Much has been made – deservedly – about what Don Newcombe accomplished on the field but much less has been written about how he saved lives.
Newcombe, who died this week at 92, put himself out there, as the rugged face of beating back addiction, day by day. He was one of the first public figures to talk about addiction – before Betty Ford, before other prominent people.
Newk was at his most formidable around the Los Angeles Dodgers, his old team. He was the Dodgers’ “director of community relations,” which meant he spoke about race and addiction and good citizenship, offering himself as a prime example, how he had wrecked his career as a pitcher (and pinch-hitter deluxe), by drinking. He gave testimony of how he had gone sober, on his knees, promising his wife he would never drink again.
The amazing thing about this tough guy is that he did it by himself – just stopped. Most alcoholics rely on daily reinforcement, the meetings, the written word, the prayer to a higher power. Newk just stopped. This guy was so tough, he would not take gas or injections at the dentist, to deaden the pain.
He never went to a rehab center, never went to AA meetings for himself, but he did not recommend that path for anybody else. He told other people that rehab worked, and that they should seek it, and sometimes he accompanied them right into the center.
He also stalked players, or at least they thought he did. My friend Bob Welch was having blackouts at 23, destroying a promising pitching career, and his life, during the 1979 season. When I helped him write his book about rehab – “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle With Alcoholism,” Bob told me how he hated Newcombe, was sure Newk was stalking him.
And maybe Newk was. A big man, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with a prominent jaw and nose making him even more formidable, Newk had the run of the ball park. He wore elegant suits and snappy straw fedoras and would wander through the clubhouse, chatting with people. He was hearing how Bob had passed out in public, how the Dodgers had sent somebody to get him into his hotel room.
At the end of the 1979 season, the Dodgers had a program with a major sponsor, and staged an intervention with Bob, and got him to The Meadows in Arizona.
Bob came back and pitched for more than a decade and won the Cy Young Award with Oakland; he was sober when he passed suddenly in 2014.
Newk was also there for Maury Wills when his life was crumbling and for Lou Johnson, the heart of the 1965-6 team, who came to the Dodgers for help. Newk said: “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Newk made public speeches, represented the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other outfits dealing with addiction.
In between, he spoke about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, his teammates and would-be mentors in Brooklyn. He told of the night that Robinson got weary of the black hotel in St. Louis with no air conditioning, and said, that’s it, I’m checking in at the Chase, with the white Dodgers, and did just that.
Jackie and Campy died young; Newk carried their flames; he did it his way, as the song goes.
In 1987, just before the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager (who was my friend), made some foolish and meandering statements about how black players lacked the “necessities” to be managers.
This was a chance to say, well, racism is everywhere, you never know about people, but Newk knew Al Campanis, knew how Al had taught Robinson to play second base in the minors in 1946, knew that Al hung out with Latino scouts at the ballpark.
During the uproar, Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo interviewed Newk on WFAN radio. and Newk said Campanis was no racist, he just bumbled a bit, and he labelled the end of Al’s career a “tragedy.” Newk was loyal to the truth as he knew it.
In recent years, whenever I thought of the Los Angeles Dodgers, my last link to Brooklyn was the big man in the elegant suits who had the run of Dodger Stadium. Newk was a staple on old-timers’ day and other days of remembrance but he was as courant as the latest celebrity caught abusing one thing or the other.
We have lost a good one.
* * *
Richard Goldstein’s obituary on Newk:
Newk and Lou Johnson:
Newk and Maury Wills and others:
Newk’s stats: check out the batting average and the home runs. The Dodgers usually have good hitting pitchers – the real baseball, none of this DH foolishness:
Another view of Newk’s work with the Dodgers:
The Kavanaugh hearings have reminded me of two milestones in my own life.
One milestone came in my last few years of full-court basketball, in my late 30s, with players ranging from recent high-school varsity players to elders in their 40s.
From fall to winter to spring, every Monday in the late ‘70s, the players in “adult rec” changed in one wing of the locker room while the boys on the varsity changed in the other wing.
Over a row of lockers, I could hear the current jocks talking about life and times, but mostly girls – that is, who did what, and how often, and with whom. It was graphic and it was personal. This was before social media.
Whether it was true or not, it was out there. This did not sound like my high school jock experience in the 1954 and 1955 soccer seasons. I am told that teen-age sex had been discovered back then, but boys did not talk about it in open locker rooms.
I went home and told our two daughters, both coming along in the schools, “Boys will talk.” And some girls would be treated as prey.
My second milestone came up the other day when the nominee for the Supreme Court – the Supreme Freaking Court – was recalling his idyllic days as student-athlete in a prep school (a Jesuit school, at that.) He seemed to retain the impression that some girls were from their crowd while others were outside their “social circle.” (The Jesuit magazine, America, has withdrawn its support for Kavanaugh's candidacy.)
What happened to the dignified lady who testified is now up to the FBI. What a wonderful idea -- calling in professionals instead of relying on dotty senators.
The hearing reminded me of my week in a rehab center early in 1981, when I was 41.
I was working on a book with Bob Welch, the young pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had gone into rehab after blanking out in alleys and hotel corridors on the road. Bob was now sober – had pitched well for the Dodgers in 1980 – and I wanted to know what rehab had been like for him.
The center – The Meadows, in Wickenburg, Ariz., said I could attend for a week, but I would have to participate in group sessions, not merely observe.
One of the first things I noticed at The Meadows was that some people started off accepting that they were powerless. They were sad, and tried to deal with the feelings that made them drink or take drugs or abuse sex.
But others were adamant that they had no problem. Why were people saying these things about them? Why were they making up stuff?
And most of all – with volume rising and face distended and arms flailing – why the f--- didn’t people believe them? Why was everybody against them?
Bluster seemed to be their stock in trade. Ward off the accusations with a swat at the air, a sneer, a bellow.
I learned a lot at The Meadows. The sessions shook off a few memories of shame when I drank too much, smarted off too much. I learned I did not have to drink when I didn’t feel like it, which is now almost all the time.
I had a great teacher. My friend Bob Welch stayed sober (as far as I know), day by day, for the rest of his too-short life. He knew himself. He knew the nature of the beast.
One time he and my teen-age son Dave and I were in a restaurant in Montreal, and Bob was doing the play-by-play of the dining room.
“Look at that guy,” Bob would say. “He wants to pour for everybody. That’s so he can drink more. Watch.” Sure enough, the stranger would cajole his companions to top off their glasses, so he could refill his.
I learned from dear friends like Bob Welch and my recent pal (he knows who he is) who fight off the beast, day by day, and acknowledge it, and share the struggle.
The book, "Five O'Clock Comes Early." is still out there. C.C. Sabathia of the Yankees relied on it when he checked into rehab.
I thought about Bob the other day when I was watching a candidate for the Supreme Court who, when confronted with touching testimony (if murky external details), resorted to baiting senators: What do you drink, Senator? Did you ever black out, Senator?
Maybe that is the combative reaction of a former high-school jock who (as he reminded us a time or two) lifted weights and played hoops back then, all summer long. Doesn't seem very judicial to me.
Channeling my late friend Bob Welch, I reacted to the visceral bluster on the screen.
“Whoa,” I said. “Whoa.”
Until last fall, Bob Welch and C.C. Sabathia had one thing in common – the Cy Young Award, as the best pitcher in his league one year.
Now they have something else – rehab.
Near the end of last season, Sabathia sought out a treatment center to face the addiction to alcohol that he was ready to acknowledge.
“I started reading a lot while I was in rehab,” Sabathia wrote on March 7 in the Players Tribune website.
“The first book I read was called Five O’Clock Comes Early. It’s by a former major league pitcher named Bob Welch, and it hit so incredibly close to home. Bob became a professional when he was only 21 years old and dealt with a lot of the same anxieties that I had felt, so he’d turn to alcohol for confidence. He ended up checking into a rehab facility, and when he came out on the other side of treatment he was a changed man. He ended up going on to have a great career after he got help.”
Riley Welch read Sabathia’s story and alerted me. Riley is a ball player himself, a college and minor-league pitcher, now coaching pitchers in Honolulu. He’s always been proud of his dad, who died suddenly in 2014 at the age of 57.
“It brings my family and me great pleasure and joy to see that now, almost thirty years after Five O'Clock Comes Early's initial release date, it is still helping someone live a healthier life,” Riley wrote to me. “I’m very proud that the book was able to provide inspiration for someone during a rough period in his life.”
In 1980-82, before Riley was born, I helped Bob write his book, when his rehab was still raw and he needed to reinforce it every day – to verbalize that he was choosing not to drink when the guys were getting hammered in the back room of the clubhouse.
Over the years, I’ve received dozens of letters from readers – almost always men – who said they were staying sober – that day – because of what they learned from Bob.
I don't know if C.C. Sabathia knew Bob Welch. Bob won the Cy Young in 1990 with Oakland; Sabathia won his in 2007 with the Yankees. But baseball is a fraternity with frequent lodge meetings, and Sabathia grew up in the Bay Area, Bob’s long-time home, so maybe they did know each other.
More importantly, Sabathia is taking an example from a pitcher who saved his career, his life, when he was just getting started. I can only imagine Bob’s enthusiasm when he heard that a colleague had taken the big step.
Bob’s book was reissued in electronic form last year, with a new chapter I wrote after Bob’s passing. C.C. Sabathia’s testimony reminds Riley Welch that his dad is with us, with lessons to teach anybody with “the problem.” Riley added:
“I know my father would be proud of C.C. for getting help when he needed it.”
* * *
Riley also enclosed a recent story by Barry Bloom, about how Bob Melvin, the Oakland manager, has put the bench commemorating Bob in a prominent spot at the spring ballpark.
There is no consolation for losing a friend way too young, but at least Bob Welch’s book on his alcoholism has a new life – in electronic form.
Bob died suddenly in June of 2014 at the age of 57. I wrote a tribute to him, how he went through rehab in 1980, at the age of 23, after nearly wrecking his pitching career. He stayed sober and wound up winning the Cy Young Award, but his real victory was sobriety. He set an example for others, particularly young people who think they are immune to being alcoholics at such an early age.
Bob gives examples -- frightening, graphic, and illuminating -- of the acts and cover-ups of the alcoholic.
His son Riley was the driving force behind the re-publication of Bob’s book. He wanted his dad to be remembered, for all the right reasons.
I have written a new prologue and epilogue to cover the main points of Bob’s life after pitching. (There are also some links to stories about Bob, as well as a couple about alcoholism.) Bob always reminded people – and himself – that alcoholics need to be vigilant, day by day.
I’m not an alcoholic, but I surely learned from Bob and my other friends that you don’t have to drink, at this moment.
Of all the books I have written, this one has done the most good. Alas, the earlier versions of Bob’s book are out of print, but I hope anybody interested in “the problem” – particularly in the young -- will consider clicking off an e-copy of Bob’s book, via Open Road Integrated Media:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: