Don Newcombe’s 1956 Season:
The Fragile Fame of an Award Winner
The Fragile Fame of an Award Winner
In part 2 in his series on award winners, Schechter examines the Major Leagues’ first Cy Young Award winner—Don Newcombe—whose torrid season earned him the inaugural award in 1956. His poor postseason, however, overshadowed his season’s successes.
How sad that it took Cy Young’s death at age 88 to nudge the powers that be into honoring him. Soon after Young’s death late in 1955 came an announcement that the Cy Young Memorial Trophy would be awarded to the best pitcher in the Major Leagues in 1956. The initial balloting proved decisive: Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers received 10 of the 16 votes.
Newcombe’s 1956 season, when he went 27–7 with a 3.06 ERA and 18 complete games, also earned him the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, the first of 10 pitchers to earn both honors in the same season. Yet his poor performance in the World Series nearly ruined his reputation even as the glory of awards came his way. This precipitous plunge on baseball’s annual roller-coaster ride is a prime example of the athlete’s fragile fame.
Newcombe experienced a strange dress rehearsal of this fate in 1955. An astonishing 18–1 at the end of July, he got a virus that triggered an arm problem. Limited to 11 2/3 innings after September 5, he finished at 20–5. After giving up three home runs in a Game 1 loss in the World Series, he confessed his arm woes to Manager Walter Alston, who didn’t use him again as Brooklyn won its only title in seven games.
Newcombe Does It Again
With that frustration in mind, let’s look closely at the 1956 efforts of New Jersey native Don Newcombe. The 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound right-hander relied on a blazing, intimidating fastball and sharp control, and he punished careless hurlers with his bat. In 1955, he hit .359 with seven home runs, a National League record, and an OPS of 1.027.
In 1956, Newcombe won five of his first six starts before treading water for six weeks, during which he celebrated his 30th birthday. At the end of June, he had a 9–5 record, a 3.83 ERA, and an iffy arm. His hitting had stalled as well, with a .234 average and no home runs.
And then he did it again, duplicating his fantastic 1955 start over the second half of 1956. Starting with a 15–2 romp over the Giants at the Polo Grounds, Newcombe went 18–2 the rest of the season. Every one of those wins mattered as the Dodgers copped the pennant by one game over the Milwaukee Braves and two games over the Cincinnati Reds.
The Streak of the Year
In July and August, he went 13–1, losing 1–0 to the Giants on a Willie Mays home run. For a few games, he was untouchable. On July 25, he allowed a third-inning home run to Frank Robinson, the Reds’ “Rookie of the Year,” and finished the game with six scoreless innings. Four days later, his five-hitter beat the Cubs, 1–0, on Pee Wee Reese’s home run, soon followed by a four-hit shutout of the Braves.
Facing the Pirates, he yielded six hits in his third straight shutout, winning 3–0. On August 11, he stretched his scoreless streak to 39 innings, holding the Phillies hitless until the seventh inning, when Stan Lopata’s home run ended the joyride. Making that streak even more impressive is that Newcombe did it all at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn’s boisterous bandbox.
Clutch in the Stretch
After a Labor Day doubleheader, the Dodgers led the National League by 3½ games. On September 7, Newcombe went 11 innings to beat the Giants, 3–1, to make his record 23–6. But when he next took the Ebbets Field mound, it was the second-place Dodgers hosting the league-leading Braves. Each of his final six starts was a crucial game; let’s see how he fared.
- September 12: The Dodgers presented Newcombe with a 3–0 lead in the first inning, but after the Braves began the top of the second with a walk, two singles, and a triple, Walter Alston removed him. He got a no-decision as the Braves won, 8–7, to move ahead by two games.
- September 15: Newcombe whitewashed the Cubs for the third time that season, holding them to three hits—two by Monte Irvin—in winning, 3–0. This moved the Dodgers percentage points ahead of the Braves.
- September 19: Newcombe’s 25th win of the season was even more fun than the 15–2 explosion at the Polo Grounds. The Dodgers pummeled the Cardinals, 17–2, and Newcombe contributed his only two home runs of the season. This one put them a half-game ahead of the Braves.
- September 23: At Forbes Field, Newcombe went eight innings to cruise to an 8–3 win over the Pirates, aided by two Gil Hodges home runs. The Dodgers and Braves were now one percentage point apart.
- September 26: With two days’ rest, Newcombe faced Robin Roberts and the Phillies back in Brooklyn. In five innings, Newcombe allowed four runs, two earned, and Roberts beat him, 7–3, leaving the Dodgers one game behind.
- September 30: After two days off, the Dodgers swept the Pirates on the 29th while the Braves lost in extra innings, putting the Dodgers ahead by a game. Newcombe started the finale on Sunday, knowing a win would clinch the pennant. The Dodgers supported him with five home runs, and he led, 7–2, in the seventh inning, before getting pounded.
He held on to win, 8–6, with relief help from Don Bessent. But the stumble at the end hurt more than Newcombe’s ERA. He felt a twinge in his elbow on a curveball to Lee Walls, and when Walls homered, it brought Newcombe’s exit. The World Series started four days later, and Newcombe was scheduled to start Game 2 at Ebbets Field. He still couldn’t twist his elbow in a curveball motion without painful twinges.
His World Series Waterloo
Instead of telling Alston about it—he could still throw pain-free fastballs—Newcombe took the ball for Game 2, and he regretted it. The Yankees scored one run in the first inning and kayoed Newcombe in the second. Yogi Berra’s grand slam made it 6–0 and goodbye to Newcombe. The Dodgers got him off the hook for a loss, however, winning 13–8.
Newcombe kept quiet about his sore arm and, inevitably, found himself called upon to start the decisive Game 7. As he explained in an article he wrote (as told to Milton Gross) in the March 9, 1957, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, “If I asked out of this ball game, then people would really say I was scared. They said it in 1955, after I lost the opening game . . . and wasn’t used again.”
Newcombe was sensitive to his reputation—despite ample evidence to the contrary—for choking in big games. He had lost twice in the 1949 World Series after a “Rookie of the Year” season. In 1950, he lost the season’s final, must-win game in extra innings to Robin Roberts. And he ran out of gas in that fateful ninth inning in 1951, putting the Giants on base who made Bobby Thomson a hero. He wanted to make good pitches, not excuses.
World Series Finale
“I didn’t tell him about the arm before the last game,” Newcombe told Gross. “I [can] see how stupid it was to keep holding back the information.” He slept only two hours the night before, despite taking a sleeping pill. “It occurred to me maybe a hundred times that I might be doing them all an injustice, trying to pitch with a sore arm.”
He felt okay when he warmed up. “I had hot stuff from my shoulder down to my wrist, and it burned so much I couldn’t feel the pain. I thought I was going to be all right. But the Yankees had something to say about that.” More specifically, Yogi Berra, whose two home runs put Newcombe on the ropes.
When Elston Howard led off the fourth inning with another home run, Newcombe was done. He surrendered five runs and was booed by the hometown fans during his shoulder-slumped trudge to the dugout. He took the loss, his fourth in the World Series without a victory, as the Yankees reclaimed the title. The Dodgers left the next day for an exhibition tour of Japan, and that’s where Newcombe confessed to the sore arm.
In November, Newcombe was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player, earning eight of the 24 first-place votes and defeating the runner-up, teammate Sal Maglie, 223 points to 183. A few weeks later, he added the Cy Young Memorial Trophy, as it was initially called, to his laurels.
He spent the winter suffering the slings and arrows of outraged reporters and Dodgers fans. The Saturday Evening Post confession helped, though an 11-win performance in 1957 hurt, and he was traded in 1958 after 11 final games as a Los Angeles Dodger.
Newcombe retired in 1960 with a career 149–90 record. In 1962, Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, “He had the physical equipment to be one of the great pitchers. He never made it, though. . . . No one remembers the big ones he caught, only the big ones that got away.” In the long run, his reputation has been just fine, with full credit for his many clutch performances and for his increasingly formidable character.
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