Like so many of his generation — and a couple of generations before him — Don Newcombe couldn’t play Major League Baseball when he started playing professionally as an 18-year-old in 1944 in his native New Jersey. He was black.
As we all know, the big leagues wouldn’t reintegrate until 1947, when they took on what the late historian Jules Tygiel called “baseball’s great experiment” by letting a progeny of enslaved Africans, Jackie Robinson, on the diamond for the first time since the 1880s.
So Newcombe spent his teens pitching a few games for the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League.
But when Newcombe, who died last Tuesday at 92, got his chance in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he carried on what Robinson started and others would take on in the next few years. Newcombe, who played two years for the Class B Nashua Dodgers, proved his extraordinary worth as a ballplayer — a pitcher in his case — and, more important, exposed as charade the championing of stars in all-white baseball as the greatest baseball players to have graced the game.
No larger asterisk could be placed on the achievements of anyone in Cooperstown than that which is due all those enshrined who didn’t compete against players of color such as Newcombe. The racial segregation in baseball that they embraced and upheld damaged not only the aspirations of men of color but the athletic reputations that white players crafted for themselves with the aid of all-white sports media as well. They played among themselves; they didn’t play among the best.
To be sure, the mid-20th-century wave of black players hit the game running — running off with awards, records and statistics that before were the purview solely of segregated white baseball personalities.
What Newcombe, along with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson (who also died this month), Roy Campanella and the rest of the first wave of black major league players, did 70 years ago was legend.
In the 11-year span after Jackie Robinson’s rookie campaign, the percentage of black major leaguers grew from 0 to 10. But the impact that minority players had in those few short years on a game that then was nearly four scores old was and is unprecedented.
A 2007 study published by the Society for American Baseball Research and conducted by Mark Armour used as a metric Bill James’ Win Shares, which estimate the number of wins a player produces for his team. Armour found that 20 percent of the National League’s star players were of color by the dawn of the 1950s.
Quantifiably, the evidence bore the dramatic conclusion just the same. Newcombe was but one example. Two years after Jackie Robinson won the first rookie of the year award in 1947, Newcombe did so in 1949. Newcombe won 17 games. He tied for the NL lead in shutouts. He finished just two strikeouts behind the league leader, future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, despite pitching 58 fewer innings.
The next season, a black Boston Braves rookie, Sam Jethroe, was rookie of the year. He was 33 by then. He spent his 20s playing in the Negro American League, his only option.
Jethroe was followed in the 1950s by other black rookies of the year, including Willie Mays in 1951, Joe Black in 1952, Jim Gilliam in 1953, Frank Robinson in 1956 and Willie McCovey (who died last year) in 1959.
There were black MVPs, too, including Campanella in 1951, the first of three for him in the decade. Mays won his first MVP award in 1954. Newcombe, Hank Aaron and the Chicago Cubs’ first black player, Ernie Banks, also won MVP awards in the decade.
Banks was the first black player to win consecutive MVP awards, in 1958 and 1959. And when Newcombe won his MVP award in 1956, he also won a new award: the Cy Young, created to honor the game’s best pitcher. Newcombe completed that season with a 27-7 record, a 3.06 ERA, 18 complete games and five shutouts.
In 1949, Jackie Robinson won the National League batting title. In the 1950s, Mays won it once, and Aaron captured it twice.
In 1952 and 1954, Doby captured the American League home run title. Mays did the same in the NL in 1955 and was followed by Aaron in 1957 and Banks in 1958 and 1960. And after Jackie Robinson’s debut season in 1947, when he won the NL’s stolen-base title, only two white players would win that league’s crown again until the strike-shortened season of 1994.
No group of players altered any sport more than black players from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s did baseball.
“As an aside,” Armour wrote in his SABR study, “it is ironic that many people consider baseball post-1960 as diluted by expansion, even as this great talent source was finally being mined. If 28 percent of the talent in the league was not allowed to play a generation before, how likely is it that the game was of lesser quality? Baseball in the 1960s had 25 percent more teams (20 vs. 16), but the addition of black players easily accounts for that increase, even as blacks likely remained underrepresented.”
The deaths this month of Newcombe and Frank Robinson, who remains the only player to be named MVP in both leagues, reminded me of how great their class of players was, yet how it is remembered only episodically as its brightest lights are extinguished under the descent of age.
Indeed, only a few are left — most notably Aaron, arguably the greatest hitter the game has witnessed, and Mays, whom many consider the greatest all-around player in the game’s history.
They are due all the individual accolades they began to amass in the late 1940s. Together, however, what they laid claim to was far more impressive: the greatest generation of players baseball had seen or has witnessed since.