Name: Alphonso Erwin “Al” Downing
Position: Starting pitcher
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, 1,235.1 IP, 1,028 K, 46 CG, 12 SHO, 96 ERA-, 91 FIP-, 15.4 rWAR, 19.4 fWAR
Long before the days of CC Sabathia dominating on the mound at Yankee Stadium, another Black Ace pitched in the Bronx and paved the way for stars to follow. It took far too long for the Yankees to integrate their pitching staff, let alone the rest of the team. Al Downing became the first Black pitcher in Yankees history when he took the mound on July 19, 1961, the beginning of a 17-year career in The Show. His name is now mostly associated with Henry Aaron’s record-breaking 715th homer, but he broke out as an All-Star southpaw in New York and one of the last great players of their mid-century farm system.
Born Alphonso Erwin Downing in the summer of 1941, the future pitcher was one of eight children at the Downing household in Trenton. Downing needed the extra support growing up though, as his mother tragically passed away in a car accident when he was seven.
Like many kids would do in such a hard situation, Downing sought a distraction and found one in sports. He joined a Police Athletic League youth baseball program in fifth grade and quickly became a standout player, both on the mound and at first base. Downing was a sandlot legend and dominated his competition with a curve and changeup in tow, even tossing a 1-0 shutout for his Babe Ruth League team in a national championship game.
Downing met scout and former Negro Leagues player Bill Yancey at an All-Star Game in Jersey City, and the two struck up a connection that would pay dividends.
After graduating from Trenton Central High School, the multi-sport star Downing went to Muhlenberg College on a basketball scholarship. He had some academic struggles that put it in jeopardy though and didn’t have the financial flexibility to stay in Allentown over the summer, but as Downing recounted in a 2020 article for Yankees Magazine, Yancey offered some advice:
“Yancey told me not to go back to Muhlenberg,” Downing says. “He told me to enroll at Trenton Junior College because something was coming up. That same year, the Yankees fired (general manager) George Weiss and (manager) Casey Stengel. The Yankees hired Roy Hamey, who was the Phillies’ general manager and Yancey’s mentor. When Hamey offered Yancey a job with the Yankees, Yancey told him, ‘I’ll come there under one condition: that I can sign that kid Downing from Trenton.’”
The tip changed Downing’s life. He signed with the Yankees at age 19 and in 1961, he embarked on his professional journey.
At his first spring training the following March, 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 non-white Yankees had to stay across town with a Black family. It was horrible treatment, and fortunately the Yankees relocated their spring training complex not long after to find a community that treated their Black 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, shortly after the All-Star break.
Yet even with one of the greatest offenses in baseball history behind him on a team that went on to win the World Series, 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.”
The southpaw began his second professional season with Triple-A Richmond, and he spent all but one major league game there in ‘62. Downing 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.
Over the 1962-63 offseason, Downing was called by the Army Reserves to train in Columbia, SC, and he later credited the intense daily schedule for building up his endurance on the mound. And in ‘63, 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.
A light at 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 American League 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. Only two rookie starters since 1938 have ever surpassed his .184 batting average against that year: José Fernández and Hideo Nomo. 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. LA 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 consecutive 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. It took 58 years for Yankees pitcher to lead the league in K’s, as Gerrit Cole turned the trick with a franchise-record 257 in 2022.
Although the Yankees narrowly survived the pennant race, they were taken down by Bob Gibson’s Cardinals in the World Series. It was a Fall Classic to forget for Downing, who gave up a series-changing grand slam to Ken Boyer in his doomed Game 4 start and failed to record an out of relief in the Game 7 loss to Gibson.
Unbeknownst to the Yankees and Downing, 1964 would be the team’s last season of excellence for quite awhile. Although Downing continued his yeoman’s work with four seasons in a row 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 4.5 rWAR season (during which he also tossed MLB’s first immaculate inning in three years).
Regrettably, these were dark days for the Yankees, who in ‘67 suffered their first 90-loss campaign since the Deadball Era, their third consecutive thoroughly uncompetitive season. Bright spots like Downing and rotationmate Mel Stottlemyre were few and far between.
In 1968, 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.
The Yankees were still worried about his health, so 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.
Downing split the 1970 campaign 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 innings with five shutouts, a 2.68 ERA, and an 81 ERA-. At 20-9, he joined the prestigious “Black Aces” group made popular by Minnesota’s Mudcat Grant; Downing is of just 15 Black pitchers in MLB history to record 20 wins. He finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting, 10th in the NL MVP voting, and was named NL Comeback Player of the Year by The Sporting News.
Downing stayed strong the next two seasons, and even reached his third World Series when the Dodgers won the 1974 NL pennant (they ultimately lost to Downing’s old teammate in Oakland, who completed a three-peat). The ‘74 campaign was, of course, the year when he also gave up Aaron’s record homer. It happened on April 8th in Atlanta, and it’d be a disservice to let anyone other than Vin Scully take it from here:
It was an incredible moment in the history of the sport, and Downing always took his involvement in stride:
“[Aaron] said, ‘I know we didn’t get a chance to talk last night because it was so hectic here on the field.’ He had told the bat boy to come over to our clubhouse and get me, and we met behind the cage on the field as he was getting ready to take batting practice. He told me: ‘Don’t keep your head down. Don’t feel sorry.’ I said: ‘Mr. Aaron, I don’t have my head down. It’s a pleasure to play in the big leagues against you.’”
And Aaron always acknowledged that he hit No. 715 off a terrific player, as Downing recounted in 2021:
“At the reunion we had in ’84, we were sitting at the table at lunch and there were a bunch of writers there, and they were asking us questions. One writer decides he’s going to fire a couple digs at me. So he says, ‘Hey, Al, Henry really wore you out, didn’t he?’ So Hank says: ‘Wait a minute. No, no, no. Al was a darn good pitcher. He was not a guy you took lightly when you went up there. You knew he was going to battle you. He was a great adversary.’
The guy shut up real, real quick.
After gradually declining the next three seasons and shifting to more of a relief role, Downing retired from baseball following the ‘77 season. He ended his 17-year career with a 123-107 record, 1,639 strikeouts, a 3.22 ERA, a 3.37 FIP, and 28.5 fWAR.
In retirement, Downing worked for the Dodgers in a number of different roles, from alumni programs to the broadcast booth, but he also maintained his Yankees connections as a frequent guest for Old-Timers’ Day.
In September 2023, Downing was honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum when the institution formally recognized five pitchers from the Black Aces in its “Hall of Game.” Downing was joined by Dwight Gooden, Mike Norris, and Dontrelle Willis, and the late Vida Blue. Grant, Dave Stewart, Ferguson Jenkins, and J.R. Richard had already been recognized, and both Sabathia and David Price will join them at a later time.
It’s a shame that the Yankees weren’t a better team when Downing was his best. But what he did on the mound remains quite special, especially considering the influence of his legacy as a Black Ace. Downing is a deserving Top 100 Yankee, and we’re happy to report that he’s still with us at age 82. Come back to the Bronx sometime soon, Al!
Staff rank: 77
Community rank: 95
Stats rank: 77
2013 rank: 84
This biography has been repurposed from an original version that ran in 2014.
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
The Baseball Page [defunct website accessed in 2014]
Phillips, Gary. “He Allowed Hank Aaron’s 715th Homer and Wouldn’t Change a Thing,” New York Times, January 23, 2021.
Santasiere III, Alfred. “Yankees Magazine: Trenton Made.” MLB.com. February 28, 2020.
Spencer, Lyle. “Fifty years later, Downing recalls ‘63 season fondly.” MLB.com. June 17, 2013.