Has Newk been cheated by the Coop?

Upon the passing of Minnie Miñoso, we saw a number of tributes, all of them no doubt well-deserved. Many of those did make the case, off-handedly or not, that Miñoso has long belonged in the Hall of Fame.

But this one, from historian Adrian Burgos Jr., included a new one (at least for me):

The Hall of Fame has long enforced its rule that individuals could only be considered for the Hall of Fame as either a player in the major leagues or in Negro Leagues, an umpire or team/league executive. This has meant that Miñoso would either be considered as a Negro Leaguer or as a major leaguer, but voters could not take into consideration what he accomplished in the other circuit in casting one’s vote.

Enforcement of this rule has harmed Miñoso and fellow integration pioneer Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, more than any other candidates from the “Golden Era” of baseball history. Both Miñoso and Newcombe performed three years (or more) in the Negro Leagues, and then waited several seasons in the minors, and not because they lacked big league skills. Rather, they were victims of the slow pace of integration in the majors. Moreover, they had the ironic misfortune of having signed with big league organizations (Cleveland and Brooklyn) that were aggressive in signing talent from the black baseball world.

Burgos’s point is essentially that if Miñoso and Newcombe had not been signed by relatively enlightened franchises, they might have hung around in the Negro Leagues long enough to pile up big numbers there. Monte Irvin’s the best example of someone who did that.

I’m not going to get into Miñoso here, because that’s a long, long essay and I’ve written at least a couple of versions already. What’s new here is the idea that Newcombe has also been jobbed by the Hall’s rules (not to mention racism, segregation, etc.).

Maybe Burgos has better numbers — and I’m not home, so I can’t check other sources — but Baseball-Reference.com has Newcombe pitching in the Negro Leagues in just two seasons: 1944 and ’45, when a) he was 18 and 19, and b) professional baseball at every level was utterly denuded by the draft.

I’m not saying Newcombe wasn’t a talented 18- and 19-year-old, because I’m certain that he was wildly talented. For an 18- and 19-year-old.

Newcombe signed with the Dodgers in 1946, and spent both ’46 and ’47 with the Dodgers’ Class B Nashua club. His first season, Newcombe was easily the youngest pitcher on the staff and arguably the best, but wasn’t promoted because … well, probably because the Dodgers had only two farm teams with black players in ’47, and Newcombe wasn’t deemed quite ready for the big jump to Montreal.

When I get home, I’ll do a little digging. Regardless, Newcombe spent another season in Nashua and pitched almost exactly as well. That did get him to Montreal in ’48, and he pitched exceptionally well … only to return to Montreal in ’49.

Not for long, though. Newk made only five starts for the Royals, then debuted with the big club on May 20, getting hammered in a seventh-inning relief appearance. Undaunted, just two days later he pitched a five-hit shutout against the Reds in Cincinnati.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, except it’s easy to forget that Newcombe, like an awful lot of players in that era, spent a couple of seasons in the service. Newcombe missed two full seasons, 1952 and ’53. He’d been great in ’51, but struggled some upon his return to the Dodgers in ’54, before getting back on the beam in ’55.

When we talk about players from the 1940s through the ’50s, we nearly always mention time missed during World War II and almost never mention time missed during the Korean War and beyond (except for Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman, two of the very few players who actually saw combat).

But there’s no doubt that Newcombe’s service cost him two seasons in his prime years, and it probably hurt his performance in ’54 as well. Can we assume he would have pitched well in those years otherwise? Instead, he might have gotten hurt. Or he might have piled up so many innings that his career would have petered out even earlier than it actually did.

Which was pretty early. After going 27-7 in 1956, Newcombe lasted only four more seasons, going 37-42 with (roughly) a league-average ERA. Newcombe has been open about his drinking problem during those years, but he also wasn’t particularly healthy.

On the whole, Newcombe finished his career with a 149-90 record and roughly 30 Wins Above Replacement. He was sort of infamously ineffective in October, giving up eight home runs in 22 innings (all against the Yankees).

As you probably know, 30 WAR is well below any reasonable bar for the Hall of Fame. Just as an example, Dizzy Dean — another sort of special case — finished with 43 WAR and pitched brilliantly in the ’34 World Series. I’m not saying I would have voted for Diz. But he’s in.

Can we get Newcombe past Dean? 

I think it’s exceptionally difficult. Newk could have reached the majors sooner than he did, but there’s no guarantee he’d have pitched brilliantly. I do think that segregation might have cost him a dozen or so wins, and his military service another 40 or so. Let’s be conservative and estimate a total of 51, which gives us a nice round 200 major-league wins, with an ERA+ in the neighborhood of 120 (his actual figure is 114, driven down by those last few, subpar seasons).

Using B-R.com’s Play Index (of course), I made a list of pitchers with 200 wins (+/- 20) and a 120 ERA+ (+/- 5). Which gave me a list of 19, the great majority of whom are not in the Hall of Fame.

The four who are? Dazzy Vance, Don Drysdale, Bob Lemon and Iron Man Joe McGinnity.

Vance and McGinnity are completely different sorts of candidates. Drysdale a different sort of cat, too. Lemon might be the best match, as he also got a late start, due to World War II service and actually reaching the majors as a third baseman before converting. Lemon’s postseason record is mixed, with one good World Series and one poor one. But frankly, it’s not readily apparent why Lemon’s in the Hall of Fame, except he was quite durable and reached 20 wins in seven seasons.

Charitably, I think we might allow that Newcombe might be in the Hall of Fame if we interpret all the "missing" information — what he would have done in a non-segregated Organized Baseball, what he would have done absent the draft — with more than average charity.

But blaming the Hall of Fame’s rules? Well, here you have to assume all of the above and that Newcombe, at 18 and 19, was good enough to win in the white majors.

Which you can do! Tack on a little extra credit for the difficulties Newcombe undoubtedly faced as one of the first black players, and it’s not all that difficult to suggest that he’s better than Bob Lemon, better than Dizzy Dean.

Is that enough, though? Alas, for me it’s not. As much as I might like to discover a worthy-but-neglected Hall of Fame candidate, Newcombe’s candidacy winds up collapsing under the weight of its many assumptions.