Could Dodgers legend Don Newcombe be onto something about arm injuries?

Rarely does a day go by where you don’t hear or read something about a baseball-related arm injury, usually in the form of guys requiring some type of season-ending surgery. Also rarely does a day go by where you don’t hear or read about some type of specialist – be it an orthopedic specialist or even a team trainer or some other so-called expert on the subject – come up with a reason for the drastic increase in arm injuries that are plaguing every baseball team these days. But with all of the high tech research and studies being done trying to find the cause and, more importantly, a way to prevent serious arm injuries, could it be that all of these experts are overthinking this when the answer may be right in front of them?

Allow me to elaborate.

As luck would have it – and we’re talking some serious luck here – I happened to run into the great Don Newcombe at Camelback Ranch this past week and had a chance to chat with him one-on-one. This wasn’t an interview nor was I looking for a story from the 89-year-old former NL Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and the recipient of the first-ever Cy Young award. I just wanted to share a moment with one of the greatest Dodgers of all time.

After exchanging pleasantries with Don, I commented that he looked pretty darn good throwing out the ceremonial first pitch the night before. As you might expect, the extremely humble gentle giant shrugged off the compliment. I then said something that absolutely opened the flood gates with Newk. It was actually meant in jest but Newcombe’s response was anything but. I said to him that with all of the injuries to Dodgers pitchers lately, I hope he didn’t hurt his arm on that ceremonial first pitch.

“I have never, not even one time, had an arm injury.” Newcombe said adamantly. “Not with my shoulder, not with my elbow, nothing. And you know why? Because I ran a lot. I was a runner.”

Even at 89 years old, Dodgers great Don Newcombe still has great form. (Photo credit - Jon SooHoo)

Even at 89 years old, Dodgers great Don Newcombe still has great form.
(Photo credit – Jon SooHoo)

To say that I was now fully captivated would be an understatement – as if I hadn’t been already. My mind immediately flashed back to my high school days when I was a sprinter on the track team. I remembered the strength that I had built up in my arms from running a lot and envisioned the constant pumping motion of my arms and immediately understood what Newk was getting at. I told him that I never really put that connection together about how it relates to baseball. Don then shared with me a story about when he was a rookie in the Negro Leagues in 1945.

“I’ll never forget my first day with the Newark Eagles of the old Negro Leagues,” Newcombe said. “I was just a kid, only 17 years old, and when we got there our manager told us that we weren’t going to be throwing any baseballs for a while, we were going to run, and we ran a lot.

“I loved to run. I would show up two hours early every single day before anybody else got there and I would run,” continued Newcombe. “And when the rest of the team showed up I’d run some more with them until it was time to change into our uniforms and play. I even ran on the days that I pitched. It didn’t matter, I just loved to run and I believe that’s why I never had any arm injuries.”

Could this be it? Could Don Newcombe’s extremely simple yet very logical system be the magic bullet to reducing the number of shoulder and elbow injuries suffered by so many of today’s pitchers?

Perhaps all of those orthopedic specialists or trainers or other experts could learn a thing or two about arm injuries from a guy who never had any.

 

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14 Responses to “Could Dodgers legend Don Newcombe be onto something about arm injuries?”

  1. chili says:

    Very insightful article.

    I definitely understand what he is implying and that could very well be the answer but the kids of today do not spend the many hours outside running and playing that the kids of generations before did…..and many of the greats from days gone by like Drysdale, Gibson, Jenkins, Seaver, Ryan and others pitched at a high level for years without major injuries. Today’s athletes are into ‘gym’ and controlled workouts. What are the odds of any of them doing the daily cross country route and in all practicality starting that at 19, or early 20’s is probably too late anyway.

    • Respect the Rivalry says:

      While I think Mr. Newcombe’s idea makes a lot of sense, as do other thoughts posted here, there is one other factor to consider.
      Before 1961 there were only 16 MLB teams. Rotations were 3 or 4 man. Starters threw many more complete games, therefore fewer relievers. The result is fewer pitchers needed.
      Of course, the talent base has grown too, but not near as much as the need for pitchers.
      Pitchers who never make it to MLB because of arm injuries are not remembered. Few remember those who make it but don’t last.
      This all makes for a very muddled picture to compare to today’s situation.

      • chili says:

        RtR,

        Unless I’m missing something, you are supporting the premise that the pitchers of the past had greater workloads and not as many arm issues.

        Not sure how that muddies the picture as the question is why are there more injuries/surgeries today as compared to 30-40 years ago (mid 60’s/70’s)?

        Here’s some interesting fodder.

        Looking at Kershaw’s numbers as I would say he is the best pitcher of this generation….has been for the past 5 years and will be for the next 5+ and is regarded as a work horse. The MOST INNINGS HE HAS PITCHED IN A REGULAR SEASON IS 236.

        Don Drysdale exceeded that number 10 times. (4 times over 300 IP)
        Bob Gibson exceeded that number 10 times. (2 times over 300 IP)
        Juan Marichal………………… 9 times. (3 times over 300 IP)
        Fergie Jenkins………………..11 times. (5 times over 300 IP)
        Tom Seaver……………………12 times. (0 times over 300 IP)
        Nolan Ryan…………………… 7 times. (2 times over 300 IP)
        Roger Clemons………………… 8 times. (0 times over 300 IP)
        Randy Johnson………………… 7 times. (0 times over 300 IP)

  2. scorpion says:

    Great article.
    When i was playing in HS (60’s) we ran more than anything else. We ran sprints, we ran the stairs, we ran the fields, some practices we did nothing else but run. When i read or listened to interviews with pitchers they also talked about running it was something pitchers just did. I think this applies not only to arm injuries but to hamstrings and core muscles as well.

    • chili says:

      But you ran ‘a lot’ when you were 8,10, 13, etc. while your body was maturing and developing. That I believe is what Newcombe is touching on. The coaches back in the day and even now in the high school and college programs have their pitchers running but the primary reason is to develop their base (legs). The thought is that with a strong base it will relieve the stress in the arm and shoulder and also increase stamina allowing pitchers to pitch deeper in games without getting tired.

      I’m thinking that the two ‘thoughts’ are now working against one another.

      With kids NOT running and playing outside every day throughout summer they are not developing their shoulder socket while growing and maturing. Then they get in programs (at the age of 18+) that have them running a lot so they can go deeper in games but their shoulder socket and elbows cannot handle the stress and that is the reason for TJ surgeries happening on a frequent basis.

      Whereas it use to be a fluke (in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s) when a kid had career ending injuries, it is now a fluke when a pitcher doesn’t need surgery.

  3. Dan in Pasadena says:

    I’d LOVE to hear that Newk’s simple explanation is THE right answer. It’s undeniable that children before say the mid 60’s 70’s played outside more than children after that. Running, jumping, and what used to be called “horse play” were daily activities. It seems to be simple to extrapolate that children of those times were likely stronger, more agile than later children. I hope someone does a serious study if this simple idea.

  4. SoCalBum says:

    Interesting, but I think arm injuries are much more complex starting with young pitchers and their coaches emphasis on pitch velocity, throwing curves at an early age, playing baseball year round, high school and college coaches not monitoring pitch counts, lowering the pitching mound, etc. Newcombe injuries according to “The Last Good Season:” pg. 175 – “Newcombe was complaining of a sore shoulder;” pg. 182 and 183 “Don Newcombe was nursing a sore shoulder and had not pitched since June 21, or won since the 11th.” Pg311 – “In Japan, Newcombe began telling about an injury he had suffered during the pennant clincher against the Pirates. He felt a twinge his arm, he said, and afterward could not throw a curveball. This choke-up and gutless talk is nonsense, he said, I tried to win a game for them with a bad arm.” Campanella confirmed the story. Interesting.

    • chili says:

      SCB,

      Good points cause ‘back in the day’ kids (athletes) played all the major sports and only played them when they were in season. Giving specific muscle groups used in each sport rest but with the one commonality being that they all included running.

      And to your point, organized sports took off in the 70’s and as everything else has been abused.

      Definitely agree with pitch counts not being monitored but in many of the leagues today, pitch counts are being monitored and my gut feeling is that we will continue to see an increase in TJ surgeries. Therefore I surmise to say that the difference lies somewhere in what kids growing up in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s did in comparison to what kids are doing (or not doing) today.

  5. CruzinBlue says:

    Ron, I’m not around the team like you are, but I remember, back in the day, that most all pitchers would be runners. Has that aspect of physical conditioning with the pitching staff been removed from the game?

    I remember hearing stories about the starting pitchers getting in miles of running several times a week, and between starts. I remember that some of the pitchers would run the perimeter roadway in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium. I also remember that, before the games, most guys used to run laps around the warning track of the field, no matter where they were playing. Did they lost track of that?

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      They still run, but nothing like Newk described – usually only wind sprints.

      Like Chili noted, most guys today are into gym and controlled workouts under a trainer’s eye.

      • Snider Fan says:

        And I’ll bet most of those trainers have never pitched. Could that be part of the problem? Have they read Nolan Ryan’s book?

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