Monday, August 29, 2005

The Dodgers' Brooklyn Bridge

The Dodgers' Brooklyn Bridge
Don Newcombe, a link to a glorious past, is 79 and still serving the franchise with character and class, attributes of much concern to the organization today

By Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times
August 28, 2005

It has been nearly 60 years now, and he still takes the ball. Night after night, in a stadium where he never pitched, representing a Los Angeles Dodger team for which he never won a game, the old man in the silk suit and Panama hat still shows up.

Smiling through the demons. Shaking hands through the bitterness. Standing tall for a sport that once tried to shrink him. Many players don't know the name. Many fans have forgotten the face. Never does this loosen the grip. Hand him the autograph pad. Pull out the disposable camera. Call in the Kiwanis Club. Give him the ball. It was hell to get here, and Don Newcombe is not leaving."I still am bitter to a large degree, but then I think about what Jackie Robinson once told me," he said. "He said, 'You've got to change one letter in that word. Change the 'i' to an 'e.' Forget about bitter, try to make things better.'

"So, you want Dodger character? Cheer it today, at the 50th reunion of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, upon the introduction of Don Newcombe. Cheer it for the only still-living regular contributor on that team who was once kept in the minor leagues because of his color, prohibited from fighting back because of his race, treated unfairly despite his stardom. Cheer it for the only still-living regular contributor on that team who could have easily disappeared, the only one who could have understandably walked away. Cheer the only one who never really left.

"To see him standing behind the batting cage before the game, it constantly amazes me," said Bob Grant, the Dodger batting practice pitcher who frequently talks with Newcombe. "All he stood for, everything he fought, and he's still here. He's, like, our treasure."A buried treasure, sometimes. A scuffed treasure, perhaps. An unbreakable treasure, always.

"I remember when Martin King was at my house for dinner," recalled Newcombe, 79. "He told me, 'You and Jackie and Campy [Roy Campanella] will never know how easy you made my job.' And I was like, 'You're kidding me? How can that be?' "The year was 1968.A month later, while standing on a balcony at a Memphis hotel where the three Dodgers used to live while barnstorming, King was assassinated."I said, 'Martin, why are you even going back to Memphis?' " Newcombe recalled. "He said, 'Because my brothers and sisters are suffering.'

"Newcombe took those words to heart in later years, fighting for his two fellow Dodgers until he was the last one left. When Robinson broke all ties with the Dodgers for more than 15 years after his retirement because of anger with the front office, it was Newcombe who reunited them shortly before Robinson's death."I called him and said, 'Jack, it's time, you've got to come back, this is bigger than all of us,' " Newcombe said. "And Jack said, 'OK, for you, I'll do it.'

"When Campanella's broken body was failing, it was Newcombe who would drive to the hospital and give him blood, through transfusions, more than a half-dozen times. "Campy was my roommate, my running man, my partner," he said. Now there is just Newk, living alone in a Torrance townhouse, his walls bereft of awards, his memories in his head. He is the only player in baseball history to win the rookie of the year, Cy Young and most valuable player awards. Yet, weary of watching them gather dust in an empty apartment, he sold all three trophies to Spike Lee.

He was the 20-game winner for that 1955 Brooklyn championship team. Yet he also sold Spike the ring. He could have been a Hall of Fame pitcher, great stuff and a tough makeup, going 47-12 in 1955-56. But alcoholism ended his career at age 34. That's the hardest thing for him. That he is remembered today only for the barriers he helped break, not for the fastballs he once threw.

"Do you know that, in 49 years with this team as a player and a front-office person, only once has anyone ever asked me about pitching?" Newcombe said. "What is it about me and pitching that does not ring a bell with anybody here, or in baseball? It was like I never won a game, or anything else."

The person who asked for advice was Wilson Alvarez, two seasons ago. Today Newcombe hangs around and greets fans and talks about his nearly four decades of sobriety and spreads the Dodger gospel while waiting for someone else to ask a second pitching question."I'm not complaining," he said. "People have no idea what folks like me had to endure just to be here."

LOOKING BACK: Don Newcombe battled prejudice during his playing days. “People have no idea what folks like me had to endure.”
(Richard Hartog / LAT)
August 28, 2005

Trivia time: Whom did the Brooklyn Dodgers originally anoint to break the major league baseball color barrier?

Yep, Don Newcombe. He was 19, a great pitching prospect, and Buzzie Bavasi wanted to bring him up. But in the end, there was too much worry about his temperament. A more mature Jackie Robinson was selected instead.

"They took the right man; I was too young. The pressure would have killed me," Newcombe said. "And being a pitcher, that made it worse. In that era, people didn't respect the black man. So if I was to throw a ball and hit someone? Oh, man."

The problem was, it then took Newcombe more than three years to join him, even though he won 52 minor league games during that time. "If I was white, I would have already been called up, but Mr. Rickey said, 'I'm doing this on a stair-step procedure, so keep your mouth shut,' " Newcombe said.

Once in Brooklyn, joining Robinson and Campanella in May 1949, Newcombe said things didn't get much easier. "Even many of our teammates treated us different," he said. "People have no idea."

Typical of their lives were the trips to St. Louis. While the other Dodgers could take a bus to the hotel, the three blacks had to drag their bags to the curb to grab one of the few cabs that wouldn't ignore them. "Imagine standing there watching your teammates drive past you, and not one of them gets off the bus to stand with you," he said. "Not one, ever, got off to see what would happen."

And while the other Dodgers stayed in a plush air-conditioned hotel, the three blacks stayed in the basement of an aging blacks-only hotel, their rooms adjacent to a rowdy bar."What we had to endure because we had the audacity to want to play baseball," he said. "And the Dodgers never did anything about it.

"In Cincinnati, they couldn't eat with the team, so they once ordered everything off the room-service menu, the bill around $400, and Rickey was furious. "We made a point," he said. "The next year, Jack and his wife walked into the hotel dining room and they said, 'Where have you been?'

"Amazingly, that first season, amid constant catcalls from opponents and fans, an angry Newcombe hit only three batters in 244 1/3 innings."I was ordered not to fight back," he said. "If a black man hit a white player, it could have started a riot."His aggressiveness surfaced in other ways.He was once so angry in Chicago, he vowed to knock down all nine opposing batters but was yanked after knocking down seven.

He also quit the team twice during his career, including once for a couple of days in the middle of the 1955 championship season because he didn't want to pitch batting practice, a common chore for starters in those days. He returned after realizing the silliness of his protest, and wound up going 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA."I would go home for a few days, then call Buzzie and say, 'Will you take an old fool back?' " Newcombe recalled. "He would always say, 'Well, if that old fool will keep his mouth shut.'

"One of the things that angered the Dodgers about Milton Bradley's recent claims of racial problems is that they felt it trivialized the real struggles of players like Newcombe. "If Milton had asked me, I would have said, 'Be careful what you say, you don't want to create something that's hard to deal with,' " Newcombe said. "To my experience, the Dodgers have no racial problems at all. "But Newcombe said he understood the inspiration for Bradley's words."I want everyone to know, Milton Bradley is a fine guy; he reminds me of Jackie in so many ways. He has a personality that wants to win," he said. "And, really, if you look on the field right now, nothing racial about it, but there's only two blacks, it's not the Dodgers' fault, but that's hard sometimes.

"But plenty of other things have changed. Where Newcombe once couldn't stay in the Dodger hotel, he now gives Dodger speeches in hotels. Where he once couldn't eat with the Dodgers, he now is host at Dodger banquets. And where he was once treated like an object, his likeness now adorns an object, a bobble-head doll whose giveaway helped draw a then-record 55,311 fans to Dodger Stadium one night last July.

"It made me feel like I haven't been forgotten," Newcombe said. "To have all those people come out here. "He signed dolls and boxes for more than two hours that night. But then he felt faint, excused himself, and drove home early. But soon, he was back, behind home plate before games, in the stands during games, happily embracing the very institution that once considered him impossible to embrace. How interesting that Don Newcombe considers himself lucky to be here. It is the Dodgers, it is all of us, who are lucky to have him. "As usual, Jackie was right," Newcombe said, grinning underneath his Panama hat.

"Change one letter. Change everything. Turn bitter into better."

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

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