LOS ANGELES -- The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is steeped in history, and few people alive understand that history better than Don Newcombe. Because Newcombe lived it. Newcombe's a special advisor to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, but true baseball fans know him better as the imposing right-hander who compiled a 149-90 record from 1949-60, mostly with Brooklyn before the franchise moved to Los Angeles. Hours before Los Angeles' home opener Monday, Newcombe recalled the matchless days of the late 1940s and 1950s when the Giants-Dodgers rivalry deepened. Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, integrating baseball, and Willie Mays became a Giant in 1951, forcing everyone to raise his game.
But nobody, said Newcombe, could reach Mays' level. "Over the years, when I'm asked who's the greatest baseball player I've ever seen, I say without hesitation, Willie Mays," said Newcombe, 82. "The man could do everything not only well, but extra well. He was great with a capital 'G.'" Asked how he pitched to Mays, Newcombe replied, "Very carefully." Mays, he said, was categorized as a "Bible hitter," in the parlance of the era. "That's what we called him from the dugout," Newcombe said. "He wouldn't let anything go by that was in the strike zone. 'Thou shalt not pass.'" Newcombe said that the Dodgers often tried to neutralize Mays' skill by throwing at him. Of course, that was the case with a lot of batter-pitcher confrontations when the teams met. "We had a very real rivalry -- on the field," Newcombe said, noting that throwing knockdown pitches was common. But, he added, "nobody ever charged the mound. The umpires never warned you. That's the way it was at that time in baseball." Off the field, relatively few blacks populated Major League rosters. So after those fierce Giants-Dodgers games, Newcombe and other African-American players, such as Robinson, Mays, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson and Roy Campanella, would congregate.
"We had a lot of fun," Newcombe said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.