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Monday, January 23, 2006

The Top 40 Dodgers Of All Time: #39, Don Newcombe

Foreword: I know I've gone back and forth on the subject of how to assess career value. For now, I'm going to stick to my terribly flawed guns and use career Win Shares to figure out who gets on the top 40. It's a list whose residents I'm happy with, but not their order; I'll deal with that problem in a followup post to this series. Noting in passing the nice things Aaron Gleeman has had to say about me, we move on to the next fellow in line...

39. RHP Don Newcombe, 1949-1960, 3.42 ERA, 1628.1 IP, 897 K, 405 BB, 138.3 Win Shares

Don Newcombe was the first black major league pitcher, following Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers' roster after his rookie season in 1948. Newcombe remains the only player to ever win Rookie of the Year (from both the BBWAA and The Sporting News), MVP, and Cy Young (there was only one between the two leagues in those days) awards. A former pitcher for the Newark Eagles of the old Negro Leagues, at 6'4" he was an formidable presence on the mound. Branch Rickey predicted great things for his young fireballer, who collected a pair of no-hitters for Montreal before he was brought up in 1949. He did not disappoint: in his first game, he held the Reds down, 3-0, at Crosley Field, even getting a hit and an RBI. Finishing the season with a 3.17 ERA, he led the league in shutouts with five.

Of course, mere competence in those days wasn't proof against racial epithets, and though Jackie Robinson had taken some of the edge off the hostility toward black players, the scene still was far from settled. Still, Newcombe felt baseball, like everything else, would have to change. "[Integration] had to come about," he said years later. "If a black man pays his taxes, if he can fight and die for his country, he should be able to get a chance to play Major League Baseball." He proved his worth by going 17-8, 19-11, and 20-9 in his first three seasons, leading the league in strikeouts in 1951. As with Don Drysdale who would follow him, Newcombe could hit as well as pitch, and had a .271 career average, the ninth best among pitchers in history.

Military service interrupted his career in 1952 and 1953, and most writers believe that these two years in the service cost him a chance at the Hall of Fame. His return season in 1954 was hardly a thing of beauty, with a 4.55 ERA, but he stormed back in 1955, with a 3.20 ERA and 20-5 record. The next year, he posted a 27-7 record with a 3.06 ERA, both career marks, winning the NL MVP award with 66% of the vote.

Another problem that plagued Newcombe's legacy was a history of late-season collapses. One such occurred on the last day of his 1950 season, when the Dodgers needed to beat the Phillies to stay alive in the pennant. Instead, he surrendered a three-run homer to Dick Sisler, ending the Dodgers' hopes for the postseason. Again in 1951, Newcombe got himself into a jam in the third game of the playoff series against the Giants, getting men on base and requiring the services of Ralph Branca -- who surrendered one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history.

By 1957, the "Boys of Summer" were fading; his close friend Jackie Robinson had retired, and the rest of the team was aging, finishing third that year. With attendance in Brooklyn declining, Walter O'Malley moved the team to Los Angeles. Roy Campanella, another close friend, was involved in an auto crash, ending his career and further isolating Newcombe. The heavy drinking finally caught up to Newk, and he started his Los Angeles career inauspiciously, going 0-6, precipitating a trade to the Reds. In 1960, the Reds traded him to Cleveland, but by then he had nothing left, posting a 2-3 record over 20 games and 54 innings, used principally as a reliever. Playing briefly in the Japanese leagues -- where he made a very poor show of it -- he chased off his demons and became a vice president with the Dodgers, as well as counseling other ballplayers about alcoholism.

Thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, The Diamond Angle, Everything2, AfricanAmericans.com, Wikipedia, SABR's New York Times Historical Archives, and Baseball Library for source materials.

Great work Rob. Newcombe was always a pretty interesting player to me, especially after I read "Boys of Summer".
Thanks, Marc. I should add as a footnote that the numbers above represent the totals for each player as a Dodger, not career totals.

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