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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Don Newcombe - Almost a Hall of Famer?

The Dodgers and Yankees met in the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. Brooklyn managed to win only the 1955 match up. The greatest advantage that the Yankees had was their starting pitching. Whether it was Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Whitey Ford, Bob Kuzava or Don Larsen, the Bronx Bombers always seemed to come up with somebody in big moments (if not for Cookie Lavagetto, Bill Bevens would be included on that list).

During this era, Don Newcombe rose above the other Dodger would-be aces, such as Carl Erskine, Ralph Branca and Johnny Podres (though the latter certainly carried the flag in the 1955 Series). Big Newk missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons, as he was serving his country, fighting in Korea. And his 1954 season was a poor one: it took him a year to get back to form after being released from service.

But in 1949-1951 and  1955-1956, Newcombe went a combined 103-40, with 92 complete games. Those are some impressive numbers for the 1949 Rookie of the Year.

However, he got a reputation as a choker in big games. He went all ten innings against the Phillies on the final day of the 1950 season, with the Dodgers needing a win to force a playoff. But he gave up a three run homer to Dick Sisler in the top of the tenth in the season-ending 4-1 loss (which would have been a win if third base coach Milt Stock had simply held Cal Abrams at third in the bottom of the ninth).

He carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning of that famous game three playoff against the Giants in 1951. But he couldn't hold on and he had been relieved by Ralph Branca when Bobby Thomson hit the home run heard round the world.

And in three World Series', he just couldn't get the job done for the Dodgers. He started 5 games, going 0-4 with an ERA of 8.59 and lasting about 4 innings a start.

Yogi Berra hit a pair of two-run
homers off Newcombe in
Game 7 in 1956
In 1956, he won the (very first) Cy Young Award and the NL MVP, going 27-7. But in the World Series he couldn't make it out of the second inning of game two or the fourth in game seven. And he climbed into the bottle after that World Series. His career was effectively done, as he went a combined 37-42 in the four years after that Cy Young season. He spent 1961 in the minors and quit the game.

A Trail Blazer

Newcombe was one of the first black players signed by the Dodgers. He and Roy Campanella played with Nashua of the New England League (B) in 1946 and 1947. Newcombe was dominant, going 33-10 with an ERA well under 3.  He probably would have played in AA ball in 1947 but the Dodgers' two AA teams were in the south and not yet ready to be integrated.

In 1948 he went 17-6 at AAA Montreal and got called up to the Dodgers early in 1949. He was the second black pitcher in the major leagues and the first good one (Dan Bankhead pitched in four games for the Dodgers in 1947).

Close to Cooperstown

Newcombe lost a season or two to baseball's color barrier.

And he lost nearly three peak seasons to the Korean War.

Finally, had Newcombe pitched better in the World Series (especially in 1956), he might well have continued on as one of the NL's top pitchers instead of spiraling into alcoholism.

The third factor was certainly within his control. But if the last two had been a bit different, Don Newcombe might well be in the Hall of Fame today.

He and Justin Verlander are the only players to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards.
Four pioneers: Roy Campanella, Larry Doby,
Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson at the 1949 All Star Game

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