Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Jersey Guy’s Roots in Brooklyn


By GEORGE VECSEY
Sports of The Times
July 19, 2007

Brooklyn was never home to Don Newcombe. He was a Jersey guy who now lives in Los Angeles, and even on his rare visits to Brooklyn he does not make nostalgia detours past the development where Ebbets Field used to be. “Never,” is the operative word from this strong-willed man.

Eighty-one years old and still working for the Dodgers, Newk is worth knowing for fans who never set foot in the funky little bandbox in Flatbush. He was the burly ace who started both games of a doubleheader in 1950 (16 innings total, won the first, no decision in the nightcap), and slugged seven homers in 1955, known to Dodger fans as “next year.”

This Sunday Newk comes back to Brooklyn, where the Class A Cyclones have been selling out regularly since 2001 in the handsome little stadium built by New York City and the Wilpons.

KeySpan Park is a spiritual retreat where fans of a certain age daydream of Oisk and Campy playing in Brooklyn and Whitey and Monte playing in Harlem — the good old days, when many Dodgers lived in Bay Ridge during the season, but Newcombe took the bridge or the tunnel over from Jersey, depending on the traffic.



The new days are not bad, either, in Coney Island, only a few paces west of blini heaven, the Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach. Here hitters take dead aim at the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. The Cyclones, named after the stomach-churning ride, have been producing players (currently, reliever Joe Smith) for the Mets and their owner, Fred Wilpon, who loved Ebbets Field as a child.

In their first seven years, the Cyclones have brought in nearly every living Dodger, including the recent pairing of Danny McDevitt and Joe Pignatano re-enacting the last pitch thrown at Ebbets Field in 1957. Joan Hodges, a Brooklyn girl who married the beloved Gil, is a regular at the ballpark. Newk has not yet been back.

“I went to Coney Island when I was a kid,” Newcombe noted, “but never when I played for the Dodgers.”

Newcombe’s path to Brooklyn began in 1946 when he and Roy Campanella left the Negro leagues to play in Nashua, N.H., and in 1947 they moved up to Montreal. In 1948 a player in Syracuse took exception to Newcombe’s inside pitch and charged the mound, only to have Newcombe sidestep him. At that point, Chuck Connors, the lanky first baseman — later the star of “The Rifleman” on television — intervened, telling the invader, “He can’t fight you, but I can,” which Connors promptly did.

That night, Newcombe went back to his hotel room in Syracuse and received a phone call from Bill Robinson, the popular black dancer known as Bojangles, who invited him to breakfast the next morning.

“He told me there were very few blacks in the stands, and he was afraid that if I had hit that man, a riot could have broken out,” Newcombe said. “He told me he was very proud of the way I conducted myself, and that’s why he wanted to buy me breakfast. I never met him again.”

Newcombe was always his own man, even with the formidable Jackie Robinson. (“The man refused to lose,” Newcombe said with reverence.) Missing two full seasons during the Korean conflict, Newk won 123 and lost only 60 games in seven seasons in Brooklyn, batted .271 in his career, and even stole home once, in 1955, after hitting a triple.

His career was marred by losses to the Yankees in 1949, the Phillies in 1950, the Giants in 1951 and the Yankees in 1956. After being drubbed for two homers by Yogi Berra in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series, Newcombe left Ebbets Field and drove home to New Jersey, accompanied by his father, James, and Milt Gross, the intrepid columnist for The New York Post. Gross’s description of Newcombe’s apologizing to his father for not winning the game in his honor, as he had vowed, became one of the great sports columns of that or any era.

As he has noted many times, Newcombe often rode home with a different companion — a six-pack. After the Dodgers moved west in 1958, he wound up playing first base in Japan in the early 1960s. A decade later he swore to his family that he would never take another drink and, without going through any alcoholism program, he became sober and productive, leading many players into treatment for addictions.



Now the Dodgers’ director of community relations, Newcombe helps senior citizens visit Dodger Stadium. He was also a good friend of Al Campanis, the general manager who blew up his career in 1987 with some ill-chosen words about why there were not many black officials in baseball.

“Al Campanis did not have a prejudiced bone in his body,” Newk said the other day.

Still recuperating from recent colon surgery, Newcombe visited the White House last Sunday as Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was officially retired from Little League ball. This weekend he will fly back to Brooklyn, where baseball thrives, more than half a century after “next year.”

E-mail: geovec@nytimes.com

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