As an 8-year-old, Don Newcombe played baseball on the sandlots near his Elizabeth, N.J., home like the other kids and went to school like the other kids. But when he got home, unlike the other kids, he'd have a few beers from the batch his father brewed in the cellar.
"I remember him telling my mother to give the kids some beer. It won't hurt them any and will help them grow stong," Newcombe recalled last week. "No one talked about the effects of alcohol. We just drank it."
Don Newcombe grew up big and strong, all right, to 6-foot-4, 240.
He was, without doubt, a champion drinker, about the only thing he did as well as drink as play baseball. When he wasn't bending the right elbow at the bar, he was flexing the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] elbow on the pitcher's mound.
Now a month shy of his 51 birthday, Newcombe is a recovered alcoholic after 11 years of abstinence. He operates a successful public relations firm in Los Angeles, the transplanted home of the Brooklyn Dodgers with whom he made history.
"Newk's" story - or the one that was on the public record - is a tale of the struggle of a young man who dropped out of high school to play in the Negro Leagues and became one of the first blacks to break the color barrier of the major leagues.
There were other firsts. He was the first [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the Cy Young Award (1956) for outstanding pitching. In 1949, his first year in the majors, he won 17 games, lost 8 and was named [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the year. Overall, in his 10-year career in the majors, he had a 149-90 record.
The part of his story that was not on the public record until four years ago is what brought him to Washington, where he spoke at six high school assemblies about the dangers of alcohol abuse and the nightmares he experienced.
A consultant for the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information and a membr of the advisory board of the National Council on Alcoholism, Newcombe said he is alarmed by the growing number of young people becoming addicted to alcohol. (There are no reliable statistics, but the Clearinghouse estimates that there are more than 1 million teenage alcoholies.)
When he decided to reveal his own addition and recovery, his wife, Billie, and his oldest son, Don Jr., were upset. "It (the publicity) doesn't bother them now because htey realize alcoholism affects everybody in some way," he said. "It may be a relative or friend or coworker.
'If the parents and Congress (through funding treatment programs) don't wake up and pay attention to these cries for help, this country is going to have its worst problem ever in five years - worse then the drugs and pills."
When he was a junior in high school, Newcombe decided to drop out to play baseball for the Newark Eagles. LIfe with the Eagles included all-night bus rides to play other teams in the Negro Leagues staying in shanty hotels and finding restaurants where they could eat.
"It was the type of life which called for you to have fun and it was part of the fun structure to drink. It would make us feel good at the moment" he recalled.
Then one day Branch Rickey owner of the Dodgers ordered him a $2,500 bonus and $350 a month to play for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers at Ebbets Field while the Dodgers were on the road. "I had no money and leaped at the opportunity," he remembers.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black American to take the field in a major league baseball game, and he was followed in the Dodger lineup by Roy Campanella in 1948 and Newcombe in 1949.
In the big time, Newcombe soon learned beer was provided in the clubhouse as a tension-relaxer after the game and the club's beer sponsor, unwittinly, was kind enough to put the ice-cold beverage beside Newcombe's locker.
'I'd have six or seven beers before I even left the clubhouse - regardless of whether I won or lost," he remembers. "On they way home, I'd stop at a delicatessen and buy a six-pack and drink it while I drove through Brookln going home to New Jersey or wherever I decided to go. Sometimes my father would drive with me and we'd pick up a case and drive with me and we'd pick up a case and drive to my parents house."
It was Newcombe's "Beer Era," a period he estimates lasted from 1949 to 1955 when he began a decade of hitting the hard stuff mixed with grapefruit or grape juice. He could afford the best because of his $42,500 salary and the liquor store he bought in 1956.
Newcombe says he never took the mound drunk but sometimes pitched with monumental hangovers. "I wasn't a skid row bum. I was a functioning alcoholic - I supported my family and kept my job."
Didn't anyone ever say anything to him about his drinking? "No. The coaches, the players the manager would just turn their heads away so long as you were winning."
In the meantime, his first wife had become an alcoholic and the disease resulted in their divorce in 1959 after 13 years of marriage. He ascribes her condition to being around him and combating her loneliness during his road trips by drinking with his parents.
As for his own addiction, Newcombe does not blame it on pressure caused by racial antagonism by some whites opposed to the integration of the major leagues or to a convenient way to break the monotony of road trips.
"It was an individual thing, Jackie Robinson went through more pressure than anybody and he never drank or smoked," said Newcombe.
Professional athletes, Newcombe maintains, are often very heavy drinkers becaue, as a class, they are socializers.
By 1965, his liquor store was in bankruptcy "Thank God" and he had been out of baseball for three years.
He quit drinking cold turkey in 1966 after waking up on the floor one morning, and seeing his second wife and three children standing at the door with suitcases in their hands.
"I took a vow on the head of my son, Don, to my wife and God that I would never drink again if they would stay," he says.
Today, he is community relations director for the Dodgers and a consultant to major league baseball, among a number of other voluntary activities he has undertaken to help fight alcoholism.
"I'm not an evangelist. I'm not crusading. I just want to point out the potential for becoming an alcoholic and to tell kids it's not cool to try to join the beer-drinkers hall of fame."
Don Newcombe pitched in three World Series, losing four of five games as a starter. He was heavily criticized by the media and the fans who complained that Newk couldn't win the big ones.
They know better now.