Don Newcombe: Healing People More Important than Baseball
Late in his long and memorable life, Brooklyn Dodgers ace Don Newcombe said that helping people get sober meant more to him than all his baseball accomplishments. Considering that the 6’4”/240-lb. Newcombe won the 1949 Rookie of the Year award, captured the first-ever Cy Young Award in 1956, and in that same year was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, his statement about the importance of helping others is powerful.
Newcombe is the only player in baseball history to win ROY, MVP and Cy Young titles. In 1956, “Big Newk” went 27–7, an improvement over his 1955 20–5 record. For good measure, Newcombe during those two years, hit a combined .298, with nine home runs and 16 extra base hits. During his career with the Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians, Newcombe won 163 games and had a stellar .614 winning percentage. Newcombe could always wield the lumber; his batting average for his 12-year Major League Baseball stint was .269 with 52 extra base hits that included 15 home runs.
Newcombe, the third black MLB pitcher after the Dodgers’ Dan Bankhead and the Cleveland Indians’ Satchel Paige, was a workhorse who routinely pitched on two days of rest, and in 1950 started both ends of a double header against the Philadelphia Phillies. In the opener, Newk hurled a complete game shutout and, in the nightcap, pitched into the seventh inning. Newcombe’s pitching line for the day: 16 IP, H 11, ER 2, BB 2, SO 3. During the Korean War, when the U.S. Army drafted the New York Giants’ Willie Mays and Newcombe. Dodger manager Chuck Dressen cried foul. “Losing Newcombe is worse than losing Mays. Where can you get a pitcher like that?” he asked.
As he dominated National League batters, unbeknownst to his teammates, Newcombe was deeply caught up in alcoholism’s throes. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Newcombe’s time with the team became short-lived. The pitcher had a fear of flying, and his fellow Dodgers noticed that he relied on alcohol to overcome his apprehensions. Society for American Baseball Research historian Russell Bergtold wrote that 1957 was a turning point for Newcombe. The Dodgers, 84–70, finished in third place, 14 games behind the Milwaukee Braves. Newcombe was an unimpressive 11–12, but made off-the-field headlines for the wrong reasons. On August 21, after pitching a five-hit shutout over the Cincinnati Reds, Newcombe was driving his father home when he struck a four-year-old boy with his car. A few months later, Newcombe and two of his brothers were accused of assaulting a former East Orange New Jersey policeman at Newcombe’s Newark tavern. The vehicle incident was settled out of court for $5,000, and the Newcombe brothers were acquitted in court trial.
Alcohol may have been the common denominator in Newcombe’s troubles with the law. In 1965, Newcombe told the monthly magazine “Ebony” that for many years “he was a stupefied, wife-abusing, child-frightening, falling-down drunk,” behavior that explained his temperamental, belligerent baseball outbursts and led to his 1960 divorce from wife Freddie Green. To finance his alcohol dependency, Newcombe sold his 1955 World Series ring and an expensive watch before he declared bankruptcy. Peter O’Malley, then-Dodgers vice president, bought back the ring and watch, and returned them to a grateful Newcombe. Finally, in 1966, Newcombe’s second wife, Billie Roberts, threatened to leave him, and take their two children unless he quit drinking.
Roberts’ ultimatum was the catalyst that put the pitcher on a life-long campaign to raise awareness about, and fight against, alcohol abuse. As a recovering alcoholic, Newk created the Dodger’s substance abuse awareness program, and became a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism consultant, as well as the New Beginning Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program special projects director. Newcombe rejoined the Dodger organization in the late 1970s and served as the team’s Director of Community Affairs. In March 2009, he was named special advisor to Dodgers chairman Frank McCourt.
Looking back, Newcombe said that alcohol may have cost him his place in the Hall of Fame: “I was only 34 [when he retired], but the alcohol had taken its toll. I think it shortened my major-league career by about six or seven years. I regret that I didn’t take better care of myself in the latter part of my career because I would like to have made the Hall of Fame, where I think I belong.”
On his website, Newcombe wrote: “What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again — means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”
After a long illness, Newcombe died at age 92 in Los Angeles in 2019 knowing that he had helped many of his fellow Dodgers get sober and live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.