Newcombe recalls Robinson era

Don Newcombe, 83, is the Dodgers' last remaining link to the Jackie Robinson era. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- It was two hours before game time on what would have been a nondescript Thursday night at Dodger Stadium if it hadn't fallen on the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier.

While the Dodgers players took batting practice for their upcoming game with Arizona, a game in which every player on both teams would wear Robinson's long-retired No. 42, the franchise's last remaining link to the Robinson era took a seat a few feet away, in the Dugout Club, and talked about his former teammate, mentor and hero.

Don Newcombe is 83 now, a special adviser to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, and he could pass for a man much younger. And he is still far and away the snappiest dresser in the entire organization. But under that crisp shirt with the pastel pinstripes and that sharp tan suit and matching fedora, the emotions of what he and Robinson went through more than six decades ago are still there, and they boiled over at least once while he talked about his first few years in the majors.

The Dodgers had brought him up from their Triple-A Montreal affiliate in 1949, a promotion Newcombe still believes was long overdue. By that time, Robinson had been around for a couple of years already, dealing with all the hate, the epithets, the hostility and the institutional racism that came with being a black man in what to that point had been a white man's game. Another player, a guy by the name of Roy Campanella, had come along the previous year and gotten his own taste of it.

And now, it was Newcombe's turn.

"My first day in the majors was May 17, 1949," Newcombe said. "Jackie hadn't been through the worst of it yet by that time. Not in two years. You don't end 150 years of hate in this country in two years. We weren't always welcome in this game, not only by baseball but by the fans. Most of the fans were pretty nice people, but some of them weren't.

"Roy and I elected Jackie to be the leader between the three of us. Whatever Jackie said to do, we did. We followed Jackie. And we had fun. We enjoyed ourselves, went to movies. But we always had certain cities where we couldn't stay in the same hotel with the rest of the team. Like St. Louis. We had to stay in a ramshackle hotel there, with no air conditioning, and you have been to St. Louis, so you know what it's like there in the summertime. You would have to keep the window open, and the trolley cars would be running up and down the streets all night long.

"We used to have to take our bedsheets and dip them in cold water, then lie down on them, just to get comfortable enough to get to sleep."

It is here, just as you are about to ask Newcombe for any specific Robinson anecdotes that stick in his mind, that he volunteers the perfect one before you can even get the words out.

"I remember in 1950, we were in Cincinnati playing the Reds," Newcombe said. "I was supposed to pitch the Sunday afternoon game. I got on the team bus to go to the ballpark, and there were these six guys on the bus that I didn't recognize. So I asked Jackie, 'Who are these guys?' It turned out they were secret service men. And then Jackie handed me a letter and said, 'I want you to read this."'

It was, of course, a death threat, addressed to Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe, warning them all not to show up for that day's game. Local authorities took the letter quite seriously. Two of the six agents were assigned to each of the three players.

Newcombe went on:

"I read it, and Jackie asked me, 'Are you going to the ballpark today?' And I said, 'Are you?' And he said, 'Yes, I am,' so I said, 'Well, then I am, too.' The secret service went with us on the bus to the ballpark, got off the bus, went with us to the clubhouse while we got dressed and then went with us through the tunnel at Crosley Field. There was always one on each side of us. Even when I went out to the bullpen to warm up for the game, they went with me and stood on either side. Right before the game, I saw guys out beyond the outfield with guns and guys on the buildings across the street with guns. I pointed them out to Jackie, and he said, 'No, those guys are on our side.'

"Jackie told me right before game time, he said, 'Go out there and win this ballgame.' And I said, 'OK, Jack.' And I pitched a three-hit shutout. Roy hit three home runs, and Jackie went 3-for-4. After the game, the owner of the Reds held a press conference. He said he hoped whoever had sent that letter never did it again or the Reds might never beat the Dodgers.

"We were leaving for Chicago after the game, and the secret service men stayed with us all the way to the train station and said goodbye."

A quick check of retrosheet.org shows that the game to which Newcombe was referring took place on Aug. 25, 1950. It was actually a Friday, and it wasn't until after the next day's game that the Dodgers left town, and they were actually heading to St. Louis and then Chicago. But those are technicalities, incidental and irrelevant to the story. The death threat, the ever-present secret service agents, the sight of the gun-toting police snipers perched on the buildings across the street from Crosley Field, Newcombe remembers all of that in the sort of vivid detail that only someone who had been the target of those threats possibly could.

At this point, you start to ask the next question, but Newcombe puts up his right hand and turns his face away. He takes several deep breaths as you tell him to take all the time he needs. Finally, after what seems like an hour but really is about 15 seconds, he turns back, his eyes still visibly moist, and begins to speak through the tears.

"Why?" he says. "You're a young man, so let me ask you: Why did we have to be treated that way" -- he points to his right hand -- "just because our skin was this color, and just because we wanted to play baseball?"

He doesn't pause to wait for you to answer, and you are grateful for that, because you don't have an answer.

"We basically started the civil rights movement, Jackie did, when the Dodgers signed him in 1945," Newcombe said. "In those days, there was no civil rights movement. People like Martin Luther King were too young then. We didn't march the way Martin did after the Rosa Parks thing in Alabama."

When the tears have dried completely, he reminisces some more, tells you a few more anecdotes. He tells you about winning 14 games at Class B Nashua in 1946, 19 more there in '47 and 17 at Triple-A Montreal in '48, and of pitching a complete game for Montreal, and winning, against the big league club in a spring training game in '49 in Vero Beach, Fla., and still not getting called up. He tells you how this made him so mad that he quit and went home to New Jersey, where he waited three days to call Buzzie Bavasi, then the Montreal general manager.

"I asked him if there was still room on his team for a damn fool," Newcombe said. "He said, 'If that damn fool can keep his mouth shut and play baseball, there is plenty of room.'"

But eventually, without prompting, Newcombe takes the conversation back to Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who made the bold and historic decision to sign Robinson and bring him to the majors in April 15, 1947.

And then, you ask him how far he believes baseball has come since Robinson's debut, where the game is today in terms of race, and you get an answer you weren't expecting.

"We are at a point in our lives where baseball is concerned -- and some people will disagree with this -- where I don't feel there is any prejudice anymore," Newcombe tells you with complete sincerity. "Baseball people, owners, scouts, GMs, they are going to sign people who can play baseball, and those people are all over the world. The Dodgers were the leaders in that. But now, baseball is the world's game, and you can see that by the rosters.

"There is some argument about [the lack of black players in the majors], but the scouts are going to sign the players who have the most talent. When we come up with black players who have the talent, they still play at this level and receive the same signing bonuses."

Finally, you ask Newcombe one more thing. After all these years, after all the mistreatment and all the hate that was directed toward him, Robinson and Campanella in those days, how is it that now, at his advanced age, he isn't bitter from the experience.

"Jackie used to tell us all the time, 'We're bitter now. But one day, we're going to change one letter in the word bitter, and we're going to make it better. We can't afford to fail.' Branch Rickey used to say the same thing, that we couldn't afford to fail."

A few feet from where Newcombe was sitting, where the Dodgers were still taking batting practice, there was all manner of proof they hadn't failed. Faces from all over the world pepper the Dodgers bench today.

When all the ceremonial tributes to Robinson are over, when the Dodgers go back to their regular uniforms on Saturday after two days of everybody wearing 42, that multicultural roster will be the ultimate testament to the fact that Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe and Rickey had all succeeded in what they set out to do.

Then, now and for all time.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.