Brooklyn Dodgers great Don Newcombe, one of the players who helped break Major League Baseball's color barrier, died on Tuesday, team officials said.
He was 92.
"One of the greatest pitchers in Dodger history, and one of the franchise’s final links to Brooklyn and the days of Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, has passed away after a lengthy illness this morning," the Los Angeles Dodgers announced.
The intimidating, 6-foot-4 right-hander pitched 10 seasons for the Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. He broke in with Brooklyn in 1949 and was named rookie of the year, just two years after his teammate, Robinson, became the first African-American player in the major leagues.
He faced Hank Thompson of the New York Giants in a game on July 8, 1949, making the first time a black pitcher and hitter faced each other in an MLB game.
In a 2015 interview with MLB.com, Newcombe recalled meeting Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just 28 days before the civil rights leaders' assassination, and how King thanked him, Robinson and fellow baseball players Roy Campanella and Larry Doby for their contribution to the struggle.
"He said, 'Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Roy and Doby made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,'" Newcombe said. "After everything he'd been through, here he was telling me how we'd helped him with the movement. I'll never forget that."
Newcombe met then-President Barack Obama at a 2010 political fundraiser in California and the commander in chief told the Brooklyn great how much he admired him.
"Just had the honor of meeting him," Obama said, "and taking a picture with him and he was very gracious in saying, 'You know, Jackie would be proud.' And I said, 'Well, I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and it were not for Don Newcombe.'"
Donald Newcombe was born on June 14, 1926, in Madison, New Jersey, one of five children of Roland and Sadie Newcombe.
His father frequently took his sons to Ruppert Stadium in Newark to watch the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League.
The future pitching great was already playing semi-pro ball as a teenager because his high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, didn't field a baseball team, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
He eventually caught the eye of famed Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who had already signed the up-and-coming minor league player Robinson.
Newcombe spoke at a 1989 reunion of Negro League players and thanked all those who came before him.
"I wish that in some few words I could wipe away that pain you've suffered so long because you have skin this color," he said. "We know that we would not be here today if it were not for the Negro Leagues. I thank God I had the chance to walk shoulder to shoulder with you."
Even in those relative few times Newcombe and his Dodgers were on the losing end, he always managed to see the bigger picture.
He threw 8 1/3 brilliant innings for the Dodgers in the 1951 National League playoff game against the New York Giants. He was replaced by Ralph Branca — who then served up the "shot heard 'round the world" home run to Bobby Thomson.
"That home run wasn't only meaningful for Bobby Thomson and the Giants and for the City of New York. It was meaningful for baseball, and something that people remembered all the years that Bobby was on this earth, from the time he hit it until the time he passed away," the magnanimous Newcombe said just after Thomson's death in 2010.
"Bobby was a great ballplayer. And I think if anybody had a chance to enjoy the fame that he enjoyed, I'm glad it was Bobby Thomson."
That 1951 playoff game was the last Newcombe would play for more than two years, as he missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons to serve in the Korean War.
He bounced back in 1955 to win 20 games, leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first and only world title.
Newcombe followed that brilliant 1955 with the best season of his career, in 1956, when he won the Cy Young Award and the National League MVP. The Dodgers won the NL pennant that season before falling to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
He had a career win-loss record of 149-90.
Newcombe pitched one season for the Dodgers after they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. He was among the last 18 living players to have once suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, according to Baseball Reference.
He and current Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander are the only two players to have won three top baseball honors, the Cy Young, MVP and Rookie of the Year awards.
In his later years, the towering pitcher was open about his struggles with alcohol, which he said contributed to the premature end to his playing career.
Newcombe was a popular figure among contemporary Dodgers, who admired the pitching great's sartorial splendor. He rarely appeared in public without a coat, tie and fedora, as players regularly flocked to Newcombe's side to talk about his threads.
"I dress like that because I want these kids to know what it's like to look professional," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "And because I remember when I didn't have any clothes."
Newcombe is survived by his wife, Karen; sons Don Newcombe Jr. and Brett Anthony Newcombe; a daughter, Kelly Roxanne Newcombe; and two grandchildren.