Don Newcombe's 'Iron Man' feat
Nostalgia was flowing like rain off a tin roof when right-hander Don Newcombe , who won 149 games during a career in which he gave two years to the US Army, was introduced at this year's Oldtimers' Day in Dodger Stadium.
Newcombe, who is Director of Community Relations for the Dodgers, is remembered for a lot of things, including being the National League's first Cy Young Award winner and being the third black player to sign a major league contract - after Jackie Robinson and John Wright (who never made it out of the minors).
But the day that will live longest in Don's memory is Sept. 6, 1950, when he started both ends of a doubleheader for the old Brooklyn Dodgers on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies of Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, and Eddie Waitkus.
''Part of my routine on days when I was scheduled to pitch was to get to the ballpark a little earlier than usual,'' Newcombe told me. ''As I walked into the clubhouse, Manager Burt Shotton asked in a kidding way if maybe I'd like to start both games.
''Until that moment, the idea hadn't occurred to me, although like everybody else on the club I knew Shotton was short on pitchers because of injuries,'' Don continued. ''So, after I made sure that Burt knew I was serious, I volunteered for the job. When I told Roy Campanella (who would catch Newk in both games) he thought it was a great idea.''
Campanella and Newcombe, of course, had been close friends for years. They were the only blacks in New England baseball in 1946 when they broke in with Nashua, N.H., a Dodger farm club that had Walter Alston as manager and Buzzie Bavasi as general manager. Of Newk's 123 victories in a Dodger uniform (he later played with Cincinnati and Cleveland), Roy was behind the plate for 115 of them.
''If you were a catcher, you had to like a pitcher such as Newcombe because he always had such great control,'' Campanella explained. ''In fact, we got to know each other so well that we almost didn't need signals. Don had a fastball that was overpowering, and not many hitters could pull him. The people in Nashua were wonderful and it turned out to be a great place for us to get started toward the big league.''
To set the scene in Philadelphia, the Phillies, who were called the Whiz Kids because of their youth and speed, were leading the league in a surprise pennant drive - and the favored Dodgers were launching a stretch rally which eventually just failed on the last day of the season. Old Shibe Park was jammed for this big doubleheader, and Newcombe's first game opponent was future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, then a young right-hander heading for his first year as a 20-game winner.
''Newk was tremendous in that first game,'' Campanella recalled. ''He threw only 83 pitches; shut out the Phillies 2-0; and was in complete control. He was so loose that I don't even remember him going into the trainer's room between games for a rubdown, but I do remember him changing his shirt.''
When the public address announcer boomed Newcombe's name over his microphone as the Dodger starter in the second game, Don told me, he remembers the crowd's reaction as a kind of long gasp that snaked its way through the stands.
Although Newk pitched well again, the Dodgers trailed 2-1 in the eighth inning when Shotton (the last baseball manager to wear street clothes in the dugout), took Don out for a pinch-hitter.
''We didn't do anything in the eighth, but Jackie Robinson hit a home run with a man on in the ninth to win it 3-2,'' Don said. ''Dan Bankhead (one of several Brooklyn pitchers who were injured and not supposed to work) finished up and got the victory.''
The fact that Newcombe was lifted for a pinch hitter is ironic, for Don was one of baseball's best hitting pitchers, batting over .300 four times and compiling a .271 lifetime average. Campanella's favorite story about his old roomie, in fact, goes back to the Nashua Dodgers and is tied in with Newcombe's skill as a hitter.
''I'd been in the Negro League for a while before Brooklyn signed me, so I was a little older than most of the players who were breaking in at Nashua,'' Roy said. ''But I was still surprised one day when Alston called me aside and told me that if he were ever thrown out of a game, he wanted me to take over as manager.
''Since Walter wasn't the type to get on umpires much, I felt pretty safe,'' he continued. ''But then we had this game against the Lawrence Millionaires in June and, sure enough, Alston gets thrown out for arguing balls and strikes with the umpire.
''For the next two innings, I just caught and watched what was happening like I usually do. But a little later, with runners on base and a chance to get us back in the game, I decided to send Newcombe up as a pinch hitter. Well, Newk hits a home run for me and we end up winning 7-5.''