Don Newcombe, RIP
I was sadened to read of the death of the Big Newk...I had several meetings with Don when I lived in Los Angeles…………the first one was humorous and the next few fit with his post-career passion.
Don Newcombe, the Cy Young-winning pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Cincinnati Reds, died at his home in New Jersey on Tuesday. He was 92. The Dodgers announced his death via Twitter.
Newcombe spent ten seasons in the majors, which spanned 12 years. Newcombe made his debut in 1949, and was just the third African-American pitcher to ever appear in an MLB game (behind Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige), and was the first to start a World Series game that same year. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1949, and pitched for the Dodgers for three seasons before spending two years out of baseball and in the military.
The best year of Newcombe’s career was 1956. He started 36 games and won 27 of them. He had a 3.06 ERA and a 0.989 WHIP, and he took home both the Most Valuable Player award and the brand new National League Cy Young award. Justin Verlander is the only other player besides Newcombe to win the Cy Young, the MVP and the Rookie of the Year award in his career.
Newcombe’s career was cut short by alcoholism. He hid it from his teammates and coaches for years, telling the Washington Post in 1977 that while he never pitched drunk, he would sometimes pitch with major hangovers. He was a functioning alcoholic, but once his career ended in 1960 his drinking became a serious problem. He bought a liquor store in 1956, and he and it were both bankrupt by 1965 as Newcombe pawned jewelry to pay for his drinking habit. Newcombe quit drinking cold turkey not long after that. He told the Post that he woke up on the floor one morning in 1966 and looked up to see his wife and three children standing in the doorway holding suitcases. “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 kept his word, and became a staunch advocate in the fight against alcoholism. In 1980 he created the Dodger Drug and Alcohol Awareness Program, and would go on to serve as a consultant for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the director for special projects for the New Beginning Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program.
After Don started his mission to help others fight the scourge of substance abuse, one of the first people he visited was Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, while I was serving as his Chief of Staff. Don offered his services to any Deputy Sheriffs who might benefit from his counseling/support. The Sheriff introduced me to Newk and said “Cappy knows more about baseball than anyone you’ve ever met”. Newk looked at me, kind of dismissively, and said “If you’re so smart; what was my lifetime batting average?” I replied “.271”……….he turned to the Sheriff and said “The kid is good”. I did not mention that my friend Bob Davids, founder of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), had written a book on “Great Hitting Pitchers” and I had read it a few days earlier. Newcombe was such a good hitter that he went to Japan to play baseball and played first base over there.
I founded the SABR chapter in L.A. and Don later spoke to my group and provided (free) tickets for us to see the Dodgers.
A year or so later, in my position as Chief of Staff for the Sheriff, I got a late night phone call from the Watch Commander of our Men’s Central Jail. He said “We just booked Maury Wills and he’s demanding to speak to the Sheriff”. I asked the reason and he said “Possession of a weapon (a police baton)—plus he’s high on something”. I told the Lieutenant to put Maury on the phone. Incidentally, for those of you who are not baseball fans, Maury was a near Hall of Famer for the Dodgers as a shortstop and one of the top base stealers of all time. When he got on the phone, I said “Maury—what did you do, steal second base?” He didn’t get the joke and he was not terribly coherent. Anyway, I promised Maury that I would inform the Sheriff in the morning.
The following day, I was at my desk, around 8:30 and the Deputy assigned to guard the entry to the first floor Executive Level (“the corner pocket”) of the Hall of Justice, called me and said “Mr. O’Malley is here to see you”. I told him that I was not expecting anyone by that name. The Deputy said “PETER O’Malley”. Yikes. The owner of the Dodgers was here to see ME! I met him at the security door and walked him into my office. Baseball fans will know that he had a reputation for being kind of formal. He could not have been more warm and friendly with me. He asked about Maury. I said “I did not know Maury was still connected with the Dodgers”. He replied in the same manner an ND man would have replied---“Once a Dodger; ALWAYS a Dodger”. He said “Whatever we can do as an organization, we will do.”……..and “I know that you and Don Newcombe are friends; he will be here this afternoon.” Don came in to see me several days in the next week. One day, Maury and Don came in to see the Sheriff. The Sheriff asked Maury what he was doing with that police baton. Maury said that a cop friend gave it to him “for protection”. The Sheriff said “Maury---you’re a baseball player; carry a BAT!!”.
A month or so later, Don came and told me that Maury was off drugs and alcohol and in a program and Don felt very good about his chances for success. He told me that he and Dock Ellis (who is alleged to have pitched a no hitter for the Pirates while on LSD) went to Maury’s home. He said that Doc knocked Maury to the ground; jumped on him; and began to strangle him……..saying “Maury, I will KILL YOU unless you agree to treatment”. Maury nodded.
Don always dressed up, often in a White Sport Coat. Very articulate. Big hearted. A fine man. R.I.P.