He took Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the airport for Memphis 28 days before King was killed, protected his teammates from hurled balls and bats on the field, and took an oath to continue the fight integrating baseball in case anything happened to Jackie Robinson. These are a few chronicles of legendary Dodger’s pitcher Don Newcombe, who received a Beacon Award from Major League Baseball during its annual Civil Rights Weekend in Atlanta. “It’s a great, great honor. I’ve had some great honors and awards in my lifetime and career. When I get these honors and people are gracious enough to give it to me, I try to appreciate them as much as possible,” said Newcombe. Having lived during through some of the most abhorrent periods of racial injustice, 86-year-old Newcombe spoke passionately about what he, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella endured when they broke racial barriers in baseball. “It’s etched in my memory and I will never forget it,” he said. In speaking with Newcombe privately, he shared that baseball manager Branch Rickey promised him that he would get to the big leagues eventually. He wondered if it would ever happen. It was winter of 1945 in New York when talk of starting an all-Black baseball team while White baseball players of the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled on the road began. The notion of a team to be called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers would be the starting point for historical changes in the sport of baseball. Branch Rickey recruited standout player Jackie Robinson, and later 19-year-old Don Newcombe who then played with the Newark Eagles’ Negro League, to work for this new visionary team. Rickey also persuaded African- American player Roy Campanella to join Newcombe for what Newcombe recollects as an undercover subterfuge for the changes Rickey planned to make in the league. Newcombe recalled how Rickey publicly promoted his intention to recruit for the Brown Dodgers when discretely he asked them to play alongside White players. It’s widely known that Jackie Robinson was the first African- American to be signed to the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Newcombe praised Robinson for being a champion for civil rights while doing his job on the field. “He is still my idol,” said Newcombe. “After all these years later, he is still my idol right now.” Newcombe and Campanella both started in 1946 with the Nashua Dodgers in the New England League, a lower Class B team in New Hampshire because other leagues threatened to shut down if Blacks were allowed. This marked the first integrated baseball team in U.S. in the 20th century, according to Newcombe’s biography. On May 23, 1949, Rickey’s promise was fulfilled when Newcombe became a part of the major leagues, following Jackie Robinson (1947) and Roy Campanella (1948). “I’ve always said that had my skin been a different color than the black that it was, I would have been given a chance to get to the Dodgers a lot quicker than I did in 1949. The things that we were threatened with just because we had the audacity, unless we proved that we could play, we would never have been considered American. We would have always been second class,” said Newcombe. Newcombe is the only player the MLB to win a Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year Award and an MVP award. Newcombe, the only survivor of the historic trio, made his way to Atlanta this past weekend to be honored by Major League Baseball, along with Congressman John Lewis and music legends Earth, Wind and Fire.
Newcombe receive the Beacon of Hope award and the MLB awarded Congressman John Lewis the Beacon of Life Award for his long history of work in civil rights. Lewis stated that he was very thankful to Major League Baseball for the honor.
“I salute Major League Baseball for holding the Civil Rights Game in Atlanta,” said Lewis. “In this hotel in August 1967, the last place where Dr. King held the national meeting for the SCLC.” Lewis spoke of his remembrance of seeing signs at facilities that read “colored” or “whites only.” In spite of that, Lewis said it didn’t matter what color you are because we are one world.
Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game Weekend included an award luncheon, civil rights roundtable and a youth baseball clinic. The weekend culminated with the Dodgers playing the Atlanta Braves.
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