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|Don Newcombe, 83, is the Dodgers' last remaining link to the Jackie Robinson era.|
"I read it, and Jackie asked me, 'Are you going to the ballpark today?' And I said, 'Are you?' And he said, 'Yes, I am,' so I said, 'Well, then I am, too.' The secret service went with us on the bus to the ballpark, got off the bus, went with us to the clubhouse while we got dressed and then went with us through the tunnel at Crosley Field. There was always one on each side of us. Even when I went out to the bullpen to warm up for the game, they went with me and stood on either side. Right before the game, I saw guys out beyond the outfield with guns and guys on the buildings across the street with guns. I pointed them out to Jackie, and he said, 'No, those guys are on our side.' "Jackie told me right before game time, he said, 'Go out there and win this ballgame.' And I said, 'OK, Jack.' And I pitched a three-hit shutout. Roy hit three home runs, and Jackie went 3-for-4. After the game, the owner of the Reds held a press conference. He said he hoped whoever had sent that letter never did it again or the Reds might never beat the Dodgers. "We were leaving for Chicago after the game, and the secret service men stayed with us all the way to the train station and said goodbye." A quick check of retrosheet.org shows that the game to which Newcombe was referring took place on Aug. 25, 1950. It was actually a Friday, and it wasn't until after the next day's game that the Dodgers left town, and they were actually heading to St. Louis and then Chicago. But those are technicalities, incidental and irrelevant to the story. The death threat, the ever-present secret service agents, the sight of the gun-toting police snipers perched on the buildings across the street from Crosley Field, Newcombe remembers all of that in the sort of vivid detail that only someone who had been the target of those threats possibly could. At this point, you start to ask the next question, but Newcombe puts up his right hand and turns his face away. He takes several deep breaths as you tell him to take all the time he needs. Finally, after what seems like an hour but really is about 15 seconds, he turns back, his eyes still visibly moist, and begins to speak through the tears. "Why?" he says. "You're a young man, so let me ask you: Why did we have to be treated that way" -- he points to his right hand -- "just because our skin was this color, and just because we wanted to play baseball?" He doesn't pause to wait for you to answer, and you are grateful for that, because you don't have an answer. "We basically started the civil rights movement, Jackie did, when the Dodgers signed him in 1945," Newcombe said. "In those days, there was no civil rights movement. People like Martin Luther King were too young then. We didn't march the way Martin did after the Rosa Parks thing in Alabama." When the tears have dried completely, he reminisces some more, tells you a few more anecdotes. He tells you about winning 14 games at Class B Nashua in 1946, 19 more there in '47 and 17 at Triple-A Montreal in '48, and of pitching a complete game for Montreal, and winning, against the big league club in a spring training game in '49 in Vero Beach, Fla., and still not getting called up. He tells you how this made him so mad that he quit and went home to New Jersey, where he waited three days to call Buzzie Bavasi, then the Montreal general manager. "I asked him if there was still room on his team for a damn fool," Newcombe said. "He said, 'If that damn fool can keep his mouth shut and play baseball, there is plenty of room.'" But eventually, without prompting, Newcombe takes the conversation back to Robinson and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who made the bold and historic decision to sign Robinson and bring him to the majors in April 15, 1947. And then, you ask him how far he believes baseball has come since Robinson's debut, where the game is today in terms of race, and you get an answer you weren't expecting. "We are at a point in our lives where baseball is concerned -- and some people will disagree with this -- where I don't feel there is any prejudice anymore," Newcombe tells you with complete sincerity. "Baseball people, owners, scouts, GMs, they are going to sign people who can play baseball, and those people are all over the world. The Dodgers were the leaders in that. But now, baseball is the world's game, and you can see that by the rosters. "There is some argument about [the lack of black players in the majors], but the scouts are going to sign the players who have the most talent. When we come up with black players who have the talent, they still play at this level and receive the same signing bonuses." Finally, you ask Newcombe one more thing. After all these years, after all the mistreatment and all the hate that was directed toward him, Robinson and Campanella in those days, how is it that now, at his advanced age, he isn't bitter from the experience. "Jackie used to tell us all the time, 'We're bitter now. But one day, we're going to change one letter in the word bitter, and we're going to make it better. We can't afford to fail.' Branch Rickey used to say the same thing, that we couldn't afford to fail." A few feet from where Newcombe was sitting, where the Dodgers were still taking batting practice, there was all manner of proof they hadn't failed. Faces from all over the world pepper the Dodgers bench today. When all the ceremonial tributes to Robinson are over, when the Dodgers go back to their regular uniforms on Saturday after two days of everybody wearing 42, that multicultural roster will be the ultimate testament to the fact that Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe and Rickey had all succeeded in what they set out to do. Then, now and for all time. Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.