Don Newcombe cherished memories of Nashua Dodgers days

His eyes widened and a beautiful smile pursed his lips as he made his way toward the expanse of green. It had been more than 50 years since he’d been here, yet it seemed comfortingly familiar. Sure, the pine trees ringing the outfield were probably 60 feet taller than they were in 1946, and the stands where fans once chanted his nickname now had actual seats.

Don Newcombe swiveled on his heels, taking in a panoramic view of Nashua’s historic Holman Stadium before releasing a heavy,

contended sigh.

“This is where it all began,” he said, seemingly awash in an avalanche of memories.

Newcombe, who passed away Tuesday at 92 after a lengthy illness, had returned to Nashua in April 1997 as part of a celebration recognizing his role in the integration of baseball. He and his dear friend and battery mate, future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, were the first African-Americans to play for an affiliated U.S.-based baseball team in the modern era.

Calling the shots from the dugout was another future Hall of Famer: player/manager Walter Alston, who still holds the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers mark for career wins.

The baseball memories were great, Newcombe said, but his time off the field in Nashua was what he wanted to talk about.

He recalled spending his first few weeks in town living behind the old Howard Johnson’s along Daniel Webster Highway and sneaking into the kitchen to get a bite to eat. When the season got underway, he and Campanella moved into the Laton House in Railroad Square for a short time before each found more permanent living arrangements with one of the many host families who took in Dodgers players each season.

He bellowed in laughter when he recalled the barber on Main Street who struggled so badly to cut a black man’s hair that Newcombe ended up shaving his head for the rest of the season.

Saturday night was chili night at the Amherst Street fire station, and Newcombe was a regular there, making the short walk over after what usually was another Dodgers win.

Newcombe said he felt welcome from the start of his time in the city. Because Nashua was – and still is – such a melting pot, he felt like he fit right in. Sure he was a bit of a curiosity, an imposing 6-foot-4, 225-pound black man in a city with very few of them. But, damn, he could throw a baseball harder than many people here had ever seen.

Newcombe went 14-4 with a 2.56 earned run average in 1946, when the Dodgers won the first of three straight New England League championships. He was not at all pleased to find himself back in Nashua in 1947, feeling he had pitched well enough to move up the organizational ladder. But he used that anger to fuel an even better season on the mound, winning a league-record 19 games and striking out 186 opposing batters.

Two years later, he was at Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger alongside Campanella and second baseman Jackie Robinson, whose quest to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier began in Montreal the same year Newcombe and Campanella started out in Nashua.

Over 10 seasons in the major leagues, Newcombe went 149-90. He was the only pitcher in major league history to win the Rookie of the Year (1949), Most Valuable Player (1956) and Cy Young (1956) awards before Justin Verlander matched the feat in 2011. He was selected to four All-Star games, finished in the top six in the National League in wins five times, including a league-best 27 in 1956.

He was regarded as baseball’s first black ace: the first African-American to win 20 games in a season (which he did three times), and the first to win the Cy Young Award. Yet he languished over the last few seasons of his career, struggling to keep his baseball and personal lives on the rails while in the throes of a debilitating bout with alcoholism.

Yet, as Don Newcombe was wont to do, he also turned that negative into a positive, becoming one of the first ex-major leaguers to lead a team’s substance-abuse program. Until he fell ill, Newcombe was a fixture at Dodgers Stadium, regaling reporters with rich stories, mingling with players and coaches and always offering a smile and wave to fans who called out his name.

Nashua will forever hold a place in baseball history, and Don Newcombe was proud to have played a role in it.

“Thank you,” he said that April day, his booming voice lowered nearer to a whisper.

No, Don. Thank you.

Steve Daly is a former assistant sports editor for The Telegraph and the author of Dem Little Bums: The Nashua Dodgers.