“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.”
The Junkball Daily continues its series on African-American baseball pioneers for Black History Month. Todays’ focus is on pitcher Don Newcombe.
Donald ‘Newk’ Newcombe, former Major League Baseball pitcher and Korean War Veteran, was born on June 14th, 1926. Through his career, he’s achieved nearly a dozen accolades.
1955 World Series Champion
4x NL All-Star
1949 NL Rookie of the Year Award
1949 NL Shutouts Leader
1951 NL Strikeouts Leader
1956 NL MVP
1956 Cy Young Award winner
1956 NL Wins Leader
3 20 win seasons
1 25 win season
Oh and he could hit, too. In 1955, through 125 plate appearances, he hit 7 home runs, posted a .359 batting average, a 2.3 oWAR, and 168 wRC+.
A quick glance at Newcombe’s career output:
Pitching– 2154.2 IP/1129 Ks/1.20 WHIP/3.56 ERA 3.67 FIP/35.9 WAR
Hitting– 988 PA/15 HR/86 wRC+/8.7 oWAR
Newcombe started his big league career in 1946 playing on the first racially integrated team, the Nashua Dodgers of the New England League, along with future Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella.
From his arrival in 1949 through 1951, Newcombe never produced a WAR lower than 5 (5.4, 5.6, 5.8) and pitched at least 144 innings during that time frame. He was well on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning the 1949 RoY and leading the league in shutouts that same season. In 1951, he would lead the National League in strikeouts with 164 Ks.
However, his rise was cut short when his country came calling. In 1950, Newcombe was drafted and served two years in the Korean War.
“I served my country,” Newcombe told USA Today in 2013. “I was going to fight for my country and my flag if I was asked. I didn’t dodge bullets, but I’m proud of my contribution.”
That decision, in conjunction with other infelicitous events, would end up unjustly costing him the baseball glory he deserved.
When Newcombe returned to the Dodgers in 1954, he had an understandably down year. After being away from baseball for a couple of seasons, its to be expected that a player would have some tarnish to shake off. He finished the year barely above .500 and had career lows in innings pitched, WAR, and ERA for the Dodgers.
1955 would spring Newcombe back to life and make him a World Champion. Newcombe had returned to prominence (4.6 WAR) and had his lowest walk rate of his career (4% BB rate). His ERA dropped by a run and a half from 1954 and he posted a 20-5 record.
The following season he would lead the NL in wins while accomplishing a feat achieved by few other pitchers; winning the Cy Young Award and NL MVP in 1956.
Not only was Newcombe the first African-American to win the Cy Young Award, he was the first pitcher ever to win the award. Newcombe went an incredible 27-7 for the Dodgers and his WAR jumped back up to 5.
1957 was not kind to Newcombe. His career was headed downward very quickly. His WAR took the biggest dive since his understandably rusty return to baseball after the war. From then on, he was never the same pitcher.
In 1958, it was much worse; he wasn’t even a one-win player and posted another losing record. It seemed his 6 amazing seasons with the Dodgers would be all he could muster.
Eventually, alcohol became a vice to Newcombe.
In a 1980 interview with writer Dick Young, he stated “….never came to the ballpark drunk and that his drinking only became problematic after he left the bigs”.
Was his free-fall attributed to his drinking? It you could argue either way; he faltered because he drank or he drank because he faltered. Regardless, Newcombe was able to conquer the demon that many never escape; he became sober again in 1967.
Sadly, there are too many what-ifs in Newcombe’s career. He might be the prime example of bad timing in baseball. Not being able to take into account the success in the Negro Leagues is just one of the many reasons. There are many before and after that fell victim to the shortened career (for one reason or another), but Newcombe’s prowess on the mound left a lot of unanswered questions about what could have been.
What if he wasn’t called to serve? What if his MLB career started a few years before? The sad (and unfair) fact is that Newcombe’s 149 wins just didn’t get him the HoF attention he deserved; he peaked with a mere 15%.
Until Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander matched him in 2011, Newcombe was the only baseball player in the game’s history to have won Rookie of the Year, MVP, and the Cy Young Award in their career.
What’s more is Newcombe proved (along with others) to all the closed-minded racist baseball fans in American, is that African-Americans CAN and SHOULD be allowed to pitch in the Major Leagues.
To embellish Newcombe’s long list of ‘firsts’ is to undo what racial integration sought to achieve; whites and blacks can play the game together and are of equal talent and value. While its amiable to note his pioneering achievements, it can omit the fact that, regardless of his skin color, Newcombe was one of the best pitchers his era ever saw.