Al Downing joined the Yankees at the height of their Mantle/Maris days and was with them when the team reached an all-time low in the mid to late 1960s. A fine strikeout artist in his glory days, Downing had issues with control, like many strikeout pitchers. Although he had a fine career, Downing’s claim to fame is surrendering the homerun Hank Aaron hit to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time homerun list.
Al got his first taste of the Majors in 1961 but didn’t stick until 1963. That year he showed Yankee brass his exceptional strikeout abilities by averaging 0.972 Ks per inning as a rookie. Terrific as a rookie, Al surrendered just 114 hits in 176 innings of work with a 13-5 record. He helped the Yankees reach the World Series but they were beat by the Dodgers.
The 1963 season was a small sample of what was to come. In 1964, the Yankees gave Al a larger workload and he responded by leading the American League in strikeouts. But his accuracy was none too sharp as he also led the junior circuit in walks. New York went to another World Series but again fell to the National League’s champs: the Cardinals of St. Louis. He finished fifth in the AL in strikeouts in 1965 but the Yankees fell in the standings to sixth place. Although his strikeout total fell to 152 in 1966, it was a team-leading total for the last place Yankees.
The Yankees finished one foot out of the cellar in 1967 but Al did his part by posting a 14-10, 2.63 record. The southpaw also missed his share of bats, averaging just 0.782 hits per inning of work–superior to Hall of Fame peers Steve Carlton (0.896) and Bob Gibson (0.863).
After missing most of the ’68 season to injury, Downing was back in 1969 as a spot-starter, bullpen long arm. But Al’s strikeout propensity had fallen so the Yankees dealt him to the Oakland A’s for Danny Cater after the season. Al split a disappointing 5-13 season with the A’s and Brewers in 1970 before his comeback campaign with the Dodgers in 1971.
With the Dodgers in ’71, Al tied for the National League lead in shutouts and came in third in Cy Young Award voting–his highest career finish. In his first year in the senior circuit, Downing notched his only 20-win season by going 20-9 for LA. Poor support dogged Al the following year as he finished with a .500 winning percentage despite a 2.98 ERA.
His last postseason action came in 1974 when he helped the Dodgers reach the World Series. He had a perfect 0.00 ERA in the NLCS against the Pirates, but couldn’t find the strike zone in his lone World Series start against the Oakland A’s. After the ’74 season, Al was used sparingly out of the bullpen and as a spot starter for the Dodgers the next three years.
W 123/L 107/PCT .535/ERA 3.22/G 405/CG 73/SHO 24/IP 2,268/H 1,946/BB 933/SO 1,639