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Former Ace Delivers a Timely Pitch : Ex-Dodger Don Newcombe fought alcoholism to build a career after baseball. He warns students not to repeat his mistakes.

February 06, 1994|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The windup hasn't changed, nor has the delivery. Don Newcombe still throws his pitches high and tight.

But instead of trying to strike out the Bronx Bombers, the former Dodger pitcher now faces a more challenging group of heavy hitters.

On Tuesday, Newcombe made his pitch to high school students from Dorsey, Verbum Dei and Pasadena Muir. He reminisced about his old playing days, and he also managed to sneak a few curves past an unsuspecting audience.

"If God wanted you to talk more then listen, he would have given you two mouths and one ear," Newcombe said. "The only way to become educated is to learn how to read and learn how to listen. So zip up your mouths and open your ears."

The students were attending a symposium on the Negro Leagues in recognition of Black History Month at the Amateur Athletic Foundation in West Adams. Newcombe pitched with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League before he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, becoming the fifth African American to break into the major leagues.

"I want young black people to become educated so that one day they can be somebody," he said.

Newcombe has given speeches to more than 2 million people ranging from schoolchildren to chief executive officers. The speeches vary, but the theme remains the same.

"The life you have now is the only one you get," he said. "You can't burn it out with drugs, or drown it with alcohol, turn it in and get a new one."

Newcombe is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 28 years. He has been director of community relations for the Dodgers since 1970, and for 14 years headed the team's alcohol and drug program, the first of its kind in the major leagues.

Although most in attendance were not born when he threw his last pitch in 1960, the 67-year-old Newcombe still commands respect. He is recognized as a player who used his fastball to brush back racism and throw it out of baseball.

"I never worried about racists," Newcombe said. "I could throw a pitch 100 miles per hour. I didn't always know where it was going, but I could throw it high and tight."

Though at first he couldn't name the major league team Newcombe played for, Chad Kiel, a 15-year-old sophomore at Verbum Dei, said: "I consider him a role model because he is a successful black person who came out of a ghetto. The average black male does not live past the age of 25 in this city."

Said Dorsey junior Pamela Askerneese: "I thought it was inspirational to hear from one of the early black athletes. There is so little that has been written about them. We need to know our history if we're going to understand our future."

Newcombe grew up struggling to survive poverty and learning to play baseball on the sandlots near his Elizabeth, N.J., home. His father, a chauffeur, was a strict disciplinarian, but Newcombe said he was both a role model and a friend to his four children.

"We were four boys raised in a ghetto, but we never got in trouble," Newcombe said. "We had cockroaches and bedbugs. We didn't have gangs, but we had our cliques. Our father was away from home all the time because of work. But we knew if we got in trouble, Dad would come back and chastise us."

But negative influences were also to be found at home. When he was 8 years old, Newcombe had his first beer. His father approved, believing it would help him grow big and strong. He didn't live long enough to see how alcohol brought his son's playing career to a premature end.

It was a neighbor, John Grier, who refined Newcombe's athletic talent and helped the youth through adolescence.

"I was fortunate to live next door to a man who was 12 or 14 years older than me that could golf, play tennis and baseball," Newcombe said. "He taught me how to control my pitches, how to hold runners on base. He even took me out with his girlfriend and his girlfriend's sister on dates when I was 15. He taught me how to be a man."

Newcombe dropped out of high school when he was a junior to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. After three seasons, he made his major league debut in 1949 and was the second Dodger to win National League Rookie of the Year honors. In 1956, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound pitcher won 27 games and was the National League Most Valuable Player.

But Newcombe's drinking problem also followed him into the major leagues. From 1949 to about 1955 he began substituting beer for mixed drinks. The Dodgers traded Newcombe shortly after they moved to Los Angeles in 1958, and his playing career ended two years later.

After 14 years on the speaking tour, Newcombe has discovered how alcoholism has remained a major problem in the United States.

"I once spoke to 500 junior high school students. I asked how many of them have not tasted alcohol to put up their hands. Only five children raised their hands, and that's junior high school."

But should children turn to a recovering alcoholic for advice?

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