It was a simple question, one that I thought would have a simple answer. But when I asked former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger legend Don Newcombe the burning question prior to Friday evening’s game against the Phillies, Newk’s answer was not only very elaborate, it was also quite shocking.
Newcombe’s answer also turned what I thought would be a brief two minute interview into a wonderful ten minute conversation with the only player in National League history to win a Rookie of the Year title, a Most Valuable Player title and a Cy Young Award (the very first one, in fact). Newcombe’s incredible Triple Crown feat stood alone for more than half a century until finally matched by Justin Verlander in 2011.
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RC: Don, you were blessed to see many of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game. Where does Yasiel Puig fit in among the many great hitters that you saw during your great career and who, if anybody, does he remind you of?
DN: “You asked a question that has a twenty minute answer.”
RC: I definitely have the time if you do.
DN: “Let me tell you where I put him. Now remember, he’s younger and he hasn’t had the experience as these players I’m going to name that started up when they were his age. And I’m telling you where he can compare without any feeling of contradiction as far as I’m concerned. I can name you Willie Mays, I can name you Roberto Clemente, I can name you Mickey Mantle. I’m talking about great ball players.”
RC: Yes you are, and each a Hall of Famer.
DN: “Those three, and there’s more, but those three stand out in my mind just sitting here trying to find a quick answer to your question.
“He’s got some things he needs to learn because of his age and because of his inability to play at the same level these men did working their way up to his age limit.
“Like Willie Mays for instance. He was 17 years old when he played with the Birmingham Black Barons, a major league team as far as the Negro League was concerned. Roy Campanella scouted (Mays) when we were barnstorming in 1949 in Birmingham. We played as an All-Star team, ‘Jackie Robinson’s All-Stars’, me and Jackie and Roy and Larry Doby were the four stars and had players from other teams in the Negro Leagues that played with us against the Birmingham Black Barons, and Willie Mays played center field at 17 years old.
“Roy Campanella liked him so much that he got on the phone when the game was over and called Al Campanis in Brooklyn and told him to ‘get a scout down to Birmingham and look at this center fielder that they got down here, his name is Willie Mays.’ The Dodgers did that but the scout they sent was the wrong person because he didn’t have the same attitude racially as maybe somebody else would have had, and he scouted Willie Mays and went back with a report that he couldn’t hit curve balls and he’ll never be a big leaguer, and the Dodgers passed on him. A year later the Giants signed him and the rest is history with Willie Mays. He was 18 or 19 when he got with the Giants and went to Minneapolis and then to the big club.
“Roberto Clemente. He had an opportunity to play in Puerto Rico when he was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old and played with some of the greatest baseball players because they all played with his talent. He had the ability to play with them in the Puerto Rican Winter League as a kid, and he developed.
“Mickey Mantle had a great background. He had a father who was a baseball fanatic and had people who saw him developing at 15 and 16 years old.
“I don’t know what (Yasiel Puig) had because of Castro, I don’t know how much chance he had to play and nurture that ability that these other three players did.”
RC: When I spoke with (Dodger scout) Mike Brito a couple of weeks ago, he told me that he saw Yasiel play with the Cuban Junior National Team during a tournament in Canada when Yasiel was 16 years old.
DN: “I don’t know what level he played at but he has some things he needs to learn now. But he’ll learn because he is willing to learn and he has the ability to learn. When he learns he will be able to take it directly into his talent.”
RC: It almost seems as though he learns on every pitch that he sees.
DN: “They’re going to try him, which they did in San Diego last week and they found what he can and cannot hit and (what he) likes and doesn’t like. Last night, they tried it and he swung at two bad pitches and then the next one they got it up high and he was able to rip it.”
RC: To be able to pull that outside pitch with power was absolutely amazing to me.
DN: “That’s how he is willing to adapt and what he needs to learn, and he’s willing to do it. He listens all the time to Don Mattingly, he listens to the coaches. I think right now the language barrier is a big thing but he’s learning English, and when he learns English the way he wants to, and he’s going to, he’ll be great at both languages because he is very intelligent.”
RC: Are there any Dodgers that you’ve seen over your many years with the organization that he has any similarities to?
DN: “There wasn’t a Dodger that I recall with that type of ability (and) we had Dodgers with ability. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best baseball player and that wasn’t why he was selected to be the first black man to play baseball. He wasn’t the best player as far as baseball was concerned but he was the best man to do the job.
“As it turns out, we all knew what it was. His ability to do things and say things and take things and eat things and digest things that would normally make another person sick or maybe want to quit and go home. Jackie was never a quitter… never a quitter. And as a result we have what we’re talking about.
“I don’t remember one player who had that all around ability that (Puig) has. We’re talking about a five-talent player. Jackie didn’t have all of those but he had other abilities to make him a man and develop to play the game the way he had to play, and he played it… he did it.”