Born: June 28, 1941
Town: Trenton, New Jersey
Alphonso Erwin Downing was born June 28, 1941 in Trenton. Al grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood where the divisions of race and color melted away between the foul lines. The same kids who played baseball went to the movies and the shore together right through their teens. Around the age of 8, Al discovered he had some magic in his left arm. He developed his pitching skill, adding a curve and changeup to a popping fastball, and at the age of 16 led his Babe Ruth League team to the national championship. He pitched a shutout in the final game.
Al helped organize a semipro team from local talent and played all over the region. He faced Satchel Paige in a tournament in Kansas, and the 60-year-old legend gave him some advice that would help him later in his career. For now, however, Al was being scouted as a power pitcher. He earned a scholarship from Rider and then signed a free agent contract with the New York Yankees in the spring of 1961. By July, he was in the big leagues.
Al became a member of the Yankees’ starting rotation in 1963 and went 13–5 in 24 games. He allowed a meager 114 hits in just over 175 innings. In 1964, at age 23, he was the American League strikeout champion, with 217. Many were caling him the Black Sandy Koufax.
An arm injury in 1968 robbed Al of his fastball. After the 1969 season, the Yankees traded him to the Oakland A’s for Danny Cater. In June of 1970, the A’s traded Al to the Milwaukee Brewers. And prior to the 1971 season, the Brewers traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Al had all the earmarks of a hurler on his way out of the game. But remember the advice Paige had given hi as a teenager, he began to mix speeds and location with his pitches, and was able to fool National League hitters, who hadn’t seen him before. In 1971, at age 30 with nothing left on his heater, Al made a career-high 37 starts, led the NL with 5 shutouts and won 20 games for the first and only time in his career. He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting, behind Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver and ahead of Dock Ellis and Bob Gibson. Al did win an award that season—Comeback Player of the Year.
Al pitched well as a starter for two more seasons, and then became a middle reliever. He was known as a pitcher who called his own game—shaking of catchers four or five times an inning. Al pitched in the majors through 1977, winning 123 games with a 3.22 ERA and 24 career shutouts. He made starts in the 1963, 1964 and 1974 World Series, but lost them all. In 1974, Al gained a measure of immortality when he served up home run #715 to Hank Aaron.
Al got into broadcasting after his playing days, working on radio and television. He also worked for the Dodgers (he remained in LA) and was a star attraction baseball camps for many years.