On Tuesday, when Don Newcombe died at the age of 92, baseball lost more than a great player and a racial pioneer. Baseball lost a link to an era.
Consider this, therefore, an obituary to both the man and his epoch, for it is impossible to understand one without first contextualizing the other.
In the years following World War II, the American economy boomed, and with it the game of baseball. Beginning with a phenomenal World Series in 1946, the sport enjoyed a golden age, in which the American pastime became more egalitarian, more national, and, quite simply, more interesting. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, rival American icons, entered their primes. Stan Musial led great Cardinals teams, while the Indians snagged their last world title to date. Stars such as Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner shone in thriving Rust Belt cities.
But nowhere in those halcyon days and nights was the game more meaningful than it was in New York City. In fact, it is unlikely that any sport has carried with it the cultural cache in a city that baseball carried at that time in the Big Apple. It was different from today. Instead of smartphones, people clung to transistor radios. Instead of Tyler Kepner and Joel Sherman, readers pored over Red Smith and Dick Young.
Three teams called New York home in those days. First and foremost, there were the Yankees. That team had DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto and the clout that came with winning five world titles in a row from 1949-53. Playing at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan were the Giants. The archaic, quaint Bach to the Yankees’ transcendent, classical Mozart, the Giants were the oldest of the three, and carried their own bits of mystique in Christy Mathewson, John McGraw and, at the end of their existence, a young meteor of a player named Willie Mays.
And then there was the stormy, romantic Beethoven of the Gotham baseball calculus – the occasionally-good, rarely-boring Brooklyn Dodgers. Brooklyn was, and still is, different from New York, and the Dodgers reflected that. Whereas the Yankees were slow to integrate, the Dodgers embraced the fielding of a multiethnic team under Branch Rickey, best symbolized by the African-Sicilian-American Roy Campanella.
From 1946, the first full postwar season, to 1957, the year before “Dem Bums” decamped for Los Angeles, Brooklyn never finished worse than third in the eight-team National League. Their worst winning percentage was .545, and they won six pennants and the 1955 World Series, the only one Brooklyn would ever win.
Although the success was sweet, that isn’t what has endured about those Dodgers – it’s the unforgettable personalities and the way they intermingled themselves with the Brooklyn fans. The names roll off the tongue: Jackie… Campy… Pee Wee… Duke… Gil… and on the mound, the man they called “Newk.”
Newcombe was New Jerseyan by birth – from Elizabeth, a town with an ancient baseball pedigree – and suited up at the age of 18 for the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles. He worked his way up gradually through Brooklyn’s farm system, from Class B Nashua to Class AAA Montreal and then to a phenomenal 1949 debut in which Newcombe won baseball’s inaugural Rookie of the Year award.
He would only get better. Two more solid seasons would follow in 1950 and 1951 before military service provided a brief interruption. After gradually forging a comeback, Newk won 20 games in the Bums’ championship season before becoming utterly dominant in ‘56 (27-7, 3.06, 0.89 WHIP, 4.5 WAR). He moved with the team to LA, and finished his career with the Reds, Indians, and Japan’s Chunichi Dragons.
Don Newcombe never did get the Hall call – 16 cracks at Cooperstown over the years never resulted in more than 16.4% of votes – but his fame grew in tandem with the postwar Dodgers. One of baseball’s four earliest black All-Stars with Robinson, Campanella, and Larry Doby, he was singled out in 2010 by none other than President Barack Obama, who said, “I would not be here if were not for Jackie and Don Newcombe.”
The trailblazing, shrewd ethos of the Rickey-Robinson partnership is what endures in baseball’s collective memory, but during those glorious years, there was indeed one anchor who the Dodgers’ potent offense could count on: Donald Newcombe, who carved his own path of greatness. The death of Ralph Branca (of Shot Heard Round the World Fame) in 2016 made Newcombe the final living regular player of the 1949 Dodgers, the centerpiece of the season historian David Halberstam made famous. Now, like Ebbets Field, they are all gone.
In a sense, however, the towering, combative, fiery, passionate, dominant, star-crossed Brooklyn Dodgers – encapsulated by the 6’4”, one-time alcoholic, but memorable all the same Newcombe – will live forever in baseball lore.
Featured Photo: CBS Sports