Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #84 Al Downing

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Downing is most famous for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th homer, but long before then, he was one of the best pitchers on the last great Yankee teams of the early ‘60s

Name: Al Downing
Position: Starting pitcher (RHP)
Born: June 28, 1941 (Trenton, NJ)
Yankee Years: 1961-69
Primary number: 24
Yankee statistics: 72-57, 3.23 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 208 G, 175 GS, 1235.3 IP, 1028 K, 46 CG, 12 SHO, 96 ERA-, 91 FIP-, 15.5 rWAR, 18.1 fWAR

Biography

After a couple months away from the Yankees' top 100 players countdown (apologies), it seems fitting that it should return on Martin Luther King Day with the first African-American pitcher in Yankees history: Al Downing.

Quick rise to the majors

A sandlot legend in his hometown of Trenton, Downing graduated from Trenton Central High School in 1959 and spent a year at Rider University in Lawrenceville. There, he was discovered and signed by Yankees scout and former Negro Leaguer Bill Yancy. In his first Spring Training the next March though, Downing was forced to face upfront the ugliness of segregation in the south. In Trenton, he had never experience discrimination this bad before, but in Florida, he was forced to stay apart from his teammates, who were at a whites-only hotel. Thus, he, catcher Elston Howard, and other African-American Yankees had to stay across town with an African-American family. It was horrible treatment, and fortunately the Yankees relocated their Spring Training complex not long after to find a community that treated their African-American players equally.

Downing had an overpowering fastball that allowed him to dominate his minor league competition during his first taste of professional baseball with Class-A Binghamton in '61. The 20-year-old pitched to a minuscule 1.84 ERA in 12 starts there, and despite a 4.6 BB/9, the Yankees were so impressed that they called him up to the majors for his debut in the second game of a doubleheader on July 19, 1961.

Yet even with one of the greatest offenses in baseball history behind him, Downing bombed in his MLB debut. He absolutely could not find the plate and lasted just one inning despite only giving up one hit. He simply did not know enough about pitching to escape jams without just trying to throw harder. His inexperience was evident in that first game, as in the second inning, the Senators started the inning with a single, two walks, a hit by pitch, and another walk. All the baserunners came around to score and Downing was stuck with a 45.00 ERA after his first start. Downing pitched a little bit better in his other four games, but it was clear that he needed more work in the minors. Nonetheless, veteran Yogi Berra knew Downing had talent; after the game, he told reporters "Write something good about him. He's going to be around here a a long time."

Downing began his second professional season with Triple-A Richmond, and he spent all but one major league game there in '62. He had 180 strikeouts in 169 innings (9.6 K/9), but his 6.0 BB/9 and 16 wild pitches still demonstrated serious control problems, which were evident in his 4.10 ERA. The next season though, he figured out a way to reduce run-scoring despite his high walk rate, limiting Triple-A opposition with a 2.96 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 10 games. In search of an influx of young pitching talent, the '63 Yankees brought the 22-year-old lefty back up to the pros, where he was determined to prove that he finally belonged.

The end of the dynasty

Downing made one relief appearance on June 7th, then received an opportunity to start a game on June 10th in D.C. against the same Senators team that thrashed him in his '61 debut. Downing exacted revenge by pitching a two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts. He pitched to a 3.63 ERA during his first full month in pinstripes, then began July with a fantastic start in front of the hometown fans at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox. On July 2nd, walked six but struck out 10 and was seven outs from a no-hitter until Cam Carreon singled up the middle against him with two outs in the seventh. Downing ended with a one-hit shutout anyway.

The Yankees won 104 games and their fourth straight AL pennant in '63, and Downing turned in a helluva rookie season. He threw four shutouts, pitched to a brilliant 2.56 ERA (73 ERA-) and 2.42 FIP (68 FIP-), and struck out 171 batters in just 175 2/3 innings. His 4.7 fWAR was second among all AL rookie pitchers, behind only White Sox lefty Gary Peters. His batterymate Howard had an outstanding year as well, winning the AL MVP. Downing earned the nod in Game 2 of the World Series against the Dodgers, where he failed to stop the streaking Dodgers' momentum. Veteran Johnny Podres outdueled him and the Yankees lost, 4-1. The Dodgers finished off the sweep a few days later.

If baseball writers were unaware of Downing in '63, they knew who he was by the end of '64. It was a tumultuous season under new manager Berra, but the Yankees rallied to win 99 games and their record-tying fifth straight AL pennant. Although Downing's wildness was obvious with a league-leading 120 walks, he stood out with an AL-best 217 strikeouts, the most by any Yankee in 60 years and the first to league the league since Allie Reynolds did with 160 in '52. Twice, he struck out 13 batters in one game. Although the Yankees did survive the pennant race, they were taken down by Bob Gibson's Cardinals in the World Series.

Unbeknownst to the Yankees and Downing, '64 would be the team's last season of excellence for quite awhile. Although Downing continued his yeoman's work with four consecutive seasons of at least 200 innings with a combined 3.27 ERA and 719 strikeouts, the offense behind him just wasn't any good. As a result, his win/loss records were unimpressive and Downing became a bit of a forgotten man. The man known as "Ace" to his teammates did earn an All-Star appearance for his 2.63 ERA, career-high 4.6 rWAR season, but they were dark days for the Yankees.

In '68, Downing literally had an up-and-down season, as he got off to such a rocky start that his arm got hurt and he even spent a few games in the minors until his return in early August. The years of hard throwing took its toll on Downing, who spent the first half of '69 in the bullpen before coming back to the rotation in August. He was better, as he reduced the stress on his arm by cutting back on the fastballs and becoming more of a finesse pitcher with his changeup. Nonetheless, the Yankees were worried about his health, and they decided to trade him and Frank Fernandez to the Oakland Athletics that December for Danny Cater and Ossie Chavarria. Although Cater eventually turned into ace reliever Sparky Lyle via a trade with the Red Sox, the Yankees likely regretted parting with Downing so soon, as his days of excellence were not over.

Post-Yankee days

Downing split the '70 season with the A's and Brewers; he pitched decently despite the trade with a 96 ERA- and 3.52 ERA. In February before the '71 season, Downing was dealt for the third time in 14 months, this time to the Dodgers, the team that swept his Yankees back in his rookie season. Out of nowhere, Downing was brilliant in '71, pitching a career-high 262 2/3 innings with five shutouts, a 2.68 ERA, and an 81 ERA-. He finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting and tenth in the NL MVP voting. He stayed strong the next two seasons with above-average years, and even reached his third World Series when the Dodgers won the '74 NL pennant. (That was of course the season when he also gave up Aaron's record homer.)

After gradually declining the next three seasons, Downing retired from baseball following the '77 season and worked as a radio broadcaster for the Dodgers for several years. Downing remains the last Yankee to lead the league in strikeouts.

Andrew's rank: 74
Tanya's rank: 98
Community rank: 74.5
rWAR rank: 82

Season Stats

Year

Age

Tm

W

L

ERA

FIP

G

GS

CG

SHO

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

IBB

SO

HBP

BK

WP

ERA-

FIP-

rWAR

fWAR

1961

20

NYY

0

1

8.00

4.24

5

1

0

0

9.0

7

8

8

0

12

0

12

1

1

1

211

110

-0.2

0.0

1962

21

NYY

0

0

0.00

0.62

1

0

0

0

1.0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

14

0.0

0.0

1963

22

NYY

13

5

2.56

2.42

24

22

10

4

175.2

114

52

50

7

80

1

171

0

1

5

73

68

3.8

4.7

1964

23

NYY

13

8

3.47

3.26

37

35

11

1

244.0

201

104

94

18

120

5

217

0

3

14

98

88

2.4

3.9

1965

24

NYY

12

14

3.4

3.32

35

32

8

2

212.0

185

92

80

16

105

2

179

2

1

5

100

95

2.2

2.8

1966

25

NYY

10

11

3.56

3.73

30

30

1

0

200.0

178

90

79

23

79

3

152

1

0

4

105

107

1.4

1.8

1967

26

NYY

14

10

2.63

2.68

31

28

10

4

201.2

158

65

59

13

61

1

171

6

0

5

84

82

4.6

3.7

1968

27

NYY

3

3

3.52

3.59

15

12

1

0

61.1

54

24

24

7

20

2

40

1

1

1

124

121

0.4

0.0

1969

28

NYY

7

5

3.38

3.53

30

15

5

1

130.2

117

57

49

12

49

6

85

0

0

5

97

97

0.9

0.9

NYY (9 yrs)

72

57

3.23

3.18

208

175

46

12

1235.1

1014

492

443

96

526

20

1028

11

7

40

96

91

15.5

18.1

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

The Baseball Page

BR Bullpen

Spencer, Lyle. "Fifty years later, Downing recalls '63 season fondly." MLB.com. June 17, 2013.

Other Top 100 Yankees

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