Many baseball fans remember Hall of Famer Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, or have seen highlights of the blast. Veteran Al Downing was the unfortunate victim of Aaron's memorable moment, and unfortunately, that was how Downing was remembered by generations of baseball fans. Downing deserved a better fate though--in his prime, he was a terrific strikeout artist. The fact that he was a lefthanded pitcher made him even more valuable. It was during this time that he became the first Yankee in history to accomplish an amazing but unusual feat.
Downing burst onto the baseball scene with the Yankees as they neared the end of their dynasty years. He pitched to a career-high 2.56 ERA, 2.42 FIP, and 138 ERA+ in '63, then led the league in strikeouts in '64 with 217, the last Yankee to do so as of 2012. As the team declined though, so did Downing. His strikeout rates dipped and his ERA+ fell to below league average. There was no reason for the Yankees to give up on him though since he was still young, they were struggling, and strikeout southpaws were elusive (as they always have been). Downing rewarded their faith with his first All-Star season in '67. He pitched with better control than he ever had before and he brought his K/9 back to at least '65 form (7.6 K/9). He finished the year eighth in ERA (2.63) and fourth in FIP (2.68). Downing's improvements were on display when he took on the Indians in an August matchup at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.
Through the morning of August 11th, Downing held opposing batters to a meager .217/.285/.288 with 124 strikeouts in 145.2 innings. The Yankees began the game with a rare lead, scoring runs in the first and second innings on a double by young right fielder Roy White to drive in Horace Clarke and a solo homer by third baseman Charley Smith. Downing knew he could no longer rely on his offense to provide him with much support as he could in his younger days, so he took the lead and ran with it
The first batter to face him in the second inning was first baseman Tony Horton, Cleveland's cleanup hitter. Horton came to Cleveland in June in a trade with the Red Sox for starter Gary Bell, and though he was coming to a more pitcher-friendly park, he turned his season around with a .281/.321/.421 stint with the Tribe. He did not strike out much, only whiffing 57 times in '67, but Downing put him away on three pitches. Left fielder Don Demeter, also acquired in the deal for Bell, followed Horton. The former Dodger and veteran fared no better than Horton. Downing struck him out on three pitches as well. The last batter to face him in the bottom of the second inning was catcher Duke Sims. Three strikes later, Downing became just the 14th pitcher in major league history to ever strike out the side on nine pitches, an "immaculate inning." Demeter exacted revenge on Downing by belting a pair of solo homers, but Downing held the lead and won the game 5-3 in a complete game effort. Regrettably, newspapers did not mention Downing's superb second inning.
The feat has now been achieved 46 times and future Yankees Ron Guidry (August 7, 1984) and A.J. Burnett (June 20, 2009) later did so as well in a Yankee uniform, but Downing was the first. He did so 45 years ago today.