Most baseball fans remember Al Downing as the answer to the trivia question, “Who surrendered Henry Aaron’s 715th home run?” What Downing is lesser known for is that he was a very good pitcher for the Yankees in the 1960s and due to a combination of factors, saw some stellar performances fly under the radar. Yet despite the historical link to Aaron, perhaps his most important connection to baseball history is that he was the first African-American pitcher for baseball’s most storied franchise. Furthermore, that connection is more than just a trivial note in baseball history, as it’s still a relevant issue in the game some six decades later.
Downing made his MLB debut a week and a half after his 20th birthday in July of 1961, but he would only pitch a combined 10 innings with the Yankees over the ‘61 and ‘62 seasons. Then on June 7, 1963, the lefty was put in to pitch in mop-up duty with the Yankees trailing 8-2 in the eighth inning, and he responded with a scoreless inning. Three days later in Washington, he was given the start against the Senators and responded in an even bigger fashion, throwing a complete game, nine-strikeout, three-hit shutout.
After a pedestrian (for them) 27-21 start, the Yankees went on a tear over the season’s last three-plus months in 1963, finishing 104-57 and winning the AL by 10.5 games – and their rookie pitcher was a key part of the success. Despite missing the first third of the season, Downing finished ‘63 with the fifth-highest WAR total on the team, finishing only 0.5 pitching WAR behind Whitey Ford. Among 38 AL pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 1963, Downing led the league in FIP, K%, K/9, H/9, and opponents’ OPS+ as a 22-year-old rookie.
From that great 1963 introduction through 1967, Downing would continue to be one of the better pitchers in the AL. Over that five-season stretch, he led the AL in strikeout percentage and was fourth among AL pitchers in both FIP and opponents’ OPS+ while averaging 29 starts per season. Perhaps most remarkably, despite pitching in front of arguably the worst fielders in the league — the Yankees finished either last or second-to-last in defensive efficiency each year from 1965-67 — Downing still posted an ERA+ that was better than league average over that span.
Elbow pain that began in 1967 limited Downing to only 12 starts the following campaign, and despite a modest resurgence in 1969, the Yankees dealt him to Oakland that December. After his stint in Oakland, he was moved to Milwaukee and then to the Dodgers, where his resurgence came full circle when he finished third in the Cy Young voting and 10th in the MVP voting in 1971 for Los Angeles.
It’s safe to say that Downing’s career may be underappreciated by Yankees fans. This is mostly due to being teammates with multiple Yankees legends early in his career, then being a very good pitcher later on for Yankee teams that nobody wanted to watch. It’s always fun to look back at careers such as his (especially now that there’s snow on the ground), which may not receive the recognition they deserve, but in Downing’s case, it also shines a light on an elephant in the room.
After baseball integrated in 1947, the sport’s most prominent franchise didn’t have an African-American pitcher until 1961 (after being notoriously late to the integration party by adding Elston Howard eight years after integration). The reason the reticence to put an African-American on the pitchers’ mound some six decades ago is relevant now, is because it’s still an issue today.
African-Americans made up 7.6 percent of all MLB players on Opening Day in 2021, and yet only three percent of pitchers are African-American. (For some perspective, just over 20 percent of MLB outfielders are African-American.) Furthermore, the percentage of African-American pitchers has remained more or less steady this century but is actually lower than it was in 1967. This fact remains despite pitchers making up a larger portion of rosters than ever before; so there are actually more openings for MLB pitchers than ever before.
The causes of this situation and the solutions for it are both multifactorial and far too expansive to cover in the time we have today (and frankly, it’s likely that I lack the qualifications to do so anyway). That said, it would be very hard to argue that there is not a perception issue borne from prejudicial thinking that is contributing to the lack of African-American pitchers on the big league level.
More awareness of the situation certainly won’t hurt, and hopefully, remembering Al Downing and the great stretch he had in pinstripes will help.
*Thanks to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and their 2021 Racial and Gender report card, as well as the Society for American Baseball research for the numbers included above.