Beacon winner Newcombe is trailblazer, hero
One of MLB's first black star pitchers is advocate for those with substance issues
ATLANTA -- The sweep of time has knocked down some barriers and enacted some others, but Don Newcombe's life is testament to the power of change. Newcombe, a witness and participant in the social revolution, will be one of the guests of honor at Saturday's Civil Rights Game in Atlanta.
And who could be a better emissary? Newcombe, who helped irrevocably break baseball's color line with teammates Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the 1940s and '50s, knows where we have been and where we are going better than most history books.
"I'm very proud to still be here. There's been a lot of work and a lot of effort to get to this point," he said. "It's been a very long time and there have been a lot of changes, changes I never could've imagined. A long time ago, Jackie Robinson said to Roy and I, 'We're bitter now, but one day things are going to be better.' Jackie was a brilliant man, and he knew things couldn't go on like that forever."
Newcombe, 86, grew up in a divided society that held different rules for different sects of people, and he helped usher us into a new era of civility and equality for all. The former pitcher knows that things aren't perfect in today's society, but he can't help but reflect on how far we've come.
And if anything gave him that perspective -- besides a life on the front lines of the struggle -- it was a recent anecdote in his charmed life. Newcombe got to meet President Barack Obama in April 2010, and Newcombe said that brief interaction helped crystallize the ramifications of the civil rights movement for all.
"I had the honor of meeting the president, and he said he wouldn't be here without me," said Newcombe of meeting President Obama. "When he was done speaking, he came over to me and said, 'There's my Hall of Famer.' He put me in the Hall of Fame, but I'm not in the Hall of Fame. I guess I'm a member of the Hall of Fame at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that's OK with me."
Newcombe is one of three honorees to win a Beacon Award at this year's edition of the Civil Rights Game, along with Congressman John Lewis and recording group Earth, Wind & Fire. Their stories, collectively, tell of the importance of persistence and resiliency in the face of adversity.
Newcombe, for instance, was a young man when he began making history. Famed Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Newcombe and Campanella to play for the Nashua Dodgers of the New England League in 1946, and three years later, Newcombe was in the Major Leagues.
Both Robinson and Campanella had already made their debuts by that point, and they had endured an ugly transition that included the ever-present threat of bodily harm. Newcombe, the lone pitcher in the trio, found himself thrown into the same chaotic cauldron, hoping it wouldn't bubble over.
"I didn't know where [the ball] was going, but I threw awfully hard," he said. "I never knew what to do if I would hit somebody, but Jackie told me, 'You just step aside and you let me handle them.' "
Newcombe, who would go on to become the first African-American pitcher to start a World Series game and to win 20 games, could recall a similar situation in the Minor Leagues. Montreal teammate Chuck Connors had protected him that time, telling a rival combatant, "He can't fight you, but I can."
And Newcombe, if he didn't understand the symbolic component of his role at the time, soon learned the exact ramifications. Famed entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson witnessed the incident where Connors protected his teammate and spelled out the stakes of the racial divide to Newcombe.
"I'm so proud of you and the way you comported yourself," Bojangles had told Newcombe. "Because if you had hit that man with your hands, we might not have gotten out of there."
Indeed, the sixth annual Civil Rights Game is here not to perpetuate those kind of stories, but to remind people about how drastically life in America has changed in the past few decades. The city of Atlanta is hosting for the second straight year, and appropriately, Newcombe's Dodgers will participate.
The Braves -- the team of Hank Aaron, playing in the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. -- will take on the Dodgers on Saturday, and the backdrop will be nothing less than the progress of baseball and mankind toward social equality. It's fitting, said Newcombe, and he's proud to be a part of it.
"Baseball started it, and it all started with Branch Rickey," said Newcombe. "He was the only one with the backbone to do it. A few years earlier, the Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain Landis] was saying publicly that we couldn't play, but there were countless African-American citizens who fought in the war and then came back and couldn't find a job. What were we if we weren't full-blooded Americans? It had to change."
Newcombe, after his playing career ended, found himself in another battle on the front lines of American society. This time, Newcombe was simultaneously a victim and a role model, and once he was certain that he could make a difference, he signed up for it with all the vigor of his pitching career.
Newcombe would be known as a different kind of crusader, a man who fought for the rights of people with substance abuse problems. He travelled the country trying to elicit empathy and support for people who suffered from alcoholism, something that had yet to earn social currency.
"They needed a well-known person. And no senator would be that person," Newcombe said. "If you had an alcohol problem and you had a lot of money, you could go to what was then called a 'farm.' If you were poor, you couldn't do that, and nobody did a thing about it. Then Alcoholics Anonymous became a big thing, and one day someone came knocking at the door of Don Newcombe. They asked me if I would be a role model, a spokesperson for people who had issues with alcohol abuse. I accepted, and that's how it happened that a high school dropout spoke at many of the top colleges in the country."
Newcombe travelled thousands of miles and spoke to thousands of people in that role, and he said he gets letters to this day thanking him for interceding and repairing lives. Newcombe, in fact, said recently that he's even more proud of that role than he is of his legendary work on the baseball field.
It will all be on the table Saturday at Turner Field, when Newcombe and his fellow Beacon Award winners will be honored in a pregame ceremony. And as he accepts the applause and surveys the thousands of fans in attendance, Newcombe's thoughts will drift to a natural destination.
"I'll be thinking about Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Larry Doby," said Newcombe of the Civil Rights Game. "Jackie Robinson was my idol, and Larry Doby was one of my very best friends. We were four men of destiny, and we were destined to take anything that was thrown at us."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.