Don Newcombe doesn’t smile easily. If you’re waiting for a big belly laugh, you can forget it.
A big-league pitcher with three teams, most notably the Brooklyn Dodgers, “Newk,” as he was called by teammates and fans, is intimidating, even at age 83.
It was a dozen years ago at Dodger Stadium that I had the pleasure of sharing dinner with Newcombe, the only player ever to capture the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player awards.
About an hour before the first pitch, and after ordering dinner, I spotted an empty seat. Newcombe was at a table with his ever-present Panama hat, and asked if I could join him. He said sure. A few minutes later, one-time Dodgers’ relief pitcher Joe Black sat down and joined us.
As expected, the conversation was centered on baseball, but then I moved the subject matter to him.
Knowing his stern reputation, I wanted to know if I could pose a question. He said yes. “I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but does it bother you that you’re not in the Hall of Fame?‘’ I asked. “I’m not a voter, but if I were, I’d vote you in.” Newcombe looked at me for several seconds, and then thanked me.
“Sandy Koufax is one of my best friends, and one of the greatest pitchers ever,” said Newcombe, who went 149-90 over 10 seasons. “Sandy’s numbers and mine are very similar. I’m not saying that I’m better than him, but I’m saying that my numbers are nearly as good.”
A brilliant star in the Negro Leagues, Newcombe posted a 3.56 earned-run average, but didn’t begin his major-league career until 1949 when he was 23.
Out of the gate, Newcombe went 17-8, 19-11, and 20-9, then missed the 1952 and 1953 campaigns, before going 9-8, and 20-5 in 1955.
Newcombe then painted his masterpiece the following season, and one that earned him the NL Cy Young and MVP. He went 27-7, with 18 complete games, five shutouts, and a 3.06 ERA.
An all-around talent, the 6-foot-4 Newcombe was a .271 lifetime batter who slugged 15 homers, and was on pennant-winning clubs in 1949, 1955 and 1956.
Maybe the voters remember that he went winless in four World Series games. While sitting there and looking into his serious face, I sensed some bitterness and even sadness, but also a man resigned to his fate.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Koufax was a wild left-hander when he arrived off the University of Cincinnati campus at 19.
Koufax tried to find himself over the first six seasons, and finally did in 1961. He blossomed into arguably the best hurler of his era, earning two World Series MVPs while pacing the majors in strikeouts four times, ERA five times, and wins three times.
In addition, Koufax was a three-time Cy Young winner, and NL MVP in 1963. He closed out his 12-year stint with a 165-87 mark, a 2.76 ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, and 40 shutouts.
Koufax fashioned seasons of 25-5 in 1963, 19-5 in 1964, 26-8 in 1965 and 27-9 in 1966. He would retire at the end of that season at 30, due to arthritis in his left elbow.
Newcombe isn’t Koufax. No one is. He was nearly as dominant, and overlooked for too long.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.