Don Newcombe, 1926–2019
The Dodgers pitcher who smashed through racial barriers
During his 10-year Major League Baseball career, Don Newcombe notched a dazzling string of firsts. Standing 6-foot-4 and armed with a blazing fastball, he was the first African-American pitcher to start a World Series game, in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and two years later became the first black pitcher to win 20 games in a single season. In 1956, he became the first player to win both the National League MVP award and the Cy Young Award. Weeks before Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, the civil rights leader thanked Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and other color barrier–breaking black players for making his struggle for equality easier. “He said to me, ‘Don, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change,’” Newcombe recalled. “Can you imagine that? How easy we made it for Martin Luther King!”
Born in Madison, N.J., Newcombe pitched in baseball’s Negro leagues before signing with the Dodgers in 1946, said The Washington Post. After playing with the team’s minor league affiliates, he made his debut in the majors in St. Louis in 1949 “against an all-white Cardinals team.” He struck out the first batter he faced.
Newcombe played with the Dodgers after their move to Los Angeles, and went on to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians, but a decades-long struggle with alcoholism led him to retire in 1960. He got sober six years later, said the Los Angeles Times, and rejoined the Dodgers in the 1970s as director of community affairs. In that role, he helped others address their substance abuse. “Being able to help people [get] their lives back on track,” he said in 2015, “means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”