2007-07-27 / Sports

Talking Baseball With Brooklyn Dodgers Legend 'Newk'

By John J. Buro

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -As the man in the Cyclones jersey recounted his life in baseball, it was difficult to believe that 50 years had passed.

When Don Newcombe last witnessed this game played in Brooklyn, Danny McDevitt was throwing and Joe Pignatano was catching, and the Dodgers were about to wrap the 1957 season.

And, just like that, it was all over. A few months later, Newcombe, and his team, were in Los Angeles; by 1960, Ebbets Field was bulldozed.

"It was a business judgment by Walter O'Malley," Newk recalled, still pained by what was left in the rubble. "He wanted a new stadium built in Brooklyn. Not in Queens [where Shea Stadium was, ultimately, erected], but in Brooklyn. He couldn't get that, so he formed an alliance with Horace Stoneham [the New York Giants' owner] and moved cross-country."

Newcombe had several memorable years at 55 Sullivan Place, both on the hill and at the plate. After one season with the Newark Eagles in the Negro League, he signed with the Dodgers in 1949. At 17-8, with a 3.17 ERA, and a string of 32 consecutive scoreless innings, Newcombe received 21 of 24 votes to win Rookie of the Year.

Just two years earlier, another Brooklyn Dodger - the immortal Jackie Robinson- had become the first ever to win the award. Robinson would blaze the trail for future African- American ballplayers, particularly Roy Campanella and Newcombe, a pair of future teammates.

"Jackie was the greatest man to be around," the ex-pitcher remembered. "And not just on the field."

Newcombe touched on one specific incident which enhanced Jackie's legacy. It was early on in Newcombe's career, one that would later be interrupted by the Korean War and a battle with alcoholism.

"Why don't you take that uniform off and go home, if you don't want to pitch here," Robinson bellowed. "And, if you don't like what I'm saying to you, let's go into the clubhouse and settle it."

Newcombe recalled his response.

"I wasn't about to go into the clubhouse with Jackie to settle anything. But, he made me a winner, and I'll never forget that as long as I live."

In 1956, he copped both the National League Most Valuable Player Award and Major League Baseball's first Cy Young Award; then, the latter was only given to one pitcher each season.

Half a century later, Newcombe is still the only player in league history to win all three major awards. The fourtime All-Star topped the NL with five shutouts in 1949, 164 strikeouts in 1951 and 27 victories in 1956, his third season with at least 20.

At 6'4", 225 pounds, he possessed the physical attributes to make just as much noise with the bat. Newcombe was also a powerful left-handed hitter who batted .271 [238 hits in 878 atbats], with 15 home runs, 108 RBI, 33 doubles and three triples.

On three separate occasions, between 1955 and 1956, he clubbed a pair of home runs in the same game. Just four days prior to his second twohomer game, Newcombe broke open a close game with a two-run triple in the ninth inning off the Pittsburgh Pirates' Elroy Face - then promptly stole home.

A 0-6 start in 1958 precipitated a trade to Cincinnati. Two years later, his contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians. The ride, at least in the states, was over.

In 1962, the 36 year-old right-hander signed with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, thus becoming the first ex-major leaguer to play professional baseball in the Far East.

"In 1956, I was the best pitcher in baseball," he once recalled. "Four years later, I was out of the major leagues. It must have been the drinking. When you're young, you can handle it. But, the older you get, the more it bothers you."

But, that was then. For one day, he was back, reunited with Hodges and Robinson, and two celebratory moments - the 1955 championship and that final pitch between McDevitt and Pignatano- on the Cyclones' Ring of Honor.

Newcombe, now 81, thanked a grateful media and walked to the mound one last time. He stood in front of the dirt, and fired a ceremonial pitch that cut across home plate. And, for an instant, it was yesteryear all over again.

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