Don Newcombe was the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards during his career, and the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, and the first black pitcher to win 20 games in the post integrated (and therefore, bona fide) Major Leagues, where he also became the first black pitcher named to an MLB All-Star team. He was also a great hitter (for a pitcher), batting .271.
One thing that Don wasn’t, however, was very good in the postseason. He had a decent 1949 World Series. In fact, I’ve often wondered if what happened in Game 1 of that series somehow affected subsequent performances, or just set the cosmic eight ball rolling against Don in October ever after. I mean, he pitched brilliantly in Game 1 of the ’49 classic, giving up just five hits while striking out 11 in a complete game that he lost 1-0 when the Yankees’ Tommy Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run to right.
After that, Don was never the same in the World Series, racking up an astronomical earned run average. But he was an absolute beast the rest of the time. Still, as a result of his poor late-season performances, he got an unfair reputation for being “gutless” in big games. What the hell does that mean? The people that called Newcombe gutless probably never played the game. Don even belted some loudmouth in the parking lot who used the g-word on Newk after one of his toughest losses.
Whatever the case, I don’t buy it. Gutless? The only reason that Don’s Dodgers got into so many big games is because Don (and his teammates) were so damn good. They played baseball, the hardest sport to play well, at its highest level, stood in, persevered, and won a lot of games, all of which takes an abundance of guts.
Anyway, I met Don Newcombe once, randomly, in the tunnel between the Braves dugout and their clubhouse in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. There he was, a giant looming in front of me all of a sudden, and not only because he was 6-foot-4 and well north of 200 pounds. I’d grown up with stories about Newk and his contemporaries that made the Olympian gods look like bush leaguers.
My father was a big Yankees fan, and his team benefitted more than any other when Don suffered a post-season collapse. But Dad never took that for granted, because he also he knew how great Don Newcombe was. Dad, the Yankees fan, did have a little bit of love for the boys in Flatbush … except at World Series time. Dad was a big Newcombe fan.
When I met Don, I was tongue-tied. This was completely unexpected, this meeting in the tunnel, and I’d be lying if I said anything profound came out of it, other than the fact that I got to shake Don Newcombe’s hand (a profound experience for me, anyway). I was so completely unprepared mentally, I forgot about the notepad I was carrying in my hand and the pen poised, as ever, on top of my ample ear.
All I could do was mumble and stutter something about my old man and his friends and how much they loved and respected Newcombe and even though most of them were Yankees fans, they never thought Don was gutless, at which point I thought to myself, did I actually say that? Don, all class, said, “well, I really appreciate that, especially coming from Yankee fans.”
Don Newcombe left the planet little more than a year ago, his soul traded to whatever team plays its home games on the Elysian Fields, where knowledgeable fans have sense enough to recognize real talent when they see it, and understand the difference between being gutless and having some bad luck, and where everyone has guts and good luck and all the games go into extra innings.
Or maybe I’m confusing that with a cornfield in Iowa.