Don Newcombe, Integration Pioneer and the first “Black Ace” (1926-2019)

He wasn’t the majors’ first African American pitcher, or even the first to pitch for the Dodgers, but Don Newcombe collected some very important firsts in his role as an integration pioneer. Though he spent just 10 seasons in the majors in a career bookended by the color line and his own alcoholism — with a two-year detour into the Army during the Korean War to boot — Newcombe was the Dodgers’ ace during a period when they were a National League powerhouse. After his playing days ended, he found sobriety, and spent over four decades as the Dodgers’ director of community relations, as a counselor for players in their battles against alcohol and substance abuse, and as an exemplary ambassador for the game.

Newcombe’s full, rich life came to a close on Tuesday. He died at the age of 92 after battling a lengthy illness.

Alongside Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, who reached the majors ahead of him, Newcombe endured the indignities that came with being at the forefront of integration — the racial epithets, segregated and substandard accommodations, orders not to fight back — while helping the racially mixed Dodgers become the class of the NL. In his 10 major league seasons, the imposing, 6-foot-4 righty was part of three pennant-winning teams and two agonizing near-misses. Indeed, he became somewhat infamous for his hard and even heartbreaking luck in big games. Nonetheless, his talent was undeniable. On the mound, he went 149-90, with a 3.56 ERA (88 ERA-), 3.67 FIP (90 FIP-), and 35.9 WAR. He won 20 games three times, including in 1951, when he became the first African American pitcher to reach the milestone, and in 1956, when he won an NL-high 27 en route to the league’s MVP award and the first Cy Young Award, which at that point was given to just one pitcher for the two leagues. A legitimate threat with the bat as well, he often served as a pinch-hitter, and overall hit .271/.338/.367 with 15 homers, an 88 wRC+, and 8.7 WAR. After leaving the majors (1949-51, ’53-60), he spent a year in Japan as an outfielder and first baseman.

Newcombe’s success on the major league mound had an impact on generations of black pitchers. “During that era of the Negro Leagues, the pitching position, the catching position and the shortstop position were all seen as cerebral positions,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “You had this underlying belief that black athletes weren’t smart enough to do it.”

“To become a starting pitcher in itself was unique,” said Vida Blue, who in 1971 won both the AL Cy Young award and the MVP. “It’s no different than being a black quarterback.” Newcombe and Blue were two of the 12 black 20-game winners whom fellow pitcher Jim Grant called The Black Aces in a 2007 book celebrating their achievements.

Newcombe was born in Madison, New Jersey, on June 14, 1926, the second of five children of Roland and Sadie (Sayers) Newcombe. His father worked for 28 years as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, and brewed his own beer, which he began sharing with eight-year-old Don when he came home from school. “I remember him telling my mother to give the kids some beer. It won’t hurt them any and will help them grow strong,” Newcombe told the Washington Post in 1977.

In the 1930s, Roland Sr. took his sons to see baseball games at Ruppert Stadium in Newark, home of both the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League and the Newark Bears of the International League, the Yankees top farm team. At the age of nine, young Don began taking batting and pitching practice for a semipro team managed by his older brother, Roland Jr. The family moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Don played for Lafayette Junior High School, though he didn’t get to pitch often. Jefferson High School, the next school he attended, had no baseball team, so Don played semiprofessionally.

By the age of 15, Newcombe stood six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he used a falsified birth date to enlist in the Navy, but lasted only a month before he was discharged, and a similar attempt to join the Army fell short. In the winter of 1943-44, he was introduced through an acquaintance to Abe and Effa Manley, the husband-wife team who owned the Newark Eagles. He joined the team for a monthly salary of $170. In his first professional appearance, on May 14, 1944 — one month shy of his 18th birthday — he served up a home run to Campanella, then playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Newcombe pitched for the Eagles in 1944 and ’45. In October of the latter season, he was chosen to start an exhibition game against an all-white team at Ebbets Field, with Campanella catching. Newcombe pitched hitless ball into the third inning but had to leave the game after hurting his elbow. He cried, believing he’d blown his chance to impress major league scouts, but he had impressed Dodgers team president Branch Rickey, who signed him to a contract with a $1,000 bonus; two months earlier, Rickey had signed Robinson. “He wasn’t by any means the best pitcher in Negro baseball,” wrote Wendell Smith of Newcombe, “but Rickey signed him because he’s young, big, and has all the natural ability necessary to get him into the big leagues.”

The Dodgers assigned Robinson to their top farm club, the Montreal Royals, for the 1946 season, and originally assigned Newcombe and Campanella to their Danville (Illinois) affiliate in the Three-I League — until league president Tom Fairweather threatened to shut the circuit down rather than integrate. Instead, the battery were sent to the team’s Nashua (New Hampshire) affiliate, run by future Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi, with future manager Walter Alston the skipper. Though the players faced discrimination elsewhere within the New England League, they were welcomed by a town in which the black residents numbered fewer than 50 out of a population of around 33,000. “I always thanked God for Nashua… We didn’t have to go through what Jackie went through there. We had to listen to some people, but it was a great learning process,” Newcome said in 2006. “I met some wonderful people there.” In 1947, he even lived with a white family that requested he reside with them.

Newcombe pitched a shutout in his Nashua debut and went 14-4 with a 2.21 ERA in 155 innings, adding a .311 batting average and .541 slugging percentage in 74 at-bats, many of them as a pinch-hitter. His performance, along with that of Campanella (the league MVP) helped Nashua to a championship. But while Robinson moved up to Brooklyn for his date with destiny the following year, and Campanella was promoted to Montreal, Newcombe was re-assigned to Nashua; Rickey wanted to stagger the arrivals of the first black players. Newcombe went 19-6 with a 2.91 ERA in 223 innings, and then 17-6 with a 3.14 ERA at Montreal in 1948. He threw a no-hitter that year and helped the Dodgers to the International League championship and a victory over the St. Paul Saints, the Dodgers’ other top farm club, in the Junior World Series.

When Newcombe wasn’t promoted to the Dodgers to start the 1949 season, he briefly left the team. Manager Burt Shotton was wary of his temperament, telling Smith, “I think he can pitch in the majors, but he might undo everything [Robinson and Campanella] have accomplished.”

Newcombe went home, and reflected upon the situation. “The thing I didn’t realize was Mr. Rickey knew what he was doing. He wasn’t worried about one man. He had a program and he was following it,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Robert Creamer in 1955. He called Bavasi, by then the GM of the Royals, “and I asked him would he take back a damn fool.” After five starts with Montreal, the going-on-23-year-old righty joined a 15-13 Dodgers team in need of pitching help. His debut, on May 20, 1949 against the Cardinals, was inauspicious; after striking out Chuck Diering, he yielded four straight hits, three of them to future Hall of Famers (Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial, and Enos Slaughter). To that point, he was only the third black pitcher to appear in the majors, after Dan Bankhead, who debuted for the Dodgers on August 26, 1947 and made just four appearances that year, and Satchel Paige, who debuted with the Indians on July 9, 1948. He was also the youngest, nearly four and a half years younger than Bankhead.

In Newcombe’s first start, two days after his debut, he shut out the Reds on five hits, the first shutout by a black pitcher in NL history (Paige had twirled back-to-back shutouts in August 1948). Despite not debuting until the Dodgers’ 29th game of a 154-game season, Newcombe — who told Creamer that he arrived in the majors with a sore arm — threw 244.1 innings (fifth in the league), completing 19 out of 31 starts with a league-high five shutouts, including three in a row from August 24-September 2. He went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA (77 ERA-), 3.13 FIP, and 5.6 WAR (second in the league), a performance that would lead to him being voted the NL Rookie of the Year. He made the NL All-Star team, becoming the first black pitcher to appear in the All Star Game, and to take a loss.

The Dodgers entered the final day of the 1949 season leading the Cardinals by one game. Newcombe had helped them secure first place just three days earlier, with five shutout innings against the Braves to cap a 12-day stretch in which he made five appearances and allowed just two runs in 24 innings. Though staked to a 5-0 lead in the third inning of the season’s final game, against the Phillies, he didn’t make it out of the fourth; nonetheless, the Dodgers won in 10.

Shotton then tabbed Newcombe to start Game 1 of the World Series against the Yankees, another first (Paige had pitched relief in the 1948 World Series). He pitched brilliantly, shutting out the Bronx Bombers for eight innings on just four hits while striking out 11 without a walk, but his teammates could eke out just two hits against Allie Reynolds. With the game still scoreless in the ninth, Newcombe served up a walk-off home run to Tommy Heinrich. He did not fare as well in Game 4; working on two days of rest, he again failed to escape the fourth inning, and the Dodgers lost the Series in five.

Newcombe followed his brilliant rookie campaign with similarly strong ones in each of the next two years. He went 19-11 with a 3.70 ERA, 3.55 FIP and 5.4 WAR (fourth in the league) in 267.1 innings in 1950, and 20-9 with 3.28 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 5.8 WAR (second in the league) and a league-high 164 strikeouts in 272 innings in 1951. The Dodgers lost the pennant by a single game in both years, however — and in games that Newcombe started. The second one was in the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, which you probably know about. The first is a deeper cut, remarkable and wrenching in its own right.

In 1950, the “Whiz Kid” Phillies, who hadn’t won a pennant since 1915, dominated the National League. They led the pack by seven games as of September 1, but slumped over the final month as the Dodgers surged. Newcombe was a key part of that. From September 2 through September 23, he threw five complete games, even starting both ends of a doubleheader in Philadelphia on September 6; he needed just 83 pitches to complete a shutout in the opener, and pitched into the eighth in the nightcap. Over the final week of the season, he made a start and two relief appearances, each on one day of rest, as the Dodgers’ whittled the Phillies’ lead from five games to one.

The Dodgers trailed by a game as Newcombe took the mound in Brooklyn on October 1, the final day of the season, opposite future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. Both pitchers allowed a single run in the fifth inning, Newcombe on three straight two-out singles, but the score remained tied through nine. Both aces returned for the 10th, but in his 72nd inning of work within a 30-day span, Newcombe faltered, surrendering singles to Roberts and Eddie Waitkus, and then a three-run homer to Dick Sisler. Bye-bye pennant.

In 1951, the Dodgers led the Giants by 13 games as of August 11, but by the end of the regular season, the two teams were tied, and they split the first two games of a best-of-three tiebreaker series. Newcombe — who had thrown back-to-back compete game victories on September 26 and September 29, the second of them a shutout, and then followed with 5.2 innings of shutout relief in an extra-inning game the next day — started the rubber match at the Polo Grounds on two days of rest. He allowed just one run and four hits through eight innings, but began the ninth by yielding back-to-back singles to Alvin Dark and Don Mueller, and one out later, an RBI double by Whitey Lockman. Manager Charlie Dressen called upon Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson, and — BOOM — the Giants won the pennant.

After a three-year stretch during which he’d been the majors’ most valuable pitcher in terms of WAR (16.8), Newcombe was drafted into the Army in February 1952, and missed the next two seasons while serving in the Army Medical Corps at Camp Pickett (Virginia). While he was leading recruits through basic training, the Dodgers won the pennant in both years, but lost to the Yankees in the World Series each time. It’s not hard to imagine that the presence of their ace could have flipped the outcome.

When Newcombe returned in 1954, he was limited to 144.1 subpar innings (4.55 ERA, 1.0 WAR) by a sore arm, and the Dodgers finished five games behind the Giants. He recovered form the following year, going 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA and 4.6 WAR in 233.2 innings, and adding a remarkable .359/395/.632 line (168 wRC+) with seven homers in 125 PA, good for an additional 2.3 WAR; his combined total of 6.9 WAR made him the most valuable pitcher in the majors that year, just ahead of Roberts. As he had done in each of his three pre-war seasons, he made the NL All-Star team. With him in form, the Dodgers breezed to the NL pennant by 13.5 games, and although Newcombe was shellacked for six runs in 5.2 innings in the World Series opener against the Yankees, Dem Bums finally prevailed in seven games.

By the traditional stats, Newcombe’s 1956 season was his best, as a robust 6.0 runs per game of offensive support (not quite as good as the previous year’s NL-best 7.2 per game) helped him to a 27-7 record, and his 3.06 ERA was a career low; his 78 ERA- was merely his third best, and his 86 FIP- actually his second-worst, though his 5.0 WAR still ranked third in the league. The Dodgers survived a tight three-way pennant race, beating the Braves by one game and the Reds by two; Newcombe collected an ugly W (7.1 innings, 11 hits, six runs) on the season’s final day against the Pirates. In yet another World Series against the Yankees, he was chased early in his Game 2 and Game 7 starts, running his postseason record to 0-4 with an unsightly 8.59 ERA in 22 innings. The Dodgers recovered to win his Game 2 start, though Newcombe, who left the ballpark early, allegedly punched a catcalling parking lot attendant outside Ebbets Field. After his second early exit, the Dodgers themselves were pounded, 9-0. Nonetheless, Newcombe was voted the NL MVP and the winner of the inaugural Cy Young. When added to his Rookie of the Year award, he was the lone pitcher to complete the trifecta until Justin Verlander joined him in 2011.

Robinson retired after the 1956 season, and the Dodgers returned to the pack in what would prove to be their final season in Brooklyn. Newcombe’s effectiveness declined, and he continued to make headlines for the wrong reasons. Leaving his fifth straight start without a win on August 7, he was accused of spitting at a jeering crowd at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, where the Dodgers occasionally played in an effort to pressure New York City into helping to build a replacement for Ebbets Field. Two weeks later, after shutting out the Reds to end his slump, Newcombe seriously injured a four-year-old boy when he struck him with his car while driving home with his father, an incident that may have been alcohol-related, given the behavior he would later describe (see below). In December of that year, he and two of his brothers were charged with assaulting an ex-policemen at the Newark tavern that he owned, though charges were later dropped.

Newcombe made the move with the Dodgers to Los Angeles, though the team was left reeling by the loss of Campanella, who was paralyzed in a January 28, 1958 car accident. Without the catcher who had been behind the plate for 115 of his 123 wins to that point, with legal and marital troubles mounting (he left his first wife, Freddie Cross, in 1957, though the couple did not divorce until 1960), and with a fear of flying exacerbating matters as well, he began the 1958 season 0-6 with a a 7.86 ERA. On June 15, 1958, he was traded to the Reds for four players. He pitched better in Cincinnati, through the rest of 1958 and ’59 (13-8, 3.16 ERA, 3.9 WAR in the latter year), but after his performance slipped in 1960 — following his divorce and marriage to Billie Roberts — he was sold to the Indians on July 29, and released that winter.

Though he was just 34, Newcombe never pitched in the majors again. He spent 1961 with the Dodgers’ Pacific Coast League affiliate in Spokane, then joined AL integration pioneer Larry Doby with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League. He pitched just once, splitting his time between the outfield and first base, and hitting .262/.316/.473 with 12 homers in 301 PA.

By this point, Newcombe’s drinking had long since caught up with him. Even during his prime, he was putting away remarkable quantities of beer. As he told the Washington Post in 1977:

“I’d have six or seven beers before I even left the clubhouse — regardless of whether I won or lost. On they way home, I’d stop at a delicatessen and buy a six-pack and drink it while I drove through Brooklyn going home to New Jersey or wherever I decided to go. Sometimes my father would drive with me and we’d pick up a case and drive with me and we’d pick up a case and drive to my parents house.”

One can’t help but read that description and connect it to the newspaper accounts of the aforementioned 1956 crash. That same year, Newcombe bought a liquor store and began favoring hard alcohol, mixed with grapefruit or grape juice. He said he never took the mound drunk but was often hung over. “I wasn’t a skid row bum. I was a functioning alcoholic – I supported my family and kept my job… The coaches, the players, the manager would just turn their heads away so long as you were winning.”

By 1965, Newcombe’s liquor store had gone bankrupt, and he’d pawned his World Series ring (team president Peter O’Malley later returned it). The following year, when his wife threatened to leave, he quit cold turkey: “I took a vow on the head of my son, Don, to my wife and God that I would never drink again if they would stay.”

Newcombe reorganized his life. In 1970, he became the Dodgers’ director of community relations, a position that he held until 2017. In 1980, he created the Dodger Drug and Alcoholic Awareness Program, and helped Dodgers pitcher Bob Welch confront his own severe drinking problem, the first of several players he aided. He became a consultant for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the director for special projects for the New Beginning Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program, and an adviser to First Lady Nancy Reagan on Alcohol and Drug Related Problems.

Newcombe remained a fixture at Dodger Stadium, where he continued to connect with players. He was particularly close to Kenley Jansen, who, in a tribute posted to Twitter on Tuesday, called him “my mentor”:

Jansen, a former catcher, caught Newcombe's ceremonial first pitch in the Division Series opener in 2017. Newcombe returned to throw out another first pitch alongside Sandy Koufax prior to Game 7 of the World Series:

Because his major league career lasted just 10 seasons, limiting his career totals, Newcombe never received much support for the Hall of Fame from the BBWAA voters. He debuted with just 2.3% in 1966, and didn’t exceed 5% until 1976. The Five Percent Rule as we know it was not in place until 1980, his final year on the ballot, when he received 15.3%. He received scant support on the 2003, ’05, and ’07 ballots from the expanded Veterans Committee, and hasn’t come up for election since.

While there’s no doubt that Newcombe lost two prime years to military service and was probably good enough to pitch in the majors during his first three years in organized ball, he was not a star during his Negro National League tenure — that at a time when some of the league’s stars, such as Doby and Monte Irvin, were in the military. With just 38.0 career WAR via Baseball-Reference (including his offense) and a JAWS of 36.5, extrapolating to what might have been, in as many as five missing seasons, is asking a lot of voters. Newcombe himself blamed his alcoholism for scuttling his shot at Cooperstown. As he told author Danny Peary in 1994, “I think [drinking] shortened my major-league career by about six or seven years. I regret that I didn’t take better care of myself in the latter part of my career because I would like to have made the Hall of Fame, where I think I belong.”

Nonetheless, the man’s impact was larger than the Hall. In 2015, Newcombe recounted being visited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., four weeks before the latter’s assassination:

“He said, ‘Don, you’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy and Doby made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,'” Newcombe said. “After everything he’d been through, here he was telling me how we’d helped him with the movement. I’ll never forget that.”

In 2010, at a fundraiser, President Barack Obama called Newcombe “somebody who helped Major League Baseball become what it is, but also helped America become what it is.” He added, “I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and if it were not for Don Newcombe.”

“I still am bitter to a large degree,” said Newcombe in 2005, recalling the racism and other difficulties that he encountered. “But then I think about what Jackie Robinson once told me. He said, ‘You’ve got to change one letter in that word. Change the ‘i’ to an ‘e.’ Forget about bitter, try to make things better.'”

Don Newcombe undoubtedly did just that.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

This is a sweet article, Jay.