By Glen Sparks
Don Newcombe, sober since 1967.
Newcombe did much to make fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers stand up and cheer. The young man from Madison, N.J., made a quick, and most favorable, impression in his rookie season of 1949. He compiled a 17-8 record with a 3.17 ERA (130 ERA+). The 6-foot-4-inch right-hander with the big wind-up was selected to the All-Star team, earned Rookie of the Year honors and finished eighth in the MVP voting.
He followed that up by going 19-11 (3.70 ERA, 111 ERA+) in 1950 and 20-9 (3.28, 120 ERA+) in 1951. He also led the league in strikeouts in ’51 with 164.
Then, Newk left to join the Army for two years during the Korean War. He came back in 1954 and only went 9-8 with a 4.55 ERA. Was he done? Hardly.
Brooklyn won its only World Series title in 1955, thanks in large part to Newcombe. He compiled a 20-5 record with a 3.20 ERA (128 ERA+). He also led the league in WHIP (1.113) and was seventh in MVP voting.
But ’55 was just a warm-up for 1956. That year, Newk went 27-7 with a 3.06 ERA (131 ERA+). Once again, he also led the league in WHIP, a sign of his excellent control.
Newcombe Makes History
On this date in 1956, Newcombe became the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. He added the National League MVP Award a few days later. He remains the only player to take home those two awards and also win Rookie of the Year honors. Then, it all crashed. Newcombe only pitched four more seasons. Did his fastball fizzle out? Did that great control on the mound suddenly disappear? Nope.
“It had to be the drinking,” Newcombe says in the book 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Do Before They Die by Jon Weisman.
Newcombe, with a 149-90 career record, left baseball following the 1960 season. He battled booze a little longer. Finally, he sobered up and inspired others to do the same. The great former Dodger shortstop and speedster Maury Wills credits Newcombe for getting his life onto the path to sobriety.
“(Newcombe) saved my life,” Wills said. “He was a channel for God’s love for me because he chased me all over Los Angeles trying to help me, and I just couldn’t understand that. But, he persevered. He wouldn’t give in, and my life is wonderful today because of Don Newcombe.”
Big Newk is 89 years old. If you watch Dodger games, you’ll see some shots of him throughout the season. He’s the guy in the sharp suit and fancy hat. He looks every bit the gentleman.
Don Newcombe didn’t make the Hall of Fame. Not the one in Cooperstown, that is. To many, though, he is a Hall of Famer for what he did off the field.
“What I have done after my baseball career,” he said, “and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and see them become human beings again means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”