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THE HOT CORNER: Anxiety over contract nothing new

by Jim Allen (Nov 19, 2009)

With the season finished and nothing left but for the honors to be distributed, teams have begun retooling for next year's wars. It's an annual routine in which some players get released and try to catch on with new clubs, who are also busy trying to pick up the best available talent.

Foreign players are often in a real bind, not knowing if their club is going to make a sincere effort to re-sign them or not. It's often harder for first-year players, who are less than overpowering.

Such was the case 47 years ago for Don Newcombe.

Once an imposing right-handed pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Newcombe finished his major league career with the Cleveland Indians in 1961.

One of the best-hitting pitchers ever, he joined the Chunichi Dragons as an outfielder in 1962. After batting .262 with 12 homers and 23 doubles in 279 at-bats, Newcombe returned home believing he had a verbal agreement for a contract worth 500,000 dollars. But it never came to be, and Newcombe's Dragon days proved to be his last as a player.

"I wanted to come back," he told The Hot Corner earlier this year in Los Angeles. "I wanted that 500,000 dollars."

Despite the unsatisfying end, Newcombe retains fond memories of his time in Japan--including the time he triggered a near riot in Hiroshima.

"I was scoring one night [from second] on a single by Larry Doby," he said. "The catcher blocked home plate and me and the ball got there at the same time.

"In my career, I never learned how to slide, so I just run over the guy blocking home plate. My knees hit him in the ribs, broke two of his ribs and he's laying out on the field.

"The fans threw towels and they threw bottles. I was playing right field that night and they had to hold the game up. I had to go back to the dugout and I sat there for an hour and a half while they decided what they were going to do about me."

Teammate Wally Yonamine, in the final year of a long playing career in Japan and having a history of bone-jarring slides of his own--harking back to his days as a former pro football running back--helped defuse the situation.

"Wally said, 'Don if you don't go out there and apologize, we're not going to get out of here tonight,'" Newcombe recalled.

"I went out in the middle of that field and I bowed and bowed and bowed...and the fans clapped their hands and cleared the field and we finished the game."

Newcombe, who joined the Dodgers in 1949, two years after teammate Jackie Robinson broke through the majors' 65-year unofficial ban on black players, told how Robinson made him a better player.

"Jackie used to have a theory about me as a pitcher," Newcombe said.

It started when the right-hander was an instant success as a rookie. Not long after pitching in the All-Star Game, Newcombe had a big third-inning lead in Pittsburgh, when he started trying out different things on the mound. Before he knew it, the bases were loaded, no one was out, and feared slugger Ralph Kiner was up.

"Jackie called time and came over from second base," Newcombe said. "He said, 'Why don't you take that uniform off and go home. You're fooling around. Ralph Kiner's going to hit one out, and you'll be out of the game. And if you don't like what I'm saying it or the way I'm saying it, we can go back to the clubhouse and settle it there.'

"I wasn't about to go in the clubhouse with Jackie Robinson and settle anything. So I got mad, struck out Kiner, struck out the next guy and we went on to win the game."

"And he said, 'From now on Mr. Newcombe. I don't care whether you like it or don't like it, I'm going to make you mad when I see you on that mound.'"

He went on to a successful career, going 149-90 in the bigs before wrapping it up in Japan, where he learned a few things he thinks major leaguers could benefit from.

"I remember how we used to take a bath together after the game," he said. "We're on the field together, now we are in a big tub of hot water together. Of course they made me take a cold shower first or they wouldn't let me in.

"That's one of the things they have over major league baseball. We were always together. We don't have that togetherness here the way they do over there."


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