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, 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, 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. 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.
As Grant’s health faltered in recent years, the group drifted apart even as it added three new members: Dontrelle Willis, C. C. Sabathia and David Price.
“This group deserves to be more than just a footnote in baseball history,” said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “If it takes the passing of Don Newcombe to help us reflect and remember, then that’s another gift that he has given us.”
Why haven’t there been more Black Aces in recent years? There are two popular explanations: Winning 20 games is remarkably difficult in modern baseball, and there simply aren’t that many black players on major league rosters.
Last year, there was an uptick in the latter, with the number of black players from the United States and Canada on opening-day active rosters rising to 8.4 percent, according to Major League Baseball, but that was well below the sport’s high-water mark of 19 percent, in 1986. Among that 8.4 percent, black starting pitchers were a minority within another minority, a group that includes Sabathia, Price, Chris Archer and Tyson Ross.
Blue, who reached the majors in 1969, thought the explanation could be as simple as athletes who choose baseball over football or basketball wanting to play a position that had more action. But according to Kendrick, the scarcity of black pitchers goes all the way back to the early days of integration, and that, at least initially, it wasn’t the players making the decision.
“During that era of the Negro Leagues, the pitching position, the catching position and the shortstop position were all seen as cerebral positions,” he said. “You had this underlying belief that black athletes weren’t smart enough to do it.”
Newcombe emphatically proved any doubters wrong. He established himself as a front-line starter in his first three seasons, with a 56-28 record and 3.39 earned run average. After missing two seasons because of military service, and then struggling in his first year back, he soared to new heights in 1955, helping to lead the Dodgers to their first World Series title.
In 1956, a season that ended with a loss to the Yankees in the World Series, Newcombe not only won 27 games and the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, but he also was named the first winner of the newly established Cy Young Award, which that season was given to the best pitcher in the majors.
Newcombe, by his own frequent admissions, struggled with alcohol in his career, which most likely contributed to a steep decline after the 1956 season. His major league career ended abruptly in 1960, and his playing days came to an unusual end in 1962 with a brief sojourn to Japan, where he played mostly as an outfielder. But Newcombe quit drinking and was back working with the Dodgers by 1970, positioning him for his eventual role mentoring Stewart and dozens of other players, including the Dodgers’ current closer, Kenley Jansen.
It was Newcombe’s innate ability to relate his experiences to young players that Kendrick said would leave a “gaping void” after the star player’s death.
“Every time we lose one of these guys that window of opportunity closes just a little more,” he said. “At some point in time there won’t be any Negro league players left to attest to what that league was all about.”
But from one Black Ace to another, Newcombe taught Stewart the value of being there when new black starters come along. And Stewart said he was proud that both Sabathia and Willis have acknowledged the influence he had on their careers.
“For those guys, I was present when they needed me,” Stewart said.
Newcombe wouldn’t have had it any other way.