Don Newcombe died, fittingly, during Black History month, Feb. 19. Fittingly, at the start of spring training.
I saw him pitch once. He was with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but I saw him pitch in St. Louis, at Sportsman’s Park, which the National League Cardinals shared with the American League Browns. Not quite as much a scheduling problem then as it would be now, for there were only 8 teams in each league, and none except St. Louis west of the Mississippi River.
It was 1954. Newk had started his career in 1949, and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, three years after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. He would win the MVP and Cy Young Awards in 1956, the first player to win Rookie, MVP, and CY awards, all 3, but he was already in the peak years of his ability in 1954. The Cardinals didn’t stand a chance that night that I saw him pitch.
Even though Newcombe later pitched for my own Cincinnati Reds, I always think of him as a Dodger. Not the LA Dodgers, even though he pitched there, but Brooklyn.
High school senior Benny Albin decided he wanted to see a big league game. He had a car. He also had three underclassmen in Bob Keeton and Bill Burns and me who were willing to pay for the gas to get a chance to go along.
Of course, it was hometown boy, almost home town, Gil Hodges, Brooklyn’s first baseman, that we wanted to see. Watching Newcombe pitch was just an extra bonus.
Gil was actually from Petersburg. 13 miles from Oakland City, but he played basketball and baseball at Oakland City College before going pro, so we OC folks like to claim him. The family name was Hodge, but a Dodgers secretary made a typo on his first contract, adding the “s” to his name, and he was too gentlemanly to tell anyone that she had made an error, so he was Hodges the rest of his life.
None of us had ever seen a big league game before. We had peanuts and Cracker Jack. Hodges hit a home run. It was a beautiful night. Until we were on the way home.
It is only 175 miles between Oakland City, IN and St. Louis, MO, but this was before interstate highways, before any kind of highway, it seemed. I guess it was about ten o’clock when we got started home, about midnight when we got to Flora, Illinois, where Benny’s 1949 Chevy decided it had gone far enough for one day.
All car repair places being closed at that hour, we checked into the Star Hotel, in downtown Flora. We had spent most of our money on tickets and popcorn at the game, and we knew we’d have to pay for a new fan belt the next day, so we rented one non-air-conditioned room with one bed, on the third floor.
It was a hot night. There were no screens on the windows. There was, however, an old rope tied to the radiator that we were to throw out the window as an escape route in case of fire. I can’t remember if it were Keeton or Burns, but one of them had nightmares all night, which with four of us in one bed, in our underwear, made for an interesting sleep experience.
It would be rude to my wife and children and grandchildren and Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski and a lot of other folks I’ve encountered in the 75 years since Sportsman’s Park and Flora, Illinois to say that was the best day of my life, so let’s just say it was in a class by itself.
John Robert McFarland
I matriculated at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in time for the summer sessions of 1960. When autumn came, lots of other students showed up to begin studies. I noticed a car with an Illinois plate. It disgorged a handsome young man and a couple of older women, probably his mother and an aunt. They began to carry his stuff into the dorm. I was excited to see another car in the lot from the Midwest, since my Indiana plate was usually as close to “north” as those license plates got. I asked them where in Illinois they came from. They said, “Flora.” That got me really excited. “I once spent a night in the Star Hotel there,” I exclaimed. Apparently the Star did not have a very good reputation. They turned around and walked away.