In Don Newcombe, Baseball Got Its First Black Ace

In Don Newcombe, Baseball Got Its First Black Ace
Just four years after Major League Baseball’s integration, Newcombe won 20 games for the Dodgers. That was the start of an extraordinary club.By Benjamin Hoffman <www.nytimes.com/by/benjamin-hoffman>
When Dave Stewart reported to big league camp for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the mid-1970s, he did so as one of baseball’s rarities: a black starting pitcher.

Fortunately for Stewart, Don Newcombe was in camp to walk the teenager through those early days, setting Stewart up for future stardom.

“His influence on me is beyond words,” Stewart said. “I can’t even tell you how huge it was for me to meet him at the time I did in my career.”
Being around Newcombe, who died on Tuesday at 92 <www.nytimes.com/2019/02/19/obituaries/don-newcombe-dead.html?module=inline>, gave Stewart unfiltered access to what Mudcat Grant, another top black pitcher, would one day describe as a Black Ace. Grant, who wrote a book on the subject <www.aventinepress.com/the-black-aces/>, had simple criteria for that distinction: an American- or Canadian-born black player who won 20 games in a season. That’s it.
Newcombe did it first, winning 20 for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, just four seasons after his eventual teammate, Jackie Robinson, broke baseball’s color barrier <www.nytimes.com/2019/01/31/sports/baseball-jackie-robinson-integration.html?module=inline>. In the 67 seasons since, 195 pitchers besides Newcombe have recorded a 20-win season, and only 14 of them were black — a select list that includes Stewart, who won at least 20 games in four consecutive seasons, from 1987 to 1990.
Making wins the sole criteria for being a Black Ace may seem antiquated, but Stewart said the 20-win mark represented something beyond the technical definition of the statistic. To him, 20 wins showed that the player was a workhorse, shouldering a burden for his teammates by taking them deep into games.
Vida Blue, a three-time 20-game winner, said that the criteria worked because it set a high bar of success among an already-select group of people.
“To become a starting pitcher in itself was unique,” he said. “It’s no different than being a black quarterback.”
Out of Grant’s book emerged a support group of sorts. There were initially 12 Black Aces — Newcombe, Sam Jones, Bob Gibson, Grant, Ferguson Jenkins, Earl Wilson, Al Downing, Blue, J.R. Richard, Mike Norris, Dwight Gooden and Stewart — and Grant organized events for some of them to attend, reached out to young players and pushed for recognition for the Black Aces’ accomplishments.
Padia

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