Pitching legend Don Newcombe dies at 92

Fred Jeter | 3/1/2019, 6 a.m.
In the late 1940s, the Brooklyn Dodgers rattled baseball’s foundation by boldly breaking the color line. It was to be ...
Don Newcombe

In the late 1940s, the Brooklyn Dodgers rattled baseball’s foundation by boldly breaking the color line. It was to be a major turning point in all professional sports.

Jackie Robinson led the way in 1947, followed in 1949 by pitcher Don Newcombe, aka “The Newk,” who also signed with the Dodgers. In 1949, he became the first African-American pitcher to start a World Series game, winning the Rookie of the Year Award.

Mr. Newcombe, a dominating right-handed pitcher on the short list of baseball’s greatest hurlers, died Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 92 following a lengthy illness.

“Mentor at first, friend at the end, missed by everyone who got to know him,” pitching great Sandy Koufax said on the Dodgers’ website.

The burly 6-foot-4, 225-pound native of New Jersey is one of two pitchers — Justin Verlander is the other — to win Rookie of the Year (1949), the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player (both in 1956) trophies during their career.

“Newk was a big man in every way. He truly was a big man on and off the field and he will be missed by all,” said the Dodgers’ famed announcer Vin Scully.

Mr. Newcombe remained active at Dodgers functions through this past season and was known for his charming personality and snappy wardrobe.

Mr. Newcombe posted a 149-90 career record, was a four-time All-Star and helped the Dodgers to four World Series, including winning the 1955 title over the New York Yankees. He fanned a total of 1,129 batters while posting 136 complete games and 24 shutouts. His pinnacle season was 1956, going 27-7. In all, he had three seasons of 20-plus victories.

He was feared for his blazing fastball, sharp curve and his menacing stare. Batters rarely dug in close to the plate with the intimidating “Newk” on the mound.

Pace setters: By 1949, Brooklyn had four black players, Robinson, Newcombe, catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Dan Bankhead. That was more than the rest of baseball combined. Other black pioneers joining Brooklyn by 1953 were Cuban Sandy Amoros, Joe Black and Junior Gilliam, NL Rookie of the Year in 1953.

Mr. Newcombe was actually the third black pitcher to reach the majors, following teammate Dan Bankhead and the legendary Satchel Paige with the Cleveland Indians.  

Before Brooklyn: The son of a chauffeur, Mr. Newcombe grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and went to Jefferson High School there. Because the high school didn’t offer baseball, Mr. Newcombe began playing semiprofessional ball while still a student. At 18, he signed with the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team. He played with the Eagles in 1944 and 1945, catching the eye of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.

He signed with the Dodgers, playing first with the team’s farm club in Nashua, N.H., in 1946, becoming part of the first racially mixed pro team in the United States in the 20th century. He later played for another Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals in Canada, before joining the parent club in 1949.