Baseball Remembers: Al Downing
Let’s stop for a minute just to recall the career of a player who isn’t talked about very often anymore. I don’t mean someone who is mentioned as a Hall of Fame snub, or has a memorable highlight that is replayed a lot. I’m just talking about a player who had a solid but unspectacular career that deserves to be remembered.
Today, let’s talk a bit about Al Downing.
If he’s mentioned at all these days, it’s for this moment:
It’s always nice to be part of history, I guess, but being remembered solely for surrendering a record-breaking homer to a living legend is pretty unfair to Downing. He was better than that, and had a different historic accomplishment worth remembering.
Born and raised in Trenton, NJ, Downing was signed by the Yankees as a free agent in 1961, and found himself on the Yankees’ roster just a few months later. When he started the second game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators on July 19 of that year, just three weeks after his 20th birthday, he became the first Black pitcher to appear for the Yankees. It wasn’t a great debut - after a solid first inning, he was blasted for five earned runs in the second - but when your first pitch in the big leagues makes history, you’re doing pretty well.
Downing had a lot of trouble with his command, so he only made a total of six appearances for the Yankees in his first two seasons, but by 1963 he was an important part of their rotation. He won 13 games for the pennant winners, led the league in strikeouts per nine innings, and started Game 2 of the World Series that fall.
He remained a solid pitcher for several more years, leading the league in strikeouts (and walks) in 1964, playing in another World Series, and making the 1967 All-Star team, where he pitched two scoreless innings against the likes of Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Ernie Banks. The Yankees weren’t very good for most of those years, but for five seasons Downing posted an average record of 12-10, 207 innings, 178 strikeouts, a 3.15 ERA, and 2.9 WAR.
Then he got hurt, and the fastball that had brought him to the major leagues so quickly would never be the same. Limited to just 12 starts in 1968, and pulled from the rotation the following year, the Yankees decided to trade him to Oakland before the 1970 season.
Downing struggled to find a new pitching style with his diminished fastball, and couldn’t find his footing with the A’s, appearing in just 10 games in the season’s first two months before be dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers. There he held down a regular rotation spot, and pitched effectively, posting a 3.34 ERA in 16 starts, the best mark on the team. But the Brewers weren’t a good club (they’d ultimately lose 97 games), and gave Downing virtually no support, leading to a record of just 2-10. That offseason, the Brewers traded him to the Dodgers in exchange for Andy Kosco.
The change was instantly wonderful for Downing, and he posted the finest season of his career. He won 20 games for the only time, and led the National League with 5 shutouts. He finished third in the voting for the Cy Young Award, and 10th in the MVP voting, while winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
He couldn’t quite keep up that performance level, but he was still a solid part of the Dodgers’ rotation for another three years, culminating in their 1974 pennant and Downing’s third and final appearance in the World Series. And yes, giving up that famous home run to Henry Aaron.
Overall, when Al Downing was healthy, he was a slightly above average major league starter. He won 123 games, posted a 3.22 career ERA, made an All-Star team, played in three World Series, and was a well-respected member of several excellent ball clubs. When his play ing career ended, he became a broadcaster, mostly with the Dodgers, and remained active in their speaker’s bureau.
Though Downing is always gracious when he’s asked about the famous home run he surrendered, especially when Henry Aaron passed away a couple of years ago, he shouldn’t be remembered for just that one pitch. Al Downing blazed his own trail.
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