Adios, Newk

Don Newcombe

Don Newcombe died yesterday. He was 92. He’s not the last Brooklyn Dodgers player, but he was close. Both Carl Erskine and Sandy Koufax are still around, and I presume there are others. This will be the second of these I’ve done in Black History Month, and it reminds us how many of the black pioneers are gone.

Newcombe spent time in the Negro Leagues, then followed the Dodgers minor league plan (Nashua, Montreal) before arriving in Brooklyn. He was Rookie of the Year in 1949, Dodgers ace by 1950. Ralph Branca gave up the home run that cost the Dodgers the 1950 pennant, but Newcombe was on the mound earlier and couldn’t hold off the Giants. He won 20 games in 1951, went off to the Korean War in 1952 and 1953, then came back for two more great years in 1955 and 1956. The 1956 season got him an MVP and the first ever Cy Young Award. In 1956 they only gave out one Cy Young for all of Major League Baseball.

He faded after that, didn’t make the transition to Los Angeles well, was traded to Cincinnati, then to Cleveland, and was done at 34. For his career he was 149-90 with an ERA of 3.56 (ERA+114), 1.209 WHIP, and 29.6 WAR.

Back then, sportswriters didn’t talk much in public about the dark side of a player. I didn’t know Newcombe had a drinking problem until years later. It certainly curtailed his career (as did Negro League time, although he was only 23 as a rookie). He got over it and became one of those ex-players teams called on to counsel players with personal problems, particularly alcohol. By all accounts, he was pretty good at it. In some ways it is his greatest contribution to the game.

There was always a knock on him; he never won a World Series game. In five starts he was 0-4 with an ERA of 8.59. He gave up 29 hits in 22 innings, but walked only eight while striking out 19. He gave up a couple of critical home runs to Yogi Berra in the Series (Berra did that to a lot of hurlers) and was seen as a bust in postseason play.

I remember him from my childhood. He was huge on the mound and intimidating (not Bob Gibson intimidating, but intimidating nonetheless). He was never a particular favorite of mine. I leaned toward Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Carl Furillo. And later Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres overshadowed him in my world (Koufax didn’t hit his stride until Newcombe was gone). I’ve come to realize that was youthful ignorance and he should have been right up there with the others. So this is by way of mourning a loss and making a belated apology to him.

RIP, Don Newcombe, and please, God, let’s not do any more of these this month.

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5 Responses to “Adios, Newk”

  1. Miller Says:

    A tip of the cap, v. And of course to Newk.

  2. keithosaunders Says:

    My Dad, who grew up in Brooklyn talked a lot about Don Newcombe. (His favorite was Duke Snyder)

    Sonny Rollins, who was/is a big baseball fan, wrote a song called Newk’s Fadeaway.

  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    Yeah, Newk was a great one. And if he didn’t win any world series games, people shouldn’t forget the great pitching that helped to get the Dodgers to the world series in the FIRST place!

    Alcohol really did derail his career, from what I’ve read.

    I LOVE jazz like this one. Here’s the song that Keith was talking about.

    Glen

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