Don Newcombe, a star pitcher on the Brooklyn Dodgers’ famed “Boys of Summer” teams of the 1950s and the first player to receive the rookie of the year, MVP and Cy Young awards, died Tuesday at age 92.
Newcombe died after a lengthy illness, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced.
“Don Newcombe’s presence and life established him as a role model for major leaguers across the country,” Dodger President Stan Kasten said in a statement. “He was a constant presence at Dodger Stadium and players always gravitated to him for his endless advice and leadership. The Dodgers meant everything to him and we are all fortunate he was part of our lives.”
Basketball Hall of Fame member and Dodger part-owner Earvin “Magic” Johnson tweeted, “Don Newcombe, like Jackie Robinson, opened the door for other African-Americans to play baseball and paved the way for us to play professional sports.
“Don was classy, a sharp dresser, and one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He and Tommy Lasorda were the ones who really taught me the strategy of baseball.”
Newcombe is survived by his wife, Karen; children Don Newcombe Jr., Kelly Roxanne Newcombe and Brett Anthony Newcombe; and grandchildren Cayman and Riann.
Funeral services are pending.
Born June 14, 1926, in Madison, New Jersey, Newcombe began his professional career with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in 1944 and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946.
When team President Branch Rickey attempted to send Newcombe and future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella to the Dodgers’ Danville, Illinois, affiliate in the Class B Three-I League, the league threatened to shut down if the two black players arrived.
Instead, Newcombe and Campanella were sent to the Nashua (New Hampshire) Dodgers of the Class B New England League in 1946, making them the first U.S.- based team in organized baseball in the 20th century to include black players.
Robinson began his career in the Dodger organization that year with its International League affiliate in Montreal.
Newcombe began his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, going 17-8, helping the Dodgers to the National League pennant and receiving the National League rookie of the year award.
Newcombe was a three-time 20-game winner in his seven seasons in Brooklyn, missing the 1952 and 1953 seasons while serving in the U.S. Army.
Newcombe won a team-high 20 games in 1955, the only season the Dodgers won the World Series when they were in Brooklyn, and his .800 winning percentage was the best in Major League Baseball.
Newcombe received the inaugural Cy Young Award in 1956 as the best pitcher in Major League Baseball and was the National League MVP as his 27-5 record helped the Dodgers to another pennant.
Newcombe was the Dodgers’ starting pitcher in Vin Scully’s first regular-season game as a Dodger broadcaster, April 18, 1950, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Newcombe was removed from the game after facing two batters in the second inning. He was allowed four runs and was charged with the 9-1 loss.
Following an 0-6 start in the Dodgers’ first season in Los Angeles in 1958, Newcombe was traded to Cincinnati. He concluded his major league career in 1960 with Cleveland.
In 1962, Newcombe became the first former major leaguer to play in Japan, playing the outfield and first base — pitching just once — for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League.
In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had dinner at Newcombe’s Los Angeles home, 28 days before being assassinated.
Newcombe recalled King saying, “Don, you’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and (Larry) Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.”
“Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billyclubs, bitten by dogs and thrown in jail and he says we made his job easier.”
Newcombe rejoined the Dodger organization in 1970 when he started Major League Baseball’s first community relations department. All 30 MLB teams now have community relations departments.
Newcombe’s community service contributions include helping numerous others in their battles against substance abuse.
“What I have done after my baseball career — being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track so they become productive human being again — that means more to me than all the things I did in baseball,” Newcombe said.
Newcombe became a special adviser to the chairman in 2009, a position he held at his death.
In September, the Dodgers announced that Newcombe, Steve Garvey and Fernando Valenzuela would make up the inaugural class of the Legends of Dodger Baseball.
The team will annually induct Dodger greats into the Legends of Dodger Baseball in recognition of their impact on the franchise, both on and off the field, beginning this season.
Newcombe will be inducted into the Legends of Dodger Baseball at the April 27 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In a 2010 fundraiser at the California Science Center benefiting the Democratic National Committee and then-Sen. Barbara Boxer’s re-election campaign, then-President Barack Obama said Newcombe “helped Major League Baseball become what it is, but also helped America become what it is,” as one of the first black players in the major leagues after Robinson broke the color line in 1947.
Obama called it “an honor” to meet and have his picture taken with Newcombe.
“He was very gracious in saying `Jackie would be proud,”’ Obama said. “I said, well, `I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and it were not for Don Newcombe.”