In mid-February we sense the days getting longer, even if but a minute or two a day. Winter is not over in northern climes, but spring has arrived in Florida and Arizona. Last week pitchers and catchers reported to spring training sites and this week baseball’s spring training will be fully underway. Yesterday the news reported that Dodgers one time great Don Newcombe died on February 19 at age 92. He was one of the “boys of summer” Roger Kahn wrote about in his elegant book of the same title about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the mid-50s. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Newk—one of the best teams ever. We know real spring isn’t far away, late winter storms notwithstanding. Don Newcombe used to report to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, FL, for spring training in mid-February when he was one of the boys of summer.
I once met Don Newcombe, though in a most unusual way. Newk was the first great black pitcher in the major leagues. Satchel Paige may have been the greatest black (or white) pitcher of his time, but he was barred from the majors, merely because of his skin color, until he was an old man, by baseball standards. Newk came up with the Dodgers in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Jackie’s 100th birthday was just a few weeks ago; he died at age 53 of a heart attack. Newk won the Rookie of the Year award and quickly established himself as a top-level pitcher. He did something rarely done: he won both the Cy Young Award as best pitcher in the majors and the National League MVP award in 1956. (The New York Times obituary on Don Newcombe is worth reading to get a fuller picture of the baseball player and the man.)
My cousin Jimmy and I were walking toward the driving range of the Western Ave. Public Golf Course (it is now named the Chester Washington Golf Course) in Los Angeles one morning around 60 years ago. We were youngsters and had been teaching ourselves to golf. That golf course was near enough our homes that we could ride our bikes there. That morning, before we could get a bucket of balls to hit, I saw Don Newcombe and Maury Wills hitting golf balls. Newcombe stood 6 feet 4 inches, with an imposing frame. Wills was a smallish man who was becoming the rage in Los Angeles for stealing bases as the Dodgers’ shortstop. He stood 5 feet 11 inches with a thin frame. In 1962 he would steal 104 bases, something never done before in baseball history. Why were they there? That golf course was one of the few public courses that allowed African-Americans to play. Even in Los Angeles of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a progressive city by American standards, there was lingering de facto segregation. White people would pay good money to watch black athletes like Newk and Wills excel on the playing field, but weren’t sure they wanted them on their golf courses. Both Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe served their country in the military, yet they experienced the pain of racial segregation in their homeland. Newk gave two of his prime baseball years to military service.
Jimmy and I had never caddied, but we saw our opportunity. We approached Wills and Newk and asked, “Can we caddy for you today?” We hardly knew what that meant, but they said, “Sure.” And so we did. We carried their golf bags for 18 holes and handed them the desired clubs and put them back in the golf bags. We knew the course from playing it, but I doubt that we offered suggestions. We were rather in awe to be walking the course with two big leaguers, two Dodgers of distinction. At the end of the round they paid us, though we didn’t ask for or expect any money. We got their autographs, wished them well, and biked to our homes to tell our parents what we had just done. Both my parents were serious Dodgers fans, so they were duly impressed. Where are those autographs now? Long gone. When I went off to college, my parents moved into a smaller home. My collection of baseball cards and memorabilia didn’t make the cut. But I do still have a scuffed baseball signed by Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale that my daughter rescued for me. All three are in the Hall of Fame, and only Koufax of them, the ever classy Koufax, is still alive.
It is well known that the Dodgers moved from their beloved old Brooklyn, call it Flatbush, with its rickety old Ebbets Field to glitzy LA, where the uber-modern Dodger Stadium would be built for them. It was my good fortune to be living in LA when that happened. I grew up worshiping that team, first when they were in Brooklyn and then in my hometown, LA. But they still wear the classic, clean Dodgers’ uniform. And every so often, another of the boys of summer dies. This week it was Newk, the great Don Newcombe. My cousin and I once caddied for Newk and Maury. I had never caddied for any one before and I have not for any one since. Maury is still alive, along with Sandy. I am hoping that Maury will be elected to the Hall of Fame before he dies. He deserves it. His base-stealing changed the modern game of baseball. He and Newk were pretty good golfers too. Very good. Farewell and RIP, Don Newcombe, one of the boys of summer.