Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Don Newcombe's memory celebrated by Nashua teammate Billy DeMars

Don Newcombe was instrumental in breaking down barriers when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1946. Instead of sending him to join Jackie Robinson in Montreal, they sent him along with Roy Campanella to play for the Nashua Dodgers where they integrated the Class B New England League. In the wake of Newcombe’s recent passing, I reached out to the 93-year-old Billy DeMars for the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the experience of playing with his pioneering teammate.




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“The one thing I remember about Don was he was a helluva great pitcher,” DeMars said from his Florida home. “We were playing in Manchester New Hampshire one night, and Walter Alston was our manager that year. He brought him in the ninth inning. ... He didn’t hold anything back, he struck out all three batters. Just to watch him throw, he let the air out. He was tremendous!”

Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Nashua, 1946 
DeMars also noted that in addition to being lights out on the mound, Newcombe was a force at the plate. He led the team in with a .311 batting average, even besting his future Hall of Fame teammate Campanella.

Branch Rickey sent both of Negro League talents north to New Hampshire, as he could not place them in the hostile cities of his other southern minor league affiliates. DeMars said the Nashua team readily accepted both players and treated them like family.

“We had absolutely no problems whatsoever on the team," he said. "They were just other players. We got along absolutely great with Don [Newcombe] and [Roy] Campanella. In fact, Campanella had a little boy who was five or six. We used to put him on an iron crate and let him play on the pinball machine.”

The Brooklyn native wound up on the Nashua team after returning from his World War II service, where he played with Ted Williams and Charlie Gehringer at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The trio of future major leaguers, as well as player-manager Walter Alston, helped guide the team to the championship. Some seven decades later, DeMars chuckled at the reward.

“Another funny thing about that season, we lost the pennant on the last day of the season,” he said. “We went into the playoffs, and we won that to [become] the champions and our winning share was ten bucks apiece!”

Long removed from his playing and coaching days, DeMars marveled at the amount of money, or lack thereof, that he made while in the minor leagues.

“I signed and went up to Olean New York in 1943 just before I went in the Navy,” he said. “I tell everybody I made $3.50 a day. It was $100 a month — $25 a week, which came out to $3.50 a day. It is a little bit different than today.”

He cited a broken current minor league system that continues to underpay both the players and coaches. He explained that with record-setting major league contracts, baseball needs to reach down into the minor leagues and improve salary conditions.

“That’s what’s wrong with the game,” he said. “I just saw [Manny Machado] signed for $300 million and the guys who have to take cuts in salary are the minor league managers and the players. They are not paid as much as they should be [making]. The scouts and minor league managers need to make good money too. They are developing the players, and they have to work hard as hell down there.

"I spent 11 years as a minor league manager, and I was married and I had children at the time. You had to write up the whole league twice a year, the players once a month. At that time, I used to drive the team. We used to have cars; me and two other players would drive the club around. It wasn’t easy but we made it.”

DeMars played parts of three major league seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns. After 11 years as a minor league manager, he spent the next 19 as a major league coach with the Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Cincinnati Reds. He has managed to outlive most of his peers, with Newcombe’s death serving as a mortal reminder of his place in history.

“In August, I will be 94,” he said. “Now with Newcombe gone, I moved up to 22 [he is currently the 23rd oldest living former major league baseball player]. It’s a helluva a list isn’t it?”

Still, the nonagenarian is popular with the fans due to his status as one of the few remaining St. Louis Browns alumni.

“I get a hell of a lot of mail,” he said. “I think there are 12 of us left from the St. Louis Browns. St. Louis was great, everything about St. Louis was great.”

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