"Everybody from coast to coast knows about Don Newcombe. Yes, a lot of them know him for the MVP and other awards when he pitched. But many know him in a different light because he's helped so many ballplayers behind the scenes."
At age 81, Newcombe is one of the last witnesses to the revolutionary period after World War II, when Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, along with Newcombe and Roy Campanella, for his quest to integrate professional baseball. In 1946, Newcombe and Campanella played for Class B Nashua of the New England League, making that team the first integrated affiliated baseball team in the United States. The duo had previously played in the Negro Leagues. Robinson began his Dodgers career at Triple-A Montreal of the International League.
The trio faced prejudice from some opponents and teammates, while taunts in the crowd and other hardships tested their respective wills. Rickey promoted each player to the Dodgers in one-year increments, beginning with Robinson in 1947 and Campanella in 1948. Robinson told Newcombe that one day "bitter" would become "better" in terms of race relations in America.
"They were always finding out if they could break us," Newcombe said. "Jackie Robinson was the key to the whole idea. Thank God he made it work."
Newcombe won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1949, posting a 17-8 record and 3.17 ERA. He started the first game of the World Series and pitched a masterful eight scoreless innings, striking out 11 New York Yankees. But the Dodgers offense couldn't score that afternoon against Allie Reynolds and Tommy Henrich's leadoff home run in the bottom of the ninth inning beat Newcombe, 1-0.
His career was interrupted in its prime because of military service with the Army in 1952 and 1953. Newcombe won 20 games in 1955 for the Dodgers' only championship team. He also became the first National League pitcher to hit seven home runs in one season. Although he pitched right-handed, Newcombe took his swings from the left side of the plate.
Robinson and Campanella enjoyed Hall of Fame careers with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Newcombe is the only player in baseball history to win the sport's three major awards -- the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.
After his Major League career ended in 1960, Newcombe sat out a year and returned to the field in 1962 with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. He pitched only four innings with the Dragons. In 81 games as a first baseman and outfielder, Newcombe batted .262 with 12 home runs and 43 RBIs.
During the 1960s, the Dodgers organization didn't stage an "Oldtimers Day," which sometimes left the former Brooklyn heroes sometimes feeling in the shadows. The first reunion game was staged in 1971, and the following year became a signature moment when the Dodgers retired the first three uniform numbers in club history -- Robinson (42), Campanella (39), and pitcher Sandy Koufax (32), who was entering the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Robinson died just four months after his Dodgers uniform retirement ceremony in 1972, succumbing to heart failure and complications from diabetes at age 53. Campanella, paralyzed in a January 1958 automobile accident, lived until 1993 when he passed away at age 71.
Both Robinson and Campanella were later honored by the United States Postal Service. In other words, Newcombe's two teammates from Rickey's quest to integrate the Major Leagues became postage-stamp images.
Newcombe's 10-year Major League career with the Dodgers was filled with thrills and heartaches, mirroring the fortunes of the popular "Boys of Summer" lineup that made five World Series appearances between 1949 and 1956. And in the memorable 1951 playoff loss to the New York Giants, it was Newcombe who started and reached the ninth inning of the third playoff game and left with a 4-2 lead before Bobby Thomson's home run gave the Giants a 5-4 victory.
Whether attending reunions and discussing the Brooklyn days or helping the modern-day Dodgers reach out to the community, Newcombe has remained one of the pillars of the organization.
During a January photo shoot at Dodger Stadium with Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider and first-year Dodger Andruw Jones, Newcombe made a surprise appearance from the dugout seats and walked toward first base to greet the pair. Newcombe and Snider then quietly reminisced on the field and wondered where the 60 years had gone since both attended the first Spring Training at the Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, Fla., in 1948.
"We opened that place together," Snider said. "We might as well close it together."
In 1998, former Brooklyn and Los Angeles shortstop Pee Wee Reese made his final appearance at Dodger Stadium, flying from Kentucky to participate in the uniform retirement ceremony for Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton.
At age 80, Reese walked at a painfully slow pace that evening. After Sutton's ceremony, Reese carefully walked along the corridor leading to the elevator on the field level. Newcombe spied his friend about 20 yards away and cupped his hands. "Heeeey, Reese!" he shouted in his subtle baritone.
Waiting for the elevator, Reese didn't bother turning around at first. His first instinct was to smile and close his eyes, remembering a similar greeting in the Ebbets Field clubhouse so long ago.
"I'd know that voice anywhere," Reese said.