Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Don Newcombe

Today marks the first appearance of a new Tuesday feature for Baseball: Past and Present, “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” I first wrote about the Hall of Fame here in May 2009 when I made a list, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Now, I could probably name 50-100 such players. I intend to look at as many as possible here.

Claim to fame: Newcombe was the ace pitcher on an iconic team, the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers written about in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. The 1949 National League Rookie of the Year when he went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA, 19 complete games and five shutouts, Newcombe proceeded to win at least 20 games three out of his next five seasons. He peaked in 1956 when he won the MVP and Cy Young awards, going 27-7 for Brooklyn.

Newcombe was gone from the majors by 1960 at 34, with a 149-90 lifetime record and 3.56 ERA, and as it emerged later, he battled alcoholism during his career. While Newcombe has just one less win than Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean and a better lifetime ERA than two other Cooperstown members, Red Ruffing and Waite Hoyt (another pitcher who later disclosed that alcoholism marred his playing), one has to wonder what Newcombe would’ve achieved if he’d found recovery sooner.

He said he’s been sober since 1967 and told in 2007, “I’m glad to be anywhere, when I think about my life back then. What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again — means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Newcombe exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1980, peaking at 15.3% of the vote that year; he’s eligible for enshrinement with the Veterans Committee.

Whether he belongs in Cooperstown: The Veterans Committee could do (and has done) worse than to honor a player like Newcombe, a fine example to any player struggling with substance abuse. I’ve read that the Dodgers of the 1950s overused their pitchers, so the argument could be made that Newcombe would have left the majors early regardless of if he drank, but I still think his Cooperstown induction could positively effect the game. It could send the message: If you’re a talented player who falls short of the Hall of Fame behind drugs or alcohol, and you turn your life around after you leave the big leagues, we’ll take note.

If I understand correctly, the Hall of Fame is about celebrating the best of baseball, just as it’s about honoring players with gaudy career numbers. While I don’t know if what Newcombe has done in retirement is enough to make up for his truncated career and earn him a nod from the Veterans Committee, it would be a bright spot for a game whose players have famously struggled with alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine and steroids. If it were up to me, I’d give him a plaque. He’s in my Hall of Fame.