Newcombe enhances Young's appreciation for Jackie

Updated: April 11, 2007, 12:35 PM ET
By Jeff Bradley | ESPN The Magazine

There he was, in the back of a bus, traveling the highways of the southern United States, a ballplayer who was learning about the deepest roots of racism in this country.

Now, who in their right mind believes they just read the beginning of a story about a young white man who grew up in the affluent Dallas suburb of Highland Park, Texas?

Didn't think so.

Chris Young
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesChris Young met Don Newcombe last season, his best in the majors so far (11-5, 3.46 ERA).
But this is the story of San Diego Padres right-hander Chris Young, who in the summer of 2002 sat all alone in the back of the Class A Hickory Crawdads bus, as it drove from one South Atlantic League town to the next, writing his senior thesis -- the mega-paper every student must turn in order to earn a Princeton degree -- which was entitled, to the best of Young's memory, "The Impact of Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball on Racial Stereotypes in America: A Quantitative Content Analysis of Stories about Race in the New York Times."

"I could've put more effort into the paper, and I regret that," Young said one day this spring, sitting on a grassy hill down the left field line at the Padres' spring training park in Peoria, Ariz. "I left Princeton in March to begin my baseball season, and all that was left was for me to finish the thesis.

"Without the resources of the Princeton library, I was a bit limited in how deep I could take my thesis. I'd write it on the bus or in my apartment in Hickory and e-mail it to my girlfriend Liz, who is now my wife. She had to get it bound and delivered to my professor in time. It could have been a lot better.

"Still, it was a fascinating study to me."

Using the New York Times, which during the '40s was the only paper regarded as national in its scope, Young analyzed non-sports stories with his eye on how issues pertaining to race in the U.S. were covered. His analysis opened three months before Robinson's 1947 debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and closed three months after.

"Back then, there weren't public opinion polls, so the best way to measure overall attitudes was to analyze the media," Young said. "Jackie Robinson was a variable, and I was analyzing racial stereotypes within the content of the New York Times.

"I observed there was significant improvement in the attitude of the media toward African-Americans. Not from negative to positive, so much, as negative to neutral," Young said. "I excluded sports, but prior to Robinson breaking the color line, you'd see reporters frequently using expressions like 'a Negro hoodlum' in their stories. I noticed coverage that was much more neutral after the integration of baseball. So, to that end, I really think I have a better grasp on just how big Jackie Robinson's impact was on this country. After writing the paper, I really just wanted to learn more about him."

A politics major, Young was All-Ivy League in both baseball and basketball at Princeton (he was offered a two-year guaranteed contract by the Sacramento Kings before the 2005 baseball season, three full years after he'd stopped playing hoops at Princeton). Young seized an opportunity to learn more about Robinson last summer when he saw former Brooklyn Dodgers great Don Newcombe at a game at Petco Park.

"I asked Dave Roberts if he could introduce me, so he did," Young recalls. "Mr. Newcombe started asking me pitching questions. I was pretty overwhelmed at first, so I didn't even tell him about my thesis.

"There's irony because I'm a white from Texas, sure, but my appreciation for Jackie Robinson and other African-American players from that generation is for what they went through as human beings. I would like to think that my interest shows the impact of what they did."
-- Chris Young

"But when we went to L.A., I finally said, 'Mr. Newcombe, I have great interest in your career. I wrote my senior thesis about Jackie Robinson.' That's all I had to say. Mr. Newcombe told me that Jackie Robinson was his personal role model and said he'd love to share his stories with me. The next time we went to L.A., we went to lunch. All I can say is that I had great appreciation for what the first African-Americans in the major leagues went through in the '40s and '50s, but talking to him gave me newfound respect. When you read something on paper, it's one thing, but to hear him tell stories was incredible.

"We spent three hours at lunch. I was all ears," Young said. "I learned that even Don Newcombe, who was a teammate and friend of Jackie's, was in awe of the man's presence. He told me one story of Jackie coming to the mound and telling him he'd kick his butt after the game if he didn't start competing. He said Jackie lit a fire in him."

While there have been a number of players through the years -- guys like Mo Vaughn and Butch Huskey come to mind -- who've made it a point to study and honor Jackie Robinson, the irony of a well-to-do white kid wanting to learn more about the man who broke baseball's color line is not lost on Young.

"I would like to think that's the legacy and the effect that those players would want to have," Young said. "They just wanted to be treated as equals. There's irony because I'm a white from Texas, sure, but my appreciation for Jackie Robinson and other African-American players from that generation is for what they went through as human beings. I would like to think that my interest shows the impact of what they did."

To this day, Young still thinks back to those nights on the Crawdads' bus -- as most of his teammates were sound asleep, watching videos, listening to music or playing handheld games -- and he was tapping away on a laptop.

"I'd look around and see how many of my teammates were either African-American or Latino," Young says, "and think how horrible it must have been for those guys when they were closed out. I can't imagine."

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.