At Ebbets Field in Brooklyn last week, in the afternoon before a night game, Don Newcombe was out running by himself four hours before game time. He was the only player on the field, in full uniform except for his cap; and for 15 hot minutes he ran, over and over again, from deep in left field all the way across the far reaches of the outfield to the distant right field corner, running one way and then walking back in long, pacing, tigery strides to run again. Newcombe running is an awesome sight. He looks taller than his 6 feet 4 inches, heavier than his 240 pounds. He starts slowly, lumbering at first, but then gradually picking up speed like a Mack truck or an elephant; until with heavy, ground-shaking steps he pounds over the grass. A teammate has observed, "When Newk runs it's like the wall of a building falling down. He's not very fast, but once he gets going he can't stop, and ain't nobody going to get in his way."
Among the few who have gotten in Newcombe's way this year are Pitchers Sam Jones of the Chicago Cubs and Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies, who respectively handed Newcombe successive one-run defeats last week (1-0 and 3-2). Despite these painful losses, Newcombe's pitching record for 1955 is a remarkable 18-3, by far the best in the major leagues. More than that, he has smitten opposing pitchers with some very unpitcher-like hitting, running up a glittering .374 batting average wrapped around six home runs, as many home runs as any pitcher in National League history has ever hit in one season. This rare combination of pitcher-cum-hitter has caught the imagination of the baseball public as no other player has this year.
In the dugout last week, when he had finished running and had toweled himself off, Newcombe cut a tape-recorded message for a radio station in New Jersey, promoting a community-fund drive. He read his brief speech well, in a surprisingly lively, well-modulated, well-articulated voice; and he did it over three times before he, Newcombe, was satisfied it was right.
The tape-recorder man thanked him and shortly thereafter left. Newcombe slumped back on the bench, his long peaked cap low over his eyes, and looked out across the empty green grass of Ebbets Field.
"Last year," he said finally, "me and my roomie [Catcher Roy Campanella], nobody ever called us up. Nobody wanted us. This year, the phone's ringing all the time. Every place we go. The Duke of Paducah wants us, the Czar wants us, everybody."
Of course, last year Don Newcombe, fresh out of the Army and counted on for a big 20 victories by hopeful Dodger fans, was a grievous disappointment with a weak 9-and-8 won-and-lost record. And though he batted a creditable .319, he had only 15 hits and 16 total bases all season, and only four runs batted in. This year Newcombe and Campanella, who is a contender for the league batting championship, are Brooklyn's lead horses, the men most responsible for the Dodgers' remarkable improvement over last season.
"Last year I had a sore arm," Newcombe said. "This year I don't. That is the difference and the whole difference. There is no 'new' Newcombe. I'm the same guy. But this is the first year I ever remember that I didn't have a sore arm.
"I remember in 1949, the year I was called up to the Dodgers from Montreal, the very day I was called up, I had a sore arm. What a time for a sore arm.
"That year I pitched spring training with the Dodgers. I was on the Montreal roster, but they had me pitching with the Dodgers at Vero Beach. I pitched pretty good. I thought I should be brought up. When they broke camp I thought they should have taken me with them. But they didn't. I was supposed to rejoin Montreal.
"So I went home. I borrowed some money from Sam Jethroe and took off. My wife didn't say anything. She knew I was wrong and she knew I knew I was wrong; but she didn't say anything. The thing I didn't realize was Mr. Rickey knew what he was doing. He wasn't worried about one man. He had a program and he was following it. Me, I was worrying about me. I thought I was good enough to pitch with the Dodgers, and that's where I wanted to be.
"After a week I began to understand what Mr. Rickey was doing, doing things slow. I began to see that sitting home wasn't doing me any good. So I called up Buzzie Bavasi [then general manager of the Montreal club, now vice president of the Dodgers] and I asked him would he take back a damn fool.
"Then in May they called me up. And I had the sore arm. My wife rubbed my arm it seemed like all day and all night, and when I reported to the club in St. Louis it was okay."
Burt Shotton was managing the Dodgers that year; and in May, as indeed all through the season, Brooklyn was fighting the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant. In St. Louis Shotton sent Newcombe in as a relief pitcher in his major league debut. Much was being written at the time about the racial tension in St. Louis, with colored fans rooting for Robinson, Campanella and the Dodgers, and white fans rooting just as hard against them. When Newcombe came in, the stories go, the colored element roared its welcome. When Newcombe struck out Chuck Diering, the first batter, joy was unrestrained. But then he gave up four consecutive hits, and the cheers went the other way. It was a heartbroken Newcombe, wrote one observer, who trudged off the mound.
"I don't remember it being so bad," Newcombe went on, in his slow, heavy voice. "I never had it the way Jackie did, I know that. What I remember about that game is the way I was thinking. I had always had the idea that the majors weren't much different from Triple-A ball. After I struck out Diering I was sure of it. Then I gave up four straight hits. Schoendienst, Musial, Kazak, Slaughter. That taught me in a hurry that the majors were different. But I wasn't heartbroken. I had good stuff.
"When I pitched against Cincinnati a couple of days later and shut them out, I felt pretty good. I knew then that I could win in the majors. But the real good feeling was later on. I don't know exactly when it was, but it was when I realized that I wasn't going to have to go back down to the minors and come up again, like so many fellows have to do. Unless my arm went bad or I broke a leg, I wasn't going to be sent down. That was a big thing to know that. I guess that was really the biggest thing that ever happened to me in baseball."
Baseball, for Newcombe, goes back to his boyhood in New Jersey. He had three brothers, one older than himself and two younger. "We lived pretty good when I was a kid," he said. "My father had a good job. He was chauffeur for the same family for 28 years. He made $40, $45 a week. That was pretty good money in those days. And he made that right through the depression. We lived in Madison, New Jersey, where I was born. It's not a country town, but there were fields around it then. It wasn't like a suburb, you know, where one town sits right up against another.
"I was very skinny when I was a kid. I had pneumonia. My father took me to the doctor once to see what they could do; but the doctor said just give him lots of good food. I didn't get big, the way I am now, until I was around 17.
"Even though I was skinny I could always throw pretty good when I was a kid. When I was about 9 I used to play on my brother's team. My brother Roland Jr. He was about 14 or 15. I used to pitch batting practice, but I used to do some pitching, too.
"At Lafayette Junior High in Elizabeth, where we moved to, I played on the school team, but I didn't do much pitching. I could pitch pretty good; but there was another kid who was the star and he pitched. I guess he was better than I was. Then.
NO URGE FOR BIOLOGY
"In senior high, Jefferson in Elizabeth, they didn't have a baseball team. I wasn't there too long anyway. I flunked a subject—biology. I never was any good in that. They wanted me to take it over and I didn't want to. I wanted to quit school.
"So I quit. I worked on trucks. I always liked trucks. I like to drive them. I drove as far as Tennessee on trucking jobs. I had a friend, a boy by the name of John Greer, who was probably the closest friend I ever had. He was a lot older than I was, about 10 years older, but we hung around together and did everything together. He taught me a lot of things. He helped me get a job.
"I enlisted in the Navy but I got discharged after I'd been in only a month. I don't know why I was discharged. I liked the Navy. The discharge said 'By Special Order.' I guess it might have been because I was underage. I was only 16 when I enlisted.
"I enlisted again, this time in the Army. Before I got called up I got this job driving a truck to Memphis. When I was away the Army called me. My father didn't know what was going on. The Army said to my father he better produce me. Instead of producing me, my father produced my birth certificate. So I didn't go in the Army.
"I had a tryout with the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League; and I pitched for them in 1943, 1944 and 1945. Campy was about the only name player in the league—the only one that got to be known, that is. Most of the others, fellows like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, were in the service.
"In October of 1945 I pitched a post-season game with a Negro League team in Ebbets Field. It was October 14. I remember the date because I just got married the day before. I pitched against a team of major league All-Stars that Charley Dressen was managing. That was the day Clyde Sukeforth talked to me about signing with Brooklyn. He came down into the clubhouse after the game and talked to my father and me.
"That was a big week. But just about the worst thing that ever happened to me—the worst I ever felt, I guess—was in that game. I was doing pretty good. I was buzzing that ball, really buzzing it in. I went three innings, and in the third inning something clicked in my elbow. It just popped. I could hear it. The third baseman heard it and he came over to the mound. Was that you? he said. I was thinking, people are talking to you about money and this has to happen. Not about signing with Brooklyn because I didn't know about that yet. But there were a lot of things. I was thinking all those things when I felt my elbow go pop. I was wondering if I'd ever be able to pitch again.
"Well, anyway, we went to talk to Mr. Rickey. It looked like I had a chance to go up. He was about to announce that Jackie had been signed.
"I suppose it was a gamble to quit the Negro League. Mr. Rickey, he said, think it over. He said, go home and I'll call you. I talked to my wife about it. She said, Don, I can't tell you what to do. You have to do the pitching. You do what you want to do. Whatever you want to do is all right with me.
"Well, I decided that I wanted to go up, too, like Jackie. But then I got to worrying that maybe Mr. Rickey wouldn't call me back. Maybe he didn't want me after all. I figured he was never going to call me. But he called, and I signed; and that April, in 1946, me and Campy went up to Nashua, New Hampshire. I rested the arm all winter, and in the spring it was all right. I could pitch."
Newcombe pitched in Nashua through 1946 and 1947, and moved up to Montreal in 1948. But almost as soon as it began, his career in the Dodger farm system nearly ended.
"You know," he said, "I was almost released after that 1946 season. I had borrowed a thousand dollars from Mr. Rickey, and I didn't want to pay it back out of my 1947 salary. I came into Ebbets Field late in the season—it was the first time I ever saw the Dodgers play—and I went over to talk to Mr. Rickey; and he said, go pick up your release in the front office. I walked away and then I said to myself, there's something funny here. So I went back to Mr. Rickey and I said, Mr. Rickey, I don't know what's the matter, but somebody's been telling you wrong. He looked at me and he said, I understand you said you weren't going to pay back that thousand dollars. I said, no, sir, I didn't say that. I said I didn't want to pay it back out of my salary at Nashua. My wife and I couldn't live on what was left. I want to pay it back. I just don't want it taken out of my salary. Mr. Rickey said, oh, I see. Well, in that case, forget about the release. But it was that close.
A FEELING FOR RICKEY
"People ask me what I think about Mr. Rickey. What can I feel about a man who done what he done for me and my family? People say he's cheap. He was never cheap with me. You ask Campy or Jackie if he's cheap. He did things his own way, but he always knows what he's doing. And to do what he did when he signed Jackie and when he signed John Wright and Campy and me—well, people say a lot of things about why he did it. But it took a man with an awful lot of guts to do it. Brains, too, maybe, but mostly guts. I feel very strongly about Mr. Rickey."
Rickey and Jackie Robinson are the two major figures in Newcombe's baseball career; but another who played a prominent part was Burt Shotton, the sometimes testy manager of the Dodgers at the time when Newcombe came up to Brooklyn from the minor leagues. Shotton was said to be down on Newcombe because of his bad-tempered jumping of the Montreal club in the spring; and there are incidents—such as Newcombe's painless suspension in May, 1950 (he was sent home to "rest") when he told Shotton he could not pitch because of his recurring sore arm—that would seem to bear this out. However this may be, Newcombe today bears his former manager no resentment. "People are always saying I didn't get along with Shotton," he said. "Hell, what ballplayer always gets along with a manager? A player never agrees with a manager. But I got along with Shotton. He was a nice man. He was old and he was quiet. Maybe he was too nice.
"Alston is a lot like Shotton. They play a conservative game. They don't do a lot of talking. Dressen was different. It was a lot of fun to play for Charley. He always kept things alive on the bench. He was always doing things. It was pretty exciting.
"That's why I never could understand why we lost that pennant in 1951. We had that big lead, but Charley never let up on us. He never let us loaf. That's why I don't understand how we lost.
"That game against the Giants when Bobby Thomson hit the home run off Ralph Branca. I was pitching when the Giants got a run in and the men on in the ninth. I was pretty tired. I had pitched three times in five days. I didn't want to go out; but I didn't want to stay in and hurt the team either. I turned around and called Pee Wee and Jackie. They said, how do you feel? I said, I'm tired, but, I said, look, it's up to you. This game is more important than how I feel. It's as important to you as it is to me. More important. Whatever you want me to do, I'll do. If you think I should stay in, I'll stay in. Well, Branca was ready and Charley brought him in. I didn't go to the bench. I just stuck my mitt in my pocket and walked out to the clubhouse. I went right in the shower. That's where I was when Thomson hit the homer. I was in the shower and I heard this yell. It was like an explosion. Then—you know how the hallway from the visiting clubhouse to the Giant clubhouse goes right past the showers there in the Polo Grounds? Well, it was like a stampede, photographers racing past and out the door. I said to myself, oh, oh. I stuck my head out and said, what happened? Somebody said, Thomson hit a home run. From there on it's history."
He stopped, his face brooding on the memory.
"That's a long walk to the club-house in the Polo Grounds. They got partisan fans there, believe me. You know how they wave their handkerchiefs at you when you get knocked out?" Newcombe grinned. "They don't bother me, though. I keep my eyes on the ground."
After that 1951 season Newcombe spent two years in the Army Medical Corps, most of the time as a part of a special demonstration unit. He came back to the majors in 1954. After that season's poor showing, he reported to spring training this year determined to regain his pre-Army form.
"That's why that thing happened." He was referring to his famous run-in with Manager Walter Alston in May. "I wanted to play," he said. "I didn't do much to help the club last year. I had a bad arm. This year I felt fine, but there was the team winning and I wasn't part of it. I wanted to play."
The day before he was finally scheduled to start a game, after 11 straight days on the bench, plans were changed and Newcombe was assigned to pitch batting practice. He hit the ceiling. He said he wouldn't pitch batting practice. Manager Alston told him if he wouldn't do as he was told he'd better take off his uniform and go home. Newcombe ripped off his uniform, stomped out and went home to New Jersey. The Dodgers promptly suspended him indefinitely, fined him and left him to stew.
He didn't stew long. A mathematically minded sportswriter figured it was costing Newcombe over a hundred dollars a day to sit home. Newcombe figured likewise. He called the club, made his peace with Alston and rejoined the Dodgers as they left for Philadelphia.
That night he pitched two blistering innings of relief to beat the Phillies. Four days later he threw a sparkling one-hit shutout against the Cubs. He was off and running. He won 10 straight games, lost one, won eight more before losing twice last week; and he hit like Frank Merriwell.
THE REASONS FOR SUCCESS
There have been a great many reasons advanced for Newcombe's extraordinary success this year. Walter Alston says it is just a case of a man taking a year to readjust physically after two years away from baseball. Newcombe insists it is simply a matter of sore arm last year, no sore arm this year. Whatever the reason, Newcombe this year has been a great pitcher, particularly when he is, as he was earlier this season, seething with anger.
"I never thought about it much," he said, "but it's true. I hate to have people take advantage of me. Maybe I have a complex. My mother always said when I was a kid I was hardheaded. I hated for my brothers to do things to me. I'd fight them. Jackie Robinson says I have too much pride. I don't know whether it's pride or being hard-headed or being just a plain damn fool.
"I know I'd do anything in the world for my mother and my father and my brothers. But if I ever thought they were taking advantage of me, I'd be awfully mad. I'd get mean. My wife says that. There's nobody in this world I think more of than my wife. But you know how husbands get. Sometimes I get mad at her—after all the things she's done for me—but I get mad at her, and she says I get mean."
Newcombe doesn't mention it, but another factor which certainly has an important bearing on his phenomenal baseball success is the pure strength he generates in his huge body. He carries that strength with a majestic swagger that makes him look—if you exercise only a little imagination—like some all-powerful Hamitic king of ancient Egypt. He handles a baseball bat as though it were a symbol of kingly office. He looks, in short, like a legend.
Newcombe has done some things as a pitcher that legends are built on, but probably nothing more dramatically appealing than his attempt in September 1950 to pitch both halves of a double-header. The feat had not been attempted since 1940 and had not been accomplished since 1928. Newcombe almost pulled it off. He pitched a three-hit shutout against the league-leading Phillies in the first game and gave up only two runs in seven innings in the second before he was removed for a pinch hitter.
Strength, power, meanness, ambition, whatever drives Newcombe to his best efforts, his regal bulk is for the Brooklyn Dodgers a welcome sight at any time. He clumps his way out to the mound in the exaggerated trudge he seems to affect almost defiantly (as if to say, this is the way Don Newcombe wants to walk and if you don't like it that's too bad). He looms over the batter, brings his hands up over his head and down violently as if he were ringing a church bell, down and back behind him as far as they can go, then up to his head again and then he throws, violently, falling off the mound a little toward first base as he releases the pitch. The ball spits toward the plate, leaving, it seems, a little smoking thread of white in the air behind it. More often than not it whips past the batter and smacks into Roy Campanella's mitt with an old-fashioned, soul-satisfying clap. And then all's right with Don Newcombe, the Dodgers and that part of the world that calls Brooklyn home.
NEWCOMBE'S LIFETIME RECORD
Played less than 10 games
In Military Service
In Military Service
*Through Monday, August 15