Newcombe an eyewitness to history
Dodgers great provides a living link to MLB's integration
He strolls through Dodger Stadium before many home games, dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, wearing his customary fedora.
Don Newcombe, the only player in Major League history to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards (he won the very first Cy Young in 1956), can usually be found on the field chatting with players and coaches from the Dodgers and visiting teams and also talking with members of the media about his days as one of the famed "Boys of Summer" with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.
Invariably, discussions always steer toward Newcombe's friend and teammate, Jackie Robinson. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, and with the passing of many of the early African-American pioneers of Major League Baseball, including Roy Campanella, Dan Bankhead and Larry Doby, Newcombe stands as one of the last witnesses who knew firsthand the hardships and sacrifices he and his friends faced integrating the National Pastime.
"I think about it all the time, about my buddies Jackie, Roy, Larry and all the guys we hung around with. Most of them are gone," said the 80-year-old Newcombe, a pallbearer at Robinson's funeral in 1972. "I'm still here, luckily, and I think back about that era of life all the time."
On April 15, 1947, the day Robinson played in his first game for the Dodgers, Newcombe, then 20, was heading to Nashua, N.H., for his second Minor League season. A fateful stop at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn gave the young pitcher a chance to watch history in the making.
"I was on my way to the train station to go to Nashua," recalls Newcombe, "but had to go up to [Branch] Rickey's box above home plate at Ebbets Field to take care of some business that we had. I owed him $1,000 and being in the Class B level of baseball, I didn't know how I was going to get the money to pay him back out of my salary. He was so involved that day in what Jackie was doing, he told me to just go down to the office and get my release.
"I was crossing over the bridge to the elevator to go to the office and something in my head said, 'Don, you better explain to Mr. Rickey what you were talking about,' so I went back to Mr. Rickey's box and he told me not to worry about the money. In fact, I never did pay him back."
With the business out of the way, Newcombe stayed and watched the first seven innings of the game before he had to leave to catch his train.
"God, was I proud," said Newcombe. "I was so proud to see this great person, this great athlete, change history at the big-league level, not the Minor Leagues. He was doing it at the Major League level. I had a chance, in my mind's eye, to eventually get to the same level as Jackie and play on the same team with him. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I sure was going to work hard to try and I finally did make it."
Newcombe remembers vividly how his friend conducted himself that day.
"Jackie tried to be gracious, but he was really nervous," recalled Newcombe. "Jackie was afraid of how well he was or was not going to do and he didn't do very well that day. But he was out there in a Dodger uniform, playing a strange position at first base -- that was another worry for him -- but he was the kind of man who had no fear for no man or no problem that was going to face him. What Jackie Robinson was doing that day was going to have an impact on black people all over the world."
Robinson, Newcombe and the other African-American players during that time faced an inordinate number of problems, including death threats, verbal harassment from other players and fans, and subtle and overt discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other public facilities. But these pioneers knew what they were doing was going to further a much bigger cause.
"We were doing this long before Martin Luther King Jr., that great black American, did what he did in the civil rights movement," said Newcombe. "We couldn't afford to fail and that was an important factor in doing the important things that we needed to do to make it better for black people all over this world."
For Newcombe it still feels like yesterday, but he's pleased that Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball have made April 15 of each season an important day in which baseball honors the man he idolized.
"It should have happened a long time ago, but it takes people to do things and the Branch Rickeys and the Bud Seligs who are responsible for it to make things happen continuously and to make young people -- especially young black people -- be aware of who Jackie Robinson was and the contributions he made to change this country of ours to make it a better country for all people, regardless of their skin color," said Newcombe. "Jackie made a great contribution to this country and deserves every accolade that is possible to be heaped upon his shoulders."
Now in the later innings of his life, Newcombe is able to look back and marvel at what he was a part of.
"It never ceases to be a thought in my mind," he said. "It was a happy thought in many instances to be able to be a part of this whole process that brought Jackie, then Dan, then Roy and then me to the Dodgers and to do what we did in the 10 years we were with the Dodgers, winning five Most Valuable Player Awards, two Rookie of the Year Awards and a Cy Young Award -- that's how good we were and that's how determined we were. We could not and did not fail to do the job we were asked to do by Branch Rickey.
"I was a poor kid from Elizabeth, N.J., didn't know where I was going in my life and here at 19, I was involved in a movement, a movement to change society, where it concerned black people all over this world and I learned how important it was."
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.