The 1963 New York Yankees won 104 games that season and finished over ten games in front of its nearest American League rival. And it wasn’t the offense that propelled them that season. Mickey Mantle only played 65 games due to injury and Roger Maris‘ run of greatness with the Yankees had ended as he only played 90 games himself. It was the pitching that propelled that team. Along with Whitey Ford and Jim Bouton having their best career years, a 22-year-old Al Downing was mowing down hitters at a league-leading rate.
Alphonso Downing, a kid from Trenton, was only twenty when he was signed by the Yankees in 1961. Assigned to the A-level Binghampton Triplets, he proceeded to go 9-1 for that New York State club with a 1.84 ERA. The success led the Yankees to give him a cup of coffee on that powerhouse 1961 Yankees team and in a handful of games, proceeded to strike out twelve batters per nine innings. Unfortunately, he walked just as many.
The following 1962 season was spent with the Triple-A Richmond Virginians and Downing had a bit more of a struggle that season. He did get one appearance with the big club that season and pitched one clean inning with one strikeout.
It was back to Richmond to start the 1963 season and Al Downing was dominating despite a high walk rate and had a 2.68 ERA. The Yankees called him up the first week of June and that was the end of Al Downing’s minor league seasoning.
Downing saw his first appearance that season on June 7 when he finished up a a game in a loss. Downing struck out two in his one inning of work. He was about to put on quite a show.
He made his first start against the Senators on June 10 and pitched a complete game shutout. It was a two-hitter and he struck out nine. Five days later he pitched another complete game against the Tigers and had two wins under his belt, the first two of his career.
His next three outings did not go well to finish out June and he lost one of them. But once July came around, it was showtime!
In his first four starts in July in that 1963 season, Downing proceeded to strikeout ten, ten, fourteen and then ten batters. He won all four games. The first was a one-hit shutout against the White Sox. The third one was a four-hit shutout of the Athletics. He lost his fifth start that month despite only giving up two runs and striking out nine. The Yankees were shutout that game. In those five starts, he struck out 53 batters.
You need to remember that baseball was in a different place and time in 1963. The average K/9 rate in baseball was 5.8 or 5.9 strikeouts per nine. Downing would top the ten strikeout mark four more times that season and he finished the season with 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which led the league. He also gave up only 5.8 hits per nine innings, also the league best.
Al Downing would finish the 1963 season with a 13-5 record with a 2.56 ERA. He threw ten complete games that included four shutouts. Not to say that Downing was a direct cause, but he did settle the Yankees’ rotation that season and what was a 1.5 game lead in the league for the Yankees when he arrived was over ten by the end of the season.
Unfortunately for the Yankees and for Downing, they ran into the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale at their best. The Dodgers swept the Series and Downing was beaten in the third game for one of the losses. Koufax with 8.9 strikeouts per nine was the only other pitcher in baseball with a higher rate than Downing’s.
After the tough loss of the World Series soured his 1963 season, a 23-year-old Downing was a fixture in the Yankees’ rotation at the start of the 1964 season. Downing wasn’t quite as dominating but he did have a good season, going 13-9. He also had two saves that season. He led the American League in strikeouts, the last Yankee to do so. That is just one of the trivia questions that surround Al Downing.
The 1964 Yankees lost that famous World Series to the Cardinals. Where they had Koufax and Drysdale in 1963, they had Bob Gibson in 1964. Al Downing did not have a good series. The Yankees lost and, as everyone knows, the dynasty was over.
As the Yankees’ fortunes sank after 1964, Al Downing could not crack the .500 mark for 1965 and 1966. His strikeout rate started inching down but he was still an effective pitcher. Downing rebounded a bit in 1967 and he made the All Star Team that year with a 14-10 record and a 2.63 ERA. His strikeout rate rebounded to 7.6 K/9 and his walk rate went down. Downing had his best strikeout to walk ratio of his career that year.
On August 11 of that season, Downing created another trivia moment. Facing the Cleveland Indians, Downing pitched a complete game victory and struck out twelve. But that was not the trivia-related part. That came in the second inning when he struck out Tony Horton, Dom Demeter and Duke Smith on nine pitches. That, of course, tied a record that had only been done by six other American League pitchers previously.
Downing pitched two scoreless innings in the 1967 All Star Game.
1967 would be the last hurrah for Al Downing as a “power” pitcher. He injured his arm and missed significant chunks of the 1968 and 1969 seasons and when he did pitch, then manager, Ralph Houk, would use him more as a relief pitcher than a starter, particularly in 1969.
The Yankees traded Al Downing in December of 1969 to the Oakland A’s along with Frank Fernandez. In return, the Yankees received Danny Cater and Ossie Chavarria. Cater was later used to help purchase Sparky Lyle from the Red Sox.
Oakland traded Downing mid-season to the Milwaukee Brewers who then traded Downing to the Dodgers for Andy Kosco after the 1970 season. That traded ended up brilliantly for the Dodgers when Downing had his finest “finesse-phase” season of his career, going 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA. He came in third in the Cy Young Award race that season and won Comeback Player of the Year.
Downing played for the Dodgers the rest of his career and repeated his good ERA in 1972, but faded after that and never replicated his 1971 season. He is most famous, of course, as being the pitcher who delivered Henry Aaron’s 715th home run. That last great trivia question is unfortunate because Al Downing was a very good pitcher for most of his seventeen years in baseball.
Downing worked for the Dodgers as an off and on broadcaster for several years after his career.
As for Al Downing, the Yankee, Downing pitched nine years for the club. His record in those nine years was 72-57 (.558) with a 3.23 ERA. He started 175 of his 208 games with the Yankees and had 46 complete games and twelve shutouts. Downing averaged only 7.4 hits per nine innings in that time and struck out 1,008 batters in 1231+ innings of work. His work with the Yankees was valued at 15.5 rWAR.
Al Downing was a very good pitcher for the Yankees who played a part in getting the team to the World Series in both 1963 and 1964. He was exciting to watch as he was a strikeout pitcher when strikeouts were not the norm. He was a local kid who did well in the big city. Unfortunately, he saw the team go from the top to the bottom and his career shift from power to finesse before being shipped out to become just a New York memory.