LOS ANGELES — Forty-one years ago, on October 15, 1972, Jackie Robinson delivered this message in his final public speech at the World Series.
“I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” Robinson said. “But I must admit, I’m gonna be tremendously more pleased, and more proud, when I look at that third base coaching line one day, and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Nine days later, Robinson was gone. So is Roy Campanella, another trailblazer with the Brooklyn Dodgers. So are the Brooklyn Dodgers, for that matter, now the Los Angeles Dodgers for 55 years.
But you don’t have to look very hard to find Don Newcombe, dominant ace for those same Dodgers, in the crowd at Dodger Stadium. He was in his usual spot behind home plate, smartly dressed in a tan blazer and Panama hat, holding court prior to Tuesday’s game.
Newcombe is 87 years old, but the authority that helped him win the Rookie of the Year for the 1949 Dodgers, and earn both Cy Young and MVP honors in 1956, hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still working for the Dodgers as a special adviser, and he’s still around to talk about a singular part of baseball history that’s disappearing.
Before Newcombe was a pitcher, he was a little kid from Madison, New Jersey, going to Negro League games at Ruppert Stadium in Newark.
“I used to go there with my dad, and my three brothers, and would put some money together, ten cents or fifteen cents a ticket at Ruppert Stadium, and watch the Eagles play,” Newcombe recalled as we sat and watched Dodgers batting practice Tuesday afternoon. “I had, never, the idea that I would ever get a chance to play with the Newark Eagles, and play with and against Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell.”
Newcombe, all of 17, was too young to serve in the military when the Eagles brought him to spring training, still unsigned, at Virginia Union University in 1944. (Newcombe went on to serve in Korea in 1952-53.) Willie Wells, the Eagles manager and Hall of Famer, taught Newcombe to strengthen his legs, having him run for six days before even throwing a pitch.
Monte Irvin, another Hall of Famer, joined Newcombe on the Eagles in 1945, when he got out of the service at the end of World War II. Or as Newcombe said, matter-of-factly, “I played with him in 1945, and then signed with the Dodgers in 1946, and began breaking down the color barrier.”
He and Vin Scully are links to an earlier, unforgettable time in baseball history and the history of the country, really. Each successful major league campaign by a Negro Leaguer helped destroy the arguments of bigots, with Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments reinforced when Newcombe went out and won 17 games for the 1949 Dodgers. A year later, Scully began calling games for that groundbreaking team. And as Newcombe explained, “Vinny and I were friends from the day he joined the Dodgers. So we talk all the time, even today, all these years later.”
But Newcombe has carried on Robinson’s legacy of speaking frankly, rather than nostalgically. Instead of talking about the golden days, he remembered that in his time, players had no real rights, “held by the neck,” as he put it.
There was no bitterness to Newcombe, though. He pointed out that on the anniversary of Robinson’s call for a black manager, with many having followed, the Dodgers were once again at the forefront of racial progress.
“There’s a great man by the name of Magic Johnson,” Newcombe said. “Something Jackie Robinson couldn’t see, and didn’t see. If he could have seen Magic Johnson as an owner — he wanted to see a black manager. Now, we have an owner, in Major League Baseball. What a magnificent step to make.”
With that, I thanked Newcombe, and let others visit him. Kenley Jansen came over, soaking up what knowledge he could. And then a little boy in a Yasiel Puig jersey shook Newcombe’s hand, the two posing for a photograph together, before Newcombe’s wife led him down the tunnel and out of sight.