When Robinson was signed by Dodgers president Branch Rickey and owner Walter O'Malley out of the Negro Leagues to be the first African-American to play at Triple-A Montreal in 1946, as part of his grand integration plan Rickey also signed Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella to be the first African-Americans to play Class A ball.
Newcombe grew up poor in Elizabeth, N.J., his father a chauffeur. There were no dreams of hitting it rich in the big leagues, but his neighbor, John Grier, saw him throwing rocks and envisioned a pitcher in the making.
"John Grier was like my second father, he took a liking to me, and he taught me to wind up, taught me everything I knew about baseball," Newcombe said. "I began to learn and began to like it. I was only 14 and I was already big and I could throw hard. He taught me to control it. But aspirations of the Major Leagues? Black kids had none of that."
At 17, Newcombe was signed for $175 a month by the Newark Eagles, owned by Abe Manley and run by his wife, Effa. He played with and against the likes of Cool Papa Bell, Monte Irvin, Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells. Two seasons into his career at age 19, Newcombe was a newlywed and life was about to change dramatically.
"My wife and I came out of a movie and saw a headline in the New York Post, I'll never forget it, and it said that Montreal had signed Jackie Robinson," said Newcombe, now 85 and a special advisor to Dodgers chairman Frank McCourt. "I knew this was the beginning of change. I said to my wife, maybe this is a chance for me and Roy."
Former Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi wrote in his autobiography that if Newcombe hadn't been 19 years old at the time, Rickey might have chosen him over Robinson (who was 28) to be the first African-American Major Leaguer. Newcombe appreciated the mention, but believes the Dodgers got the right man for the job.
"The only man I ever knew that I thought could do what Jackie did was Jackie," Newcombe said. "I couldn't have accepted that kind of responsibility. Jackie brought more to the table. He served in the military. He went to UCLA. He was the man to do the job, not me. I don't know if Roy could have or Monte Irvin could have, but I do know that Jackie could do it. He far surpassed anyone I've ever known."
Newcombe can recall details of a 60-year anecdote as if it happened yesterday. He noted the irony in that a few months before signing, he had pitched in an Ebbets Field All-Star Game between Negro League stars and Major League stars. Newcombe pitched three innings of a Sunday game, went into the clubhouse, took off his uniform and was met by a slender man he had never seen before that turned out to be Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth, who would also sign Robinson.
"He asked me if I had ever heard of Branch Rickey," Newcombe said. "He told me this Mr. Rickey wanted to see me. I asked what he wanted. Sukeforth said I needed to come to the office and find out."
The meeting led to Newcombe's signing with the Dodgers for a $1,000 bonus.
"I gave $500 to my mother," said Newcombe, who had to borrow money from his mother for the subway fare from his home in New Jersey to Brooklyn for the meeting.
Newcombe and Campanella were originally signed to play at Danville in the Class A Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, but the league president threatened to shut down rather than let African-Americans in. So the pair was redirected to Nashua of the New England League.
"Me and Roy talked about it," Newcombe said. "I told Roy I'd do whatever he thought. He said, 'We've got to start somewhere, Don.' The president of the New England League said he didn't care what color we were if we could play. So we went."
Nashua became the first racially integrated team in the United States. Walter Alston, who would go on to be a Hall of Fame manager with the Dodgers, was the Nashua player/manager.
"Alston called a meeting with the team when we joined to work out. And Alston -- God bless him -- asked this question to the team: 'If I get sent out of a game, and I name this man manager, will you play for him or quit? Because If I'm not managing, I want Roy Campanella to manage. Does anybody have a problem with that?'
"To a man, everyone said no problem, and that's the way it was. And lo and behold, in a game in Massachusetts, Alston was put out of the game. We were losing 2-1 and it was the top of the eighth and Campanella came over to me on the bench and said I was going to pinch-hit, and my eyes just about popped out of my head. And I hit a home run to center field and we won the game. So, Roy became the first Black in organized baseball history to win a game as manager."
Rickey's talent evaluation was right on point. Robinson was a rookie of the year, an MVP, a six-time All-Star and Hall of Famer. Campanella won three MVP awards and was an eight-time All-Star before his career was cut short by a paralyzing accident. He also is in the Hall of Fame.
Newcombe became the only player to win a Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP award until Justin Verlander completed that trifecta last season. Verlander invited Newcombe to the New York Baseball Writers Dinner this month to present the MVP Award.
"I had that honor for 55 years, it was about time someone else did it," Newcombe said. "It's good to have a partner. I hope he carries on."