IN MEMORIAM: Don Newcombe was symbol of past baseball greatness

By RON WYNN | Nashville Voice

There was a time when baseball, not football or basketball, dominated the nation’s sports pages and attention. Baseball players were celebrities, cultural heroes in the manner that a Lebron James or Michael Jordan is today.

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947 he made front page headlines, not just sports news.

It was exactly two years later, in 1949, that Don Newcombe became a Dodger. Robinson, Roy Campanella and Newcombe all signed with the Dodgers in 1946, but Branch Rickey wasn’t going to speed things up THAT quickly and bring up all three at the same time.

Newcombe came two years later and made an immediate impact. That first season he was an All-Star, the first Black pitcher to achieve that feat.

Over his 10-year career, he would have many other firsts. First black starting pitcher to win 20 games. First to win both Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards in the same season (1956). First black pitcher to start a World Series game.

Newcombe roomed with Robinson his first two seasons, and the trio of Robinson, Newcombe and Campanella were a major part of Brooklyn’s domination of the National League during the ’50s.

But Don Newcombe, who died last Tuesday at 92, accomplished so much more after his career ended. He might have pitched longer than a decade but encountered major alcohol problems that shortened his career.

For the remainder of his life, Don Newcombe had two careers. One was as an ambassador for MLB and the Dodgers. The other was as a counselor, mentor, advocate and friend to countless people inside and outside sports with drug addiction problems of any kind, especially alcoholics.

If asked, Newcombe would talk about his days in the Negro leagues, and also his time with the Dodgers, but he preferred working to help others avoid the career-ending mistakes he made. He was always ready to help anyone who needed it at any time.

Newcombe repeatedly urged MLB to do more outreach to the black community, and do more to keep the interest of young people and young African-American athletes in the sport.

Newcombe wanted to be a manager, but that was well before the folks at MLB began to realize they had a problem. He could have been a great one, because he knew what it took to succeed, and also knew what real hardships were about, and how to handle physical and mental adversity.

Today, 70 years after Newcombe broke into the majors, baseball has ONE (that’s one) Black manager, the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts.

There are no signs of any more being hired any time soon, especially with the sport now in the grip of analytics-driven GMs, most of them young white Ivy League grads who didn’t play ball and don’t value the importance of practical experience. They rely on charts, graphs, stats and breakdowns, often disregarding or downplaying the human element.

Not that any of that’s necessarily bad, but it works against career baseball players, many of them black, who could be great field managers but depend more on what they see and what they feel than on computer charts. More importantly, anything that keeps a Don Newcombe and people like him out of a sport are, at best, problematic.

The greatness of Don Newcombe as a player and person is unquestioned. What remains to be answered is what will MLB do to really honor him besides acknowledge his accomplishments and perhaps have a day in his honor?

A much better tribute would be to improve and increase opportunities for blacks in positions outside of playing and to have far more interaction in black sporting communities than at present.

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