When we think of baseball and the breaking of the color barrier, the one name that every man, woman, and child should know is Jackie Robinson. Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 and was called up in 1947, where he made his major league debut and changed the course of sports history.
The following year, the Dodgers called up Roy Campanella, making him the sixth acknowledged Black player to appear in the major leagues. And the year after that, a 23-year-old pitcher by the name of Don Newcombe joined the Brooklyn franchise.
While these three legendary figures will always be recognized as some of the most influential Black athletes, there is one significant piece of information that goes unnoticed at times. Robinson and Campanella were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and 1969, respectively.
Newcombe made the ballot 15 years in a row from 1966-1980 and the closest he ever came to induction was in his final year of eligibility where he received his highest vote total of 15.3% and finished 16th overall in voting. But the question still remains for baseball fans of all generations: Why is Newcombe not in the Hall of Fame?
Newcombe was the third Black pitcher to appear in a major league game, following Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige. In his first three seasons, he won the Rookie of the Year award and was the first Black pitcher to appear in the All-Star game in 1949. He added two more consecutive All-Star appearances and had a 16.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – the best in baseball.
Following his tremendous arrival, Newcombe missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons because of the Korean War, where he served in the United States Army. He returned to form by 1955, earning another All-Star bid, winning 20 games and helped bring the first World Series title to the Dodgers organization (despite losing in his only appearance in Game 1).
It was in 1956 where he made history, winning both the National League Cy Young Award and league MVP award, becoming the first pitcher to accomplish the feat. It wasn’t until 2011, when Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and MVP that same year following his Rookie of the Year achievement in 2006 that this feat was duplicated.
In his 10 seasons, Newcombe played for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949-1951, 1954-1958), the Cincinnati Redlegs/Reds (1958-1960), and ended his career at the age of 34 with the Cleveland Indians (1960). Looking at his stats, Newcombe finished with 149 wins in 344 appearances (good for about a 62%-win percentage), an ERA of 3.56, over 2,100 innings pitched. He also recorded 1,129 strikeouts.
Prior to what he managed to accomplish in the major leagues, Newcombe spent two years with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues where he struck out 125 batters and had a 2.96 ERA in 239 and two-thirds innings, according to Seamheads.com’s Negro Leagues Database. So if the numbers are this good, what is holding (or held) Newcombe out of a Hall of Fame induction?
Los Angeles Dodgers team historian Mark Langill believes Newcombe got the short end of the stick on many occasions in his career and noted that extreme factors played into why he isn’t actually a Hall of Famer.
“In the 1949 World Series he had nine scoreless innings before [Tommy] Henrich hit the homer to help the Yankees steal Game 1,” Langill said.
“Look at Bobby Thompson: [Newcombe] was actually was winning before [Ralph] Branca came in and gave up the ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World.’ That was a blown save on the bullpen,” Langill added. “What if they win the pennant in ‘51 and Newcombe goes on to be a World Series hero? Suddenly the aura around Johnny Podres isn’t necessarily as big because ‘Newk’ accomplished the feat of leading the Dodgers to a world championship. And perhaps Podres is the one without the Hall of Fame plaque in 2021.”
While his stats may be a bit more average than some of the more dominating pitchers of the game, it was Newcombe’s approach to social equality for all that always made him worthy of induction. Langill described how much Newcombe spoke out against the social injustices and how he simply was just trying to play the sport he loved.
“I think the first word I think of with Don Newcombe is pride because of how much he changed the country along with Jackie and Roy,” Langill said. “[Don] was always willing to say that there’s no difference from an African American pitcher to a Caucasian pitcher because they were all teammates, and they were all trying to play a game.
“He knew what it meant to the country and what Dr. King said and there was just a quiet dignity while also carrying the never forget [mentality],” Langill continued. “Look at what these men went through and how this was no short of practically being in a war because I’m sure their personal safety and their dignity was being challenged all the time and how they had so much against them as opposed to their other teammates. It’s amazing they did what they did under those circumstances.”
In terms of the Hall of Fame, there have been some positive light shed in Newcombe’s favor, as Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball announced in December that they would officially recognize stats accumulated in the Negro Leagues as major league statistics.
With that news, his HOF eligibility could be considered in the 2021 Golden Days Era Committee vote and we very well could see a well-deserved and rather late induction for the great Don Newcombe by 2022.
“It very well could [happen] because when you look at the different categories, he is easily a pioneer and when you look at all the different categories for the Hall of Fame it’s not just being a great pitcher,” Langill said. “I think that’s the one thing that [Don] really doesn’t get credit for as far as the pioneer status. This is a person who changed the game. A person who changed society and oh by the way why don’t you put yourself in his shoes for 10 years and just imagine what his life was actually like.”
Featured Image: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers great Don Newcombe (left) with manager Dave Roberts in an undated photo. Photo credit: Los Angeles Dodgers