- June 28, 1941
- 5' 11"
- 175 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 7-19-1961 with NYA
Written by: Bob Cohen
Blessed with an overpowering fastball and tremendous natural ability, Al Downing was dubbed the "Black Sandy Koufax" by many baseball scouts early in his career. The left-handed hurler's extraordinary talent enabled him to become the first African-American starting pitcher in the history of the New York Yankees, only months after he first signed with the team as a 19-year-old amateur free agent. Ironically, Downing's exceptional physical skill also prevented him from developing into a complete pitcher until much later in his career.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey on June 28, 1941, Alphonso Erwin Downing developed a fondness for baseball playing on the local sandlots. After graduating from Trenton's Central High School, Downing attended Rider University, for whom he starred as a pitcher until being signed for the Yankees in 1960 by former Negro Leaguer Bill Yancy. Although only 19 at the time, Downing possessed the sort of talent that convinced Yancy he had the ability to eventually become the first black starting pitcher in club history. First, though, the young lefthander had to mature, both as a pitcher and as a man.
Having spent his entire youth in Trenton, Downing never before witnessed the kind of racial segregation that still existed in the South. However, he experienced it first-hand as soon as he arrived at New York's minor-league center at Bartow, Florida. Upon learning he wasn't welcome to stay in the same hotel as his white teammates, Downing joined a few other dark-skinned players in traveling crosstown to stay in the home of a local black family.
Another lesson Downing had to learn involved his performance on the playing field. Pitching for the first time with New York's minor-league affiliate in Double A Binghamton, Downing fared extremely well. Despite displaying a lack of control on the mound at times, the lefthander simply overpowered his weaker opposition, averaging about one strikeout per inning. Downing's blazing fastball enabled him to compile a 9-1 record by mid-July, earning him a quick call-up to the major-league club.
The Yankees soon discovered they made an error in judgment by summoning Downing to the big leagues so quickly. Never having pitched even at the Triple A level before, the lefthander lacked the experience to face major league hitters. Whenever Downing got into trouble in the minors, he simply reared back and threw his fastball past the inferior batters he typically faced. However, the hitters he opposed at the major league level quickly observed that Downing had neither learned how to change speeds nor alter his approach on the mound. Corresponding, they merely sat back and looked for his fastball. Unable to consistently overpower major league hitters, Downing attempted to throw even harder. Doing so, though, caused his control to desert him, leaving him behind in the count much of the time, and causing him to walk an inordinate number of batters. Before long, Downing found himself banished to the bullpen. Having lost all faith in his abilities, Downing was returned to the minor leagues shortly thereafter.
Downing initially struggled somewhat upon his return to the minors, but he regained his self-confidence while pitching at Triple A Richmond in 1962. Pitching especially well during the season's latter stages, the lefthander appeared poised for a return to the major leagues.
Success at Major League Level:
The Yankees took note of the change in Downing's demeanor in spring training and brought the 21-year-old lefthander north with them for the start of the 1963 campaign. After being used sporadically during the early stages of the season, Downing gradually worked his way into the starting rotation. Displaying flashes of brilliance at times, Downing finished his rookie campaign with a record of 13-5, an ERA of 2.56, and 171 strikeouts in just 175 innings of work, while allowing just 5.84 hits per nine innings. Still, he occasionally reverted to his earlier form, struggling with his control and walking a total of 80 men. Downing continued to befuddle team management the following year, leading all American League pitchers in both strikeouts (217) and bases on balls (120), while posting a record of 13-8 and an ERA of 3.47 for the A.L. champions.
Plagued by inconsistency and control problems, Downing compiled a losing record in both 1965 and 1966, as the Yankees fell from baseball's elite. However, even though New York finished ninth in the American League in 1967, Downing finished the campaign with a mark of 14-10. Displaying a level of consistency and maturity he previously lacked, Downing developed into a complete pitcher. Although the hard-throwing lefthander still had the ability to reach back for something extra if the situation called for him to do so, he mastered a changeup and learned how to mix up his pitches better. In addition to posting a mark of 14-10, he compiled a 2.63 ERA, struck out 171 batters, reduced his walk total to only 61, and allowed only 158 hits in 202 innings of work, en route to earning his only selection to the All-Star Team.
The 1967 campaign turned out to be Downing's last full year with the Yankees. After watching the enigmatic lefthander miss extensive playing time in each of the next two seasons due to arm problems, the Yankees elected to trade him to Oakland prior to the start of the 1970 season as part of the deal that brought Danny Cater to New York. Downing split the 1970 campaign between the A's and the Brewers, experiencing little in the way of success by posting a combined record of only 5-13. However, Downing had the finest season of his career after being traded to the Dodgers prior to the start of 1971. Turning 30 during the season, a more mature Downing relied more heavily on his breaking ball than ever before. Although the veteran lefty struck out only 136 batters, he compiled a record of 20-9 and an ERA of 2.68, while also throwing a league-leading five shutouts. Downing finished second in the National League in wins, third in the Cy Young voting, and tenth in the league MVP balloting.
At the conclusion of the 1971 campaign, an article appeared in the 1972 Edition of The Complete Handbook of Baseball that stated, "(Al) Downing learned how to pitch the hard way, bouncing from team to team after his fastball evaporated. 'I realize now I'll never throw that hard again,' Downing said last season. 'I'm fortunate I learned how to make it as a pitcher.'"
Downing spent six more years with the Dodgers, but he never again reached such heights. His combined record over his final six seasons was a decidedly mediocre 26-28, and he retired at the conclusion of the 1977 campaign with a career record of 123-107. Since Downing is probably best-remembered for surrendering Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, it could certainly be said that his legacy is one of unfulfilled potential. Nevertheless, he had four very good years and was among the top two or three starters on his team's pitching staff in each of those years.
Former teammate Roy White, who played with Downing for five seasons in New York, recalled the natural talent the lefthander possessed early in his career: "He (Downing) threw so easy, you really didn't know how hard he threw, but he really had a great fastball and a great changeup. It's too bad he couldn't have stayed a Yankee."
After retiring as an active player, Downing served for a time as a radio broadcaster for the Dodgers. He currently works in community service for the organization.
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