MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

On field and off, Newcombe's life has benefited many

Civil rights trailblazer has spent decades helping others with substance abuse

On field and off, Newcombe's life has benefited many

The 2015 Civil Rights Game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be played at Dodgers Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day, Wednesday, at 10:10 p.m. ET. Complete coverage here.

LOS ANGELES -- In an eventful life spanning 89 years, Don Newcombe has a treasure trove of memories. None compares in personal impact to a dinner in 1968 at his Los Angeles home with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was 28 days before Dr. King's assassination in 1968, and he was in the midst of peaceful protest speeches, marches and demonstrations. On his way home to Atlanta, with an evening to relax, Dr. King visited Newcombe and let him know what he, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella had meant to the civil rights struggle.

"He said, 'Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy and Doby made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,'" Newcombe said. "After everything he'd been through, here he was telling me how we'd helped him with the movement. I'll never forget that."

As the years have passed, Newcombe has come to fully grasp how fortunate he was to be in the presence of this great man at this critical juncture in American history.

"He was a strong man, a wonderful man who made a difference," Newcombe said. "He lived his life to the fullest, committed to the cause. I feel so fortunate that I was able to meet him and spend some time with him."

Another memorable tribute to Newcombe -- a man born in common circumstances in Madison, N.J., and destined for uncommon achievements and experiences -- would come 32 years later from President Barack Obama at a fundraiser for California Sen. Barbara Boxer on April 19, 2010.

President Obama referred to Newcombe as "someone who helped ... America become what it is. I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and if it were not for Don Newcombe."

Dapper Don Newcombe followed closely on Robinson's heels, blowing away stereotypes while emerging as Major League Baseball's first great African-American pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1949, at 23, Newcombe won the National League Rookie of the Year Award with 17 wins and five shutouts, and he finished eighth in the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting.

A 20-game winner in 1951 and '55, Newcombe had a 1956 season for the ages, winning 27 games and completing 18 while claiming the NL MVP Award and the NL Cy Young Award.

Newcombe missed two prime seasons, 1952 and '53, because of Korean War military service, losing perhaps 40 wins, well within his reach at the time, that would have given him 189 total and enhanced his Hall of Fame candidacy. He never got close to induction.

Big Newk threw his final big league pitch at 34 in 1960 for the Indians. But his prominent role in the integration of the game, arriving in Brooklyn a year after Campanella, his incomparable batterymate, stands the test of time.

For decades, Newcombe has represented the Dodgers in community service, a responsibility he takes seriously. His passion has been a fight against substance abuse, turning around lives in and out of baseball.

Hired by the Dodgers in 1970, serving now as special advisor to the chairman, Newcombe understood on a personal level the struggles of those in the grip of substance abuse.

Told by a longtime friend that he belonged with the legends in Cooperstown, N.Y., Newcombe shook his head and said, "No, I was done at 33. I have only myself to blame for that."

"What I have done after my baseball career -- being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track so they become productive human beings again -- that means more to me than all the things I did in baseball."

Bob Welch, a great Dodgers right-hander who won the 1990 American League Cy Young Award for the A's, credited Newk with saving his life in 1980 when he dealt with his alcoholism. Welch wasn't alone.

Maury Wills, the Dodgers' superstar shortstop during the glory years of the 1960s, expressed his gratitude several years ago in Newcombe's presence with the following tribute:

"I'm standing here with the man who saved my life. 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."

Newcombe is left to carry on alone among his fellow trailblazers. Robinson died in 1972. Campanella -- paralyzed in an auto accident in January 1958 -- lived until 1993. Doby, who integrated the AL right behind Robinson, died in 2003.

When Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey and owner Walter O'Malley to shoulder the burden as the first African-American to play organized baseball at Triple-A Montreal in 1946, Rickey also signed Newcombe and Campanella.

Newk and Campy began their careers in the New England League. With Robinson in Canada, the Nashua Dodgers were the first racially integrated baseball team based in the United States in the 20th century.

Robinson crashed through the doors of misperception in his Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947. In eight seasons starting with Newk's arrival, the Dodgers played in five World Series and narrowly missed winning pennants in 1950 and 1951.

The three pioneers endured verbal assaults, including death threats. It was through their persistence that a number of hotels and restaurants began to open their doors to African-Americans.

The memory of how it all began remains alive in Newcombe.

"My wife and I came out of a movie and saw a headline in the New York Post," he said. "I'll never forget it. It said that Montreal had signed Jackie Robinson. I knew this was the beginning of change. I said to my wife, 'Maybe this is a chance for me and Roy.'"

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.