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Like Jackie, Newcombe's impact was great

Like Jackie, Newcombe's impact was great

Like Jackie, Newcombe's impact was great
LOS ANGELES -- Arriving in Brooklyn two years on the flying heels of Jackie Robinson, the man who changed America forever, Don Newcombe carved out a pioneering career of his own as the first successful African-American pitcher in Major League Baseball.

Fulfilling club president Branch Rickey's vision arm-in-arm with the indomitable Robinson and Roy Campanella, Newcombe played a role in breaking down social barriers, forging new opportunities in a wide range of areas for a race of people that had become all too familiar with exclusion.

"Jackie was a remarkable man," Newcombe said. "He was so strong, so tough and such a great athlete.

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"The only man I ever knew that I thought could do what Jackie did was Jackie. 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."

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Newcombe -- "Big Newk," as he was known to teammates -- was born in Madison, N.J., and raised in Elizabeth, N.J. After one season with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, he signed with the Dodgers in 1946 and emerged -- full force at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- as the National League Rookie of the Year Award winner in 1949 as a 17-game winner. He was eighth in the NL MVP Award balloting.

Newcombe claimed the league MVP Award in 1956 along with the first Cy Young Award, given at the time to the best pitcher in the Majors. He had gone 27-7 with 18 complete games and a 3.06 ERA while working half his games in cozy Ebbets Field. He had a 0.99 WHIP, for new stat aficionados, in 268 innings of labor.

In back-to-back seasons, Newcombe was 47-12. During the magical 1955 season that rocked Brooklyn as never before with its first World Series championship, Newk was 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA, leading the league in WHIP and strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

Newcombe also went 20-9 in 1951 with a strikeout title (164), but he was deprived of win No. 21 -- and a trip to the World Series -- when Bobby Thomson and the rival Giants seized the historic third playoff game in the Polo Grounds. Newcombe made it to the ninth with a three-run lead before it all unraveled, with Thomson rocketing the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" off reliever Ralph Branca.

Newcombe was lost to the Dodgers to military service during the Korean War in 1952 and '53, at the peak ages of 26 and 27. He finished his 10-year career with a 149-90 record and a 3.56 ERA, never getting close to gaining entrance in the Hall of Fame.

Before Justin Verlander was handed the American League MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award in 2011 to go with his '06 AL Rookie of the Year Award, Newcombe was the only man to have captured that trifecta.

"I had that honor for 55 years," Newcombe said. "It was about time someone else did it. It's good to have a partner. I hope he carries on."

On top of his mound skills, Newcombe was arguably the most dangerous hitting pitcher ever. He launched seven home runs in 1955 and had a career line of .271 batting average/.338 on-base percentage/.367 slugging percentage with 15 homers and 108 RBIs.

A case can be made that Newcombe's pioneering role, coupled with his dominance at his peak and the two years lost to military service, warranted significantly more consideration than his high of 15.3 percent on the 1980 ballot, his final season of eligibility for enshrinement.

For all of his remarkable accomplishments on the mound, Newcombe always returns in interviews to a dinner in 1968 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the most meaningful event of his distinguished career.

It gave sharp perspective to what he had gone through alongside Robinson and Campanella in those daunting, turbulent early days of integrating the game.

It was 28 days before King's assassination, and he was in the midst of peaceful protest speeches, marches and demonstrations. On his way home to Atlanta, King dined at Newcombe's Los Angeles home.

"He said, 'Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy and [Larry] 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."

Another memorable tribute would come 32 years later from President Obama at a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, attended by Newcombe on April 19, 2010.

The president referred to Newcombe, the NL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, 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."

Newcombe was hired by the Dodgers in 1970 in a community service role, with a focus on improving the lives of those in the grip of substance abuse -- something he understood on a personal level.

"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," Newcombe said.

Among those he helped guide toward sobriety was Maury Wills, the Dodgers' superstar shortstop during the glory years of the 1960s. Here is the way Wills expressed it in Newcombe's company:

"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 trail blazers in Brooklyn. Robinson died in 1972, while Campanella -- paralyzed in an auto accident in January 1958 -- lived on until 1993, enriching those around him with his remarkable goodwill.

When Robinson was chosen by 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 as the first African-Americans to play Class A ball.

Rickey initially planned to send Newcombe and Campanella to Danville, Ind., in the Three-I League, but the league threatened to shut down if the players arrived. So Newk and Campy began their careers in the more accepting 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 made his historic debut for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award that now bears his name. Campanella joined Jackie in '48, almost immediately recognized as the league's best catcher. Newcombe made his Major League debut on May 20, 1949.

In eight seasons starting with Newk's arrival in 1949, the Dodgers played in five World Series and narrowly missed pennants in '50 and '51. The three pioneers endured all forms of verbal assaults, including death threats, and it was through their dignity and persistence that a number of hotels and restaurants began to open their doors to African-Americans.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Newcombe struggled to an 0-6 start and was dealt to the Reds for four players at midseason. He was 24-21 in Cincinnati before the Reds sold his contract to the Indians in 1960 at midseason. A 2-3 record with the Indians ended his Major League career.

On May 28, 1962, Newcombe signed with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball.

In March 2009, after almost four decades in community relations, he was named as a special adviser to Dodgers chairman Frank McCourt.

The magic of how it all began remains alive in Newk at 85.

"My wife and I came out of a movie and saw a headline in the New York Post," Newcombe 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 reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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