Don Newcombe, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, is most closely associated with the Dodgers, particularly during their halcyon years in Brooklyn.
Newk, as he was nicknamed, was one of the first African-Americans in Major League Baseball. He was an All-Star and rookie of the year for the Dodgers in 1949, and won both the first Cy Young Award (when only one was given out annually) and National League MVP in 1956. Even last year at the World Series, he could be spotted at Dodger Stadium.
But his major league career ended in Cleveland.
Newcombe was by his own account a functional alcoholic in his days in Brooklyn. When the Dodgers moved west, he was a lot more alcoholic than functional, and finally on June 15, 1958, he was traded to the Reds. The change of scenery seemed to yield positive results. He went 7-7 for Cincinnati in the remainder of that year, and then went 13-8 for the Reds in 1959, leading the team in wins, strikeouts, earned run average, innings pitched and complete games.
He was plagued by injuries the following year, starting with a pulled muscle in his leg in spring training, and went 4-6 for the Reds. He was ejected from a doubleheader against the Pirates at Forbes Field on July 17, 1960, and less than two weeks later, he was picked up by the Indians.
At the time, the Indians, who were coming off a second-place finish to the White Sox the year before, were just four and a half games in back of the lead (albeit in fourth place), with a young pitching staff that included Gary Bell, Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry.
“Newcombe isn’t the greatest pitcher in the world anymore,” General Manager Frank Lane said, “but has the experience and maybe the ability to help us.”
Jimmy Dykes, who managed Newcombe in Cincinnati at the end of the 1958 season, said he could still be effective for the Indians, and planned to use him not just in relief, but as a pinch-hitter as well. (Newcombe’s career batting average was .271, and he hit 15 career home runs – including seven in 1955!)
“If he plays half as well here as he did for me in Cincinnati, he’ll help the Indians considerably,” Dykes said in the Cleveland Call and Post.
Newcombe went 2-3 in 20 appearances for the Indians, who ended up finishing 76-78, good for fourth place in the American League. The following January, Newcombe was released, and returned to the Dodgers, pitching for their Pacific Coast League team in Spokane. In 1962, he played in Japan (mostly at first base, again, because of his skill with the bat), where one of his teammates on the Chunichi Dragons was Larry Doby.
In 1965, he declared bankruptcy, and a year later, he quit drinking. By his own estimation, his drinking cost him four or five years of what could have been a Hall of Fame career.
Photo: Cleveland Press Collection