Newcombe letter a fan's family treasure
Dodgers ace took time during 1956 MVP season to thank fan
In the middle of his epic 1956 National League Cy Young Award and MVP Award-winning season, Don Newcombe wrote a letter to a fan that has surfaced many years later from the recipient's son and shed a light on race relations at that time:
Sunday, July 8, was going to be another summer scorcher at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. The World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers were in town to play a bake-in-the-sun afternoon doubleheader and the Phillies were really struggling. In last place with three months left in the season, Philly fans were already resigned to the fact there would be no pennant again this year -- just another season of mediocrity and frustration. The Dodgers, typically, were in an extremely tight pennant race. Just two games out of first, the Dodgers were hoping to capture their fourth National League pennant in five seasons.
But no matter where the two teams happened to be in the standings -- or how high the mercury might climb on any particular day -- temperatures always seemed to boil over when the Dodgers and Phillies got together. And since it had been just a little more than nine years since Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier, there were still some people throughout the country who did not like the fact that the national pastime was integrated.
So, for a small, less-enlightened element of the already-dispirited Philly fans, it probably didn't help matters much when they looked down from the stands that day and watched the Dodgers take the field with four black players. This was 1956 after all, and even though the country's birth certificate boldly proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, the freedom-loving nation with high ideals still had a few blind spots.
In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Then, a month later, as reward for leading Montgomery's successful bus boycott, segregationists firebombed the home of a new young preacher named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife and baby daughter escaping harm even though they were home at the time. So, for those fighting the good fight of equality and Civil Rights, 1956 was definitely a work in progress -- both on and off the ball fields of America.
Even though it had been nearly a decade since Robinson's first game, it still wasn't unheard of for black ballplayers to be kept off buses, denied hotel rooms with teammates and sometimes forced to play games while facing death threats. At some ballparks, the mere sight of a black player running onto the field might be all it took to stoke the simmering coals of hate and resentment. And, if a black player smacked a hit, stole a base, or made a big play in the field, an unholy string of venomous racial slurs might very well be unleashed from the stands for all to hear -- spectators and players alike.
And on this particularly hot Philadelphia afternoon in the summer of 1956, not just any black players were running onto the grass at Connie Mack Stadium. Taking the field were serious game changers who blazed trails for many to follow, and did so with incredible success on the field. They were Robinson, Roy Campanella, Jim "Junior" Gilliam and Newcombe.
Robinson and Campanella, without a doubt, were already headed to the Hall of Fame. And, flirting with a .300 batting average, Gilliam was tearing it up as the Dodgers' leadoff man. But in the summer of 1956, Newcombe -- or "Newk," as Dodger fans affectionately called him -- was as dominant as any player. He was an absolute one-man wrecking crew on NL pitching mounds that year.
Following Robinson's example two years before him, Newcombe earned the prestigious Rookie of the Year Award in 1949, and everyone in the Dodger organization was certain he had the stuff to go all the way, just like Jackie and "Campy." But, just as the towering 6-foot-4 Newcombe was drilling down and beginning to build on the foundation of his auspicious rookie year, along came the Korean War. Newcombe was drafted and missed two years of baseball while serving his country.
But now, with the war behind him, Newcombe was clearly making up for lost time. A 20-game winner during Brooklyn's heralded 1955 World Series run, Newk was already 10-5 when he stepped on the mound that July day in Philadelphia. And, seemingly without breaking much of a sweat, he made it 11-5 by pitching a four-hitter and beating the Phillies, 9-2. Not only did he pitch the entire nine-inning game, but Newk also went 2-for-4 at the plate and knocked in two runs. Not a bad day's work in a boiling stadium with some fans jeering his very existence on the field.
Whether the verbal insults hurled toward Newcombe that day led to pushing and shoving in the stands -- or possibly fisticuffs -- is not known. What is known is that one white man sitting in the cheap seats and wearing a Dodger cap had heard enough and decided to confront the name callers. Later, after tempers cooled, Newk's grandstand defender wrote the Dodger pitcher to tell him about the incident. The author of that letter was James Bernard "Jimmy" Mills. He was my father.
Dashed Dreams -- Lasting Legacy
My entire childhood I remember my father as a quintessential diehard Dodger fan -- not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that we lived in South Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and the Phillies. Despite constant grief from the multitude of equally diehard Philly fans that lived all around us, I can hardly remember a day when my father wasn't proudly wearing his blue Dodger ball cap with "LA" emblazoned across the front.
A talented young Navy singer during World War II, my father was sometimes asked by his country to engage the enemy by singing at stateside War Bond shows to raise money for the fight. One photograph from those days shows him singing before 60,000 at the newly built Garden State Racetrack with the patriotic and popular "Star Spangled Girl" -- Lucy Monroe. After the war, and beginning to knock on the door of entertainment success with radio gigs in Philadelphia and New York, my father literally lost his voice. One day after singing at a friend's wedding he woke up with a severe rasp that wouldn't go away. He never sang again.
My father's post-singing days were filled with family and friends, working for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Camden, N.J., and later tending a few small local bars in South Jersey, where he often organized softball-game fundraisers for families facing economic hardship of one kind or another. His organizing skills also came in handy for those bar-emptying trips to Connie Mack Stadium -- especially when the Dodgers came to town.
Some of my greatest childhood memories from that time are -- in full Dodgers regalia -- trekking over to Connie Mack Stadium to see Sandy Koufax explode off the mound and be an eyewitness to Maury Wills committing grand larceny on the Philly bases. Sure, we might also go over to Philly to see Willie Mays make an effortless basket catch in deep center, or Stan "The Man" Musial perform his personal ballet at the plate, but when the Dodgers came to town it was special -- like a state visit by the Pope or the Royal Family. And, even in his constantly challenged financial state, my father always seemed to be able to scrape up enough money to buy tickets so we could head into enemy territory and support our royal family -- the Dodgers.
A blustery cold morning in November 1965 brought an end to those pilgrimages to Connie Mack Stadium when my father lost his battle with throat cancer and died at the tender age of 46.
As the oldest son, at the age of 12, I wound up with the few personal effects my father left behind -- the flag that draped his coffin, empty bullet casings from his graveside 21-gun salute, a few photographs from his singing days, his first radio contract, autographs of Koufax, Moose Skowron and Frank Howard. And there was an old, beat-up letter written to my father by some long-forgotten Brooklyn Dodger.
To be honest, the letter -- other than the iconic blue Brooklyn Dodger logo on the stationary -- held little interest for me. Besides, the longhand, green ink writing was extremely difficult to read, especially for an impatient young man with places to go and people to meet. But, as part of the small inventory of dad's things, I held onto the letter, too.
Through my teenage years, on to college, and later into the workplace, the letter was folded over, unprotected, unread and unceremoniously stuffed in the corner of a shoebox with the other items. And did that shoebox do some traveling. From New Jersey to college in Florida, early jobs in North Carolina, cross-country to San Diego, another cross-country road trip back to South Carolina. Then, eventually, to Washington, D.C.
Flickering Light Across the River
Later, as part of the journalistic tribe that covers the politics of Capitol Hill, I found myself working in extremely tight quarters on the third floor of the United States Capitol Building. Cramped, but with one slight perk my colleagues didn't enjoy -- my 20 square feet of rarified Capitol turf had a magnificent window view overlooking the National Mall.
Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian, National Archives, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and on a clear night -- if you really focused -- you could see all the way across the Potomac River to Arlington Cemetery and the flickering eternal flame marking the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy. All just outside the window where I went to work each day.
It had been a long, hard, personal and professional slog for me from the hardscrabble days of South Jersey to the nation's capital, and perhaps a bit clunky and ill-conceived, but one day, in a sentimental tribute to a man who had his own dreams snatched from him at a young age, I took some of the shoebox items into my Capitol office and placed them on a shelf no more than a hundred feet from the ornate chamber of the House of Representatives and overlooking the National Mall. Included in the makeshift tribute -- the letter to my father from the old-time Dodger.
After September 11th, 2001, and the heroic actions of those aboard Flight 93, and with a newfound sobriety shared by my countrymen, I developed a keener sense of those things that are truly important. More specifically, and perhaps morbidly so, I also constructed a mental list of the items I would quickly grab if I ever had to run out of a burning Capitol building. It was then that I read -- really read -- the letter for the first time:
Just a line to let you know that I received your very nice letter and was very pleased to learn that I have such a true fan in alien territory. You already know that we have quite a rough time when we come to Philadelphia, but also know that we do have some real fans such as you.
I also appreciate the fact that you think I'm a better pitcher than Robin Roberts -- although through the years I have admired Robin both on and off the field so we won't go into anything on that subject.
I know, and I guess you have found out that people will call names, regardless of race, creed or color so I just want to say that I believe you took those dirty names like a gentleman. I and other members of my race have been called some pretty awful things but with faith in God maybe someday those evil people will see the light and take a person for what he is.
James I also appreciate your confidence in my having another great year. Thanks very much and I remain sincerely, Don Newcombe 1956 Dodgers.
Eloquent and measured words on the serious topic of race relations to be sure, but through the years I always presumed the author to be a second-tier type with nothing more pressing on his schedule than writing long-hand letters back to any fan who expressed half an interest. The player who wrote the letter wasn't even in the Hall of Fame -- how good could he have been? Besides, all the old newspaper clippings said the player had his career cut short because of an alcohol problem.
Ignorance, as they say, "is bliss," and I was working on a lifetime supply.
On Aug. 3, 1956 -- the day the letter was written -- the Dodgers were still fighting for the pennant, a feat they would not accomplish until the final game of the season. And the name of the big right-handed pitcher who secured the pennant for the Dodgers on that final day was the same name scribbled in green ink at the bottom of that old letter I had been carrying with me all those years -- Don Newcombe.
Not only was Newcombe not a second-tier type, but in 1956 he was having the year of a lifetime. On Aug. 2, one month after his win over Philly and the racial incident in the stands, Newk had improved his record to 16-5 and was in the middle of a personal nine-game winning streak that would span nearly two months. The night before he pulled out Brooklyn Dodger stationery to respond to my Dad, Newcombe was efficiently taking care of some other minor housekeeping chores like striking out 10 batters and shutting out the then-first-place Milwaukee Braves, 3-0. Perhaps an afterthought given the sensational season he was having, but Newcombe again pitched the entire game and went 1-for-3 at the plate.
Newcombe would go on to lose only two more games the entire rest of the season and finish the year with a mind-numbing 27-7 record. Not only did he earn the 1956 National League Most Valuable Player Award, but Newk also won the first Cy Young Award -- the gold standard for Major League pitchers ever since. In fact, Newcombe remains the only player in baseball history to have won the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards. So much for second-tier.
The more I read his letter to my father and began to embrace its full measure, Newcombe's words soon became my personal connection to the history of race relations in America. But beyond that, and on a much more personal level, the letter mystically helped me visualize my father before the cancer really took hold. I was able to reflectively see my Dad as a healthy young man with some fight still left in him and expressing outrage at a social injustice he witnessed firsthand. It told me things about my father that, as a young boy, I never knew, or was too busy to notice.
After several readings, the letter became as inspirational to me as the documents in the Archives just outside my Capitol window. Newk's words told me that despite my father's dashed dreams and inelegant climb down the ladder of success, not only was he ahead of his time on matters of race, but he cared deeply enough to speak up even if it was with his raspy, minimalized voice and from the cheap seats in the upper deck of Connie Mack Stadium.
History, unfortunately, did not note -- nor long remember -- what my father said or did in the grandstands that day in Philadelphia in July of 1956. But for me, my brother and my sisters, Don Newcombe's redemptive and prophetic words written 55 years ago reach across the generations as a lasting legacy that not only connects us to a father we knew for too short a time, but so too for the grandsons and granddaughters he would never know, and the great grandsons and great granddaughters he could only imagine.
My father didn't leave an estate when he died. He never owned a home. He didn't have a will. On the day he died, he didn't even own a car. He left behind nothing of material value. But his holding onto that letter through the years tells us all we need to know about what he considered truly valuable in this life.
In this sometimes coarse and evaporative world of talk radio, cable news, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the Newcombe letter also reminds us of a time when decent people of all races and creeds took pen to hand and slowly and thoughtfully pressed their passion, hopes and dreams onto a piece of paper, hopefully to be read and embraced by others with equal passion, hopes and dreams of their own.
In this case, those hopes and dreams came etched on Brooklyn Dodger stationery dated Aug. 3, 1956, and were sent by a future MVP and Cy Young Award winner in the middle of a torrid pennant-chasing year whose outcome would not be decided until the final out of the final game. In the midst of that frenetic, down-to-the-wire, championship season, citizen/ballplayer Don Newcombe found time in his schedule to reach out to a man of a different race and in alien territory to thank him for shining his one small light into the sea of darkness. That singular act of graciousness toward an obscure fan he would never meet now stands as a flickering light across the river that eternally reminds us all of a troubled time that once was, and of hopes and dreams to come. There is no Hall of Fame on this earth worthy of that kind of performance.
A former television producer for C-SPAN and Fox News, Jim Mills is a DC-based writer currently developing a situation comedy about Capitol Hill and writing a novel and screenplay about baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.