newcombe briefly with the Dodgers before managing the Giants.

[Durocher] possessed a cruel streak that he applied to good effect. It did not much matter whether, in fact, Newcombe choked, only that Newcombe could be made to feel like he did when he pitched against New York. If Durocher was the source, he did his work well because by 1956 the book on Newcombe was that while he possessed terrific stuff he lacked the courage to use it when it most mattered. Durocher knew enough about Newcombe to know that while he blustered, ranted, and postured, he was a sensitive man who looked at the strengths and triumphs of other men as indications of all that he lacked.

2019-02-20 DonNewcombeSandyKoufax

Newcombe steadies himself with Sandy Koufax’s arm as they prepare to throw out ceremonial first pitches before Game Seven of the 2017 World Series.

“[T]he last thing in the world you want when you have a pitcher on the ropes is to give him a chance to compose himself,” Durocher would say in his memoir Nice Guys Finish Last, about that third playoff game, “and so I’m also screaming insults at . . . Don Newcombe . . . The truth is that I had been trying to get into a fight with Newcombe from the time we tied the score in the fourth inning. After every inning, I had waited for him to pass me on his way back to the dugout so that I could let him know what a choke artist he was.”

Newcombe himself once admitted to one of his most wounding flaws, a tendency to get a little careless on the mound when he had a decent-sized lead to protect. He could and would knock down the hottest hitter in the lineup if the opposing team threw nasty racial epithets at Newcombe and the integration-pioneering Dodgers, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t protect himself when a game began to catch up to him.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and other teammates often had to ream him to get him enraged enough to bear down again. They must have had to do it often enough in 1956, when he won a staggering 27 games, showed a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and won all ten first place votes for baseball’s first Cy Young Award. (The award wouldn’t change to one award in each league until another Dodgers 27-game winner, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, won his third Cy Young Award for his final season, 1966.)

Yet Newcombe chafed over people crediting May acquisition Sal Maglie—long enough a hated Giant enemy but now purchased by the Dodgers from the Indians—with making the final Brooklyn pennant possible when he posted his final solid season including a no-hitter against the Phillies. Robinson and Newcombe were never particularly close (Newcombe’s best friend on the team was Campanella, with whom he’d played in the Negro Leagues and the minors), but Robinson got Newcombe’s frustration over that, saying as much to sportswriting legend Jimmy Cannon, then with the New York Post, near the end of the season:

He’s a very proud guy. I see where all the credit goes to Sal. Look, I know that without Sal we wouldn’t be where we are. I’m not taking anything away from Sal. But along the way they should have given some credit to Newk. He probably feels this way even though I haven’t spoken to him about it. If I was in his spot, doing what he’s been doing for the ball club and I wasn’t given the credit, I’d be burned up too.

Newcombe missed the 1952 and 1953 Series in military service. He got one start in the 1955 Series, the one that finally made next year this year for Brooklyn, and was handed a 2-0 lead to work with in the top of the second. It didn’t last; the two teams traded leads until the fourth, when Joe Collins homered for a 4-3 lead, then the Yankees went ahead to stay in the sixth, when Collins hit a two-run homer. Two batters and a triple later, Newcombe was out of the game. He didn’t appear in that Series again.

Then Newcombe was beaten twice in the 1956 Series, which also went seven games but also went to the Yankees, thanks in large part to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra hitting a pair of two-run homers off Newcombe in Game Seven. Both on 0-2 counts, both when Campanella called for Newcombe to waste inside deliveries to the notoriously bad ball-hitting Berra. Driven out of the game when Elston Howard homered in the fourth, Newcombe was too humiliated to stay in the clubhouse, showering and walking out to his car, accompanied by his father and by another Post writer, Milton Gross.

As the men climbed into the car, Newcombe apologised to his father. “What do you have to be sorry for?” asked James Newcombe, who worked as a chauffeur to raise three sons and a daughter in New Jersey. On the drive back to Jersey the three men listened as the Yankees finished what they started, a 9-0 blowout to win the Series. As he dropped his father home, Newcombe also apologised to his mother, who replied, “What’s to be sorry?”

Then, after Newcombe called his wife (he would marry three times in his life), he and Gross headed toward Newcombe’s own home. As Gross recorded in a remarkably sensitive column, Newcombe thought aloud about whatever it was he was still doing wrong. “I can’t put my finger on why I do it,” he said. “I was running in the outfield at the stadium the other day and a guy called me a yellow-bellied slob. How do you take things like that?”

I’ve written elsewhere that the sports goat business gets too far out of hand too often. I’ve also written that it usually comes from people who wouldn’t have even an eighth of the guts it takes to go out in front of a packed stadium and maybe millions more on television, next to radios, or listening online, and even try to do what the Don Newcombes did for entire careers.

You’d love to see whom among Joe and Jane Fan would have half the fortitude to even go out to the field, to the mound, to the plate, or into the dugout with the lineup card at all, never mind trying to do such a public job the way baseball’s too-condemned goats did. Like it or not, the one law of sports you can’t overthrow is that somebody has to lose. Like it or not, the best of men get beaten when doing nothing worse than their best just as the most modest of men triumph when least expected.

If Newcombe was too well aware of his flaws, if he was sometimes more bothered by those than comforted by his triumphis, it still speaks well of him that he went out to the mound in some of the biggest pressure games of his life and tried to do his job despite them. And, despite the salve to which he took that nobody on the Dodgers realised until he got momentarily unruly on the team flight to Japan for an exhibition tour following the ’56 Series: alcoholism, which actually began in his childhood when his father actually believed drinking beer would make the boy big and strong.

Newcombe kept another secret during the ’56 Series: he couldn’t throw his curve ball without pain. He’d felt a pop in his arm while pitching the pennant clinching game against the Pirates and started shaking off curve ball signs. On the Japanese tour, Newcombe said, “This choke-up and gutless talk is nonsense. I tried to win a game for them with a bad arm.” Only Campanella knew of the injury, and Newcombe refused to talk about it otherwise.

After a modest 1957 and a slow start in 1958, the latter the team’s first season in Los Angeles, Newcombe was traded to the Reds. By 1960’s end he was out of the majors and, after one season in Japan as an outfielder/first baseman, out of the game. Only in 1965, after he passed out and awoke to see his wife and children packed ready to leave him, did Newcombe finally stop drinking.

After working several years as an alcohol counselor for groups aiming to curb teen drinking, Newcombe rejoined the Dodgers as a community relations director and eventual front office advisor, and thrived on both while also enjoying numerous spring trainings as a special instructor and mentor. (He even helped Bob Welch, a former Dodger who’d earn 27 wins for the 1990 Athletics, recover from alcoholism.) But not long after he got sober to stay, Newcombe helped make Koufax’s final pennant clincher possible. Kind of.

Koufax was pressed into service on two days’ rest for 1966’s final regular season game, the second of a doubleheader in which fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale lost. Pitching impressively against the Phillies (plate umpire Doug Harvey would remember it as “the best exhibition of baseball I’ve ever seen in my life, it was privilege to call that game”), Koufax felt something go out of whack high in his back while pitching to the Phillies’ Gary Sutherland.

He ran into the clubhouse and gulped a handful of pain pills. It turned out he suffered a slipped vertebra. Newcombe just so happened to be in the clubhouse when Koufax came in and made for the trainer’s table. Newcombe and trainer Bill Buhler took hold of him on the table at either end, pulling like a tug-o-war until the disc slipped back into proper place, and Koufax finished what he started, a 6-3 win to nail the pennant.

He thanked Newcombe profusely after the game. “Don was a mentor at first,” Koufax said upon Newcombe’s death, referring to their relationship when Koufax was a green bonus baby, “and a friend at the end.”

I saw Newcombe once in my own lifetime. I took my young son to Dodger Stadium on a fan day during which you could meet and get autographs by assorted Dodgers, players and coaches alike by waiting in lines until you reached the next available Dodger. (My son got a ball signed by then-coach Jim Riggleman; he’d hoped for Shawn Green.) Newcombe sat at a table, a straw hat on his head and a Dodger jersey with his old number 36 around his torso. He bantered genially with the fans and seemed completely at peace in Dodgerland and with himself, belying his reputation for generosity and bristling at once.

It was a peace too hard won that didn’t have to be so hard. His number one enemy was the enemy within; the empathy and kindness he needed most was from himself. May the Lord’s angels shepherd him to an eternity of both.

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