Yankees Magazine: Trenton Made

Al Downing took his childhood dream and turned it into a 17-year big-league career

February 28th, 2020
New York Yankees

On a perfect January day in Southern California, Al Downing reflected on a lifetime of memories, spanning more than seven decades and extending from the East Coast to his current home near Pasadena.

For the first African American pitcher in Yankees history, the journey began in Trenton, New Jersey.

“Trenton’s slogan is ‘Trenton Makes, The World Takes,’” says Downing, now 78. “The significance of that was that Trenton was an industrial town back when I was growing up. The main industry was pottery, but there was also wire rope, turbine engines and bathroom fixtures.”

As a child growing up in New Jersey’s capital city in the 1950s, Downing had little interest in working in any type of local factory, instead becoming fixated on sports. He was one of eight children, and following the tragic death of his mother, who died in a car accident when Downing was just 7 years old, he was raised by his father and an older sibling.

Luckily for Downing, Trenton had a lot more to offer than factory jobs.

“When I was in fifth grade, I saw an ad in the local newspaper for the Police Athletic League youth baseball program,” Downing says from Brookside Golf & Country Club, located next to the famous Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. He’s sitting in the golf club’s restaurant, a favorite lunch spot of his for years. “I was interested more because the teams wore real baseball uniforms than for any other reason.”

From there, Downing quickly found success on the diamond as a pitcher and a hard-hitting first baseman. When he was 14 years old, Downing had an opportunity to play for a Babe Ruth League team in Trenton that competed against clubs throughout the country.

“The Babe Ruth League for Trenton pulled from neighborhoods throughout the city,” Downing says. “You had to be pretty good to make that team. They drafted players, and it was very competitive.”

Downing’s upward trajectory continued. While also playing basketball and baseball for Trenton Central High School, Downing became the staff ace of his Babe Ruth team. At 15 years old, he tossed a 1-0 shutout in the national championship game.

“That gave me a lot of confidence,” Downing said. “It made me realize that I could go somewhere in baseball if I got the opportunity. It also compelled me to work harder. I would spend hours throwing a ball against a wall, in an effort to build up my arm strength.”

Winning the 1956 Babe Ruth League World Series was a pivotal moment for Downing, but it wouldn’t be the last time that his career would intersect with Ruth’s legacy.

While playing in a North-South high school All-Star game at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, Downing had a life-changing encounter. Bill Yancey, then scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies, was at the game to watch Montclair High School’s Richard and Robert Haines, twin brothers whose baseball and football prowess made them local legends in the quaint northern New Jersey town.

During the course of the game, Yancey’s focus turned to Downing.

“The North Stars got all of the publicity back then,” Downing says. “We really wanted to beat them. I got into the game during the late innings, and I struck out the side. Then I got a base hit and stole second base. He was impressed with me. He told me that I was a pitcher when I was on the mound and that I played like Willie Mays when I was on the basepaths.”

Before Downing left Jersey City that night, Yancey made a point to connect with him.

Following his high school career, Downing accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. But following some academic struggles during his freshman year, Downing was told that unless he was willing to take several summer classes, he would lose the scholarship.

“I was willing to take classes at home, but they insisted that I stay in Muhlenberg over the summer,” Downing says. “I couldn’t do that because I needed to work in order to pay the rest of my tuition.”

At a crossroads, Downing got some unexpected advice from the scout who had continued to track his progress, and who had already begun to mentor him.

“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.’”

Without even having a scouting report on Downing, Yancey, the Yankees’ first African American scout and a former Negro Leagues star, convinced Hamey and fellow Yankees brass to sign the left-hander.

It didn’t take Downing long to make Yancey look like a genius.

“I had a contract to play A-ball, which back then was higher than the D, C or B classes,” Downing says. “They told me that I was going to pitch for the Class A team in Spring Training, then start the season with their Class B team in Greensboro, North Carolina. That wasn’t a great place for a black player in those days.”

Despite those plans, Downing impressed Binghamton Triplets manager Jimmy Gleeson enough to stick with the Yankees’ Class-A team out of Spring Training in 1961. Then Downing’s professional career began in a most unusual way.

“We were supposed to play the defending champion Springfield (Mass.) Giants on a Friday, but the game was snowed out,” Downing says. “The players had to shovel the field so that we could work out before the first game. The following day, it was about 35 degrees, and I threw a two-hit shutout.”

That performance brought Yankees brass north to watch Downing in subsequent starts, and he didn’t disappoint. By the middle of the 1961 season, Downing had a 9-1 record with a 1.84 ERA in 12 starts.

“I was on the 10-day disabled list because I had a strained muscle from throwing so much,” Downing says. “I came back, won the next five or six games and made the All-Star team. I was getting ready to go to Springfield for the All-Star Game, and the manager pulled me aside and told me I was going to New York. I asked what I was going to New York for, and he told me, ‘You’re going there to play for the Yankees.’”

Only a few short months after stepping onto a professional baseball field for the first time, Downing was slated to start against the Washington Senators in the second game of a July 19 twin bill at Griffith Stadium.

“I was really nervous that whole day,” Downing says. “It was a night game, but I couldn’t eat that whole day. I tried to eat pancakes for breakfast, but all I got down was one bite. When I got to the ballpark, I finally began to relax.”

Although he was able to calm down before the game, Downing didn’t pitch well, giving up five runs and three walks in one-plus innings of work.

“I wasn’t ready for that,” Downing says. “Mr. Yancey also knew I wasn’t ready, but we both realized that it was an opportunity that I had to take. That wasn’t who I was. I was so overwhelmed by the atmosphere that I reverted back to the kid who had to throw the ball through a brick wall in order to get guys out.”

Although it was a disappointing debut, things began to look up for Downing immediately following the game.

“Yogi [Berra] caught me that night,” Downing recalls. “All the writers were talking about me in the clubhouse after the game, and out of nowhere, Yogi walked in between them and told them, ‘Say something nice about Al. He’s going to be here for a long time.’ That made me feel so much better. That was Yogi.”

Downing stayed with the big club for the remainder of that storied ’61 campaign, pitching in four more games down the stretch and showing some improvement from his debut.

“The biggest challenge for me that season was keeping self-control and being ready to pitch,” Downing says. “Elston Howard and Héctor López were my mentors. They took me out to dinner on the road and really treated me like a little brother. Mickey [Mantle] and Roger [Maris] were both quiet, but Mickey spoke out when he had to. One day that September, we were all signing baseballs in the clubhouse, and Mickey walked in, sat down and said, ‘You know, guys, Baltimore is getting pretty close to catching us. It’s time to step it up.’”

With 54 home runs, Mantle would fall victim to injury soon after that, but his teammates -- including Maris, who broke Ruth’s single-season record with 61 home runs that year -- picked him up, winning the pennant and the World Series.

“There were no problems on that team,” Downing says. “There were no controversies, and so the media had to make one up, which is how I believe the whole idea that Mantle and Maris didn’t get along started.”

Downing’s belief that he came up too quickly proved to be accurate. Coming out of Spring Training in 1962, he was assigned to Triple-A Richmond, where -- save for one September appearance in New York ­-- he would remain for that entire season.

Unlike the previous season, Downing struggled at times, going 9-13 with a 4.10 ERA. That season also marked Downing’s first extended stay in the South during a time of great civil unrest.

“It was tremendously enlightening for me in 1962,” Downing says. “Coming from New Jersey, I had no idea about the culture in the South. I was able to stay in the team hotel during Spring Training because the Yankees were paying for all of the rooms, but once we got to Opening Day, blacks were no longer allowed to stay there. I had to find a place to live. Luckily, I met Mr. Walter Banks. He welcomed me into his home, and we would sit out on his porch after games and chat about the day.”

Downing contends that while his teammates also treated him well, Richmond was far from a friendly environment for African Americans.

“I had to take a bus downtown to get to a restaurant where I could eat,” Downing says. “People in Richmond just weren’t accustomed to being around black people, and the ballpark was segregated. African Americans had to sit in a grandstand that was covered with a tin roof. It would get very hot out there during day games, and I pitched just about every Sunday afternoon. Despite the heat, that grandstand would still be full when I was on the mound.”

As far as his performance was concerned, Downing felt that he was simply overthrowing and trying too hard to make it back to the Majors.

An Army reserve, Downing went to reserve training in Columbia, South Carolina, following the ’62 season. There, he was required to run every day, and he embraced the challenge of gaining endurance.

“That gave me discipline that I didn’t have before that,” says Downing, who won several of the daily one-mile races that winter. “You should never get fatigued from pitching, and after that winter, I never got tired in a game again, no matter how many pitches I had thrown. Sometimes, I felt I got a little sore, but just like when you’re running, you learn to get past it without slowing down.”

Although Downing didn’t make the big-league club coming out of Spring Training in ’63, instead beginning the season back in Richmond, it wouldn’t be long before he returned to the Bronx. After pitching to a 2.68 ERA in nine Triple-A starts, Downing was promoted.

Downing took the ball in relief for the Yankees on June 7 and pitched a scoreless inning. Three days later, the Yankees were in Washington and -- two years after making his Major League debut there -- Downing would finally get another chance to start a game. 

The results were far different. He pitched a two-hit shutout, striking out nine batters.

“It was like night and day,” Downing says. “I didn’t dread pitching. In 1961, I wasn’t able to execute. When I was in Binghamton, I was throwing strikes and locating my pitches perfectly. When I came up to the big leagues, I was throwing hard, but not throwing strikes. It took me a while to figure out how to be effective again. When I came back up in ’63, everything in my life had changed. I had gone through the whole Richmond situation, and that helped me mature. I had also learned a lot about pitching and about what I was capable of overcoming. Going out and throwing seven, eight or even nine innings felt easy after that.”

Downing followed up the early June shutout with another nine-inning performance in which he gave up just two earned runs in a win over Detroit. Then, with the Yankees trying to expand their lead in the American League, Downing went on a memorable run. Beginning with a July 2 shutout of the Chicago White Sox and lasting through the end of the regular season, Downing won 12 games and went the distance in eight of those contests. He finished the season with a 13-5 record and four shutouts, helping the Yankees to win the pennant by 101⁄2 games.

“I knew I had the tools, and now I had the confidence,” Downing says. “I felt like I could get out of any jam. I still remember when Mickey came back after being hurt, he came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been pitching great. You’re a big part of this team now.’ Things like that made me feel like I couldn’t lose out there.”

Downing also relished the chance to pitch in the same rotation as Whitey Ford, who -- at 34 years old -- won 24 games that season.

“I was just trying to keep up with our other pitchers,” Downing says. “I had looked up to Whitey for a long time, and now I was able to talk to him every day. He used to always tell me that he wished he could have five of my fastballs each game. That was a great compliment.”

Downing gave up three runs over five innings of work in Game 2 of the 1963 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Johnny Podres silenced the Yankees’ bats. Dodgers all-time great Sandy Koufax also threw two gems, and Los Angeles swept the Yankees.

“I take pride and appreciation in the fact that I was named to pitch the second game of that World Series,” Downing says. “When you stop and think about where I came from, you realize that it was a great achievement. I just wish that I could have pitched better.”

Downing came back strong in ’64, beginning the season in the big leagues for the first time. He won 13 games for the second consecutive year, and he led the American League with 217 strikeouts. His 11 complete-game outings were impressive but also damaging.

“In those days, if you were still on the mound in the seventh inning, the manager would leave you out there until the game was over,” Downing says. “I gave up some runs late in games that year that cost me a few wins. I should have won more games in ’64.”

With Downing’s consistency and the emergence of rookie pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, the Yankees made it back to the World Series, but lost the Fall Classic to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. In ’64, it was future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson who won two games against the Yankees.

“Until our hitters faced Gibson, we had no idea how tenacious he was,” Downing says. “That’s why we lost.”

Downing continued to pitch well for the next three seasons, despite a sudden downturn for the Yankees. In 1967, Downing reached 14 wins for the first time in his career, and he earned his only All-Star selection.

“In my estimation, that was even better than pitching in the World Series,” Downing says. “To be on a team with the best players in the world was great. These are the best players in the game, and I was in the same clubhouse with them. That was the thrill of a lifetime.”

The ’67 All-Star Game would be Downing’s last great achievement with the Yankees. Soon after the Midsummer Classic, he began to experience elbow pain in his throwing arm, but the injury went undiagnosed until 1968, when a doctor discovered that he had torn a ligament.

Downing made five starts in the Minors in 1968, and he pitched sparingly that season and in ’69, knowing that his days in pinstripes were numbered.

“When I got sent to the Minors, I took it as a challenge,” Downing says. “I pitched well down there, and when I got back to New York, they put me in the bullpen.”

After pitching to a 5.50 ERA in 17 appearances -- 15 of them in relief -- Downing returned to the rotation that August. He pitched well down the stretch, tossing five complete games in the final two months of the season.

“I wasn’t experiencing any pain, and I had good command,” Downing says. “But my strength never came back to where it had been before.”

That winter, while he was working for a printing company in Queens, New York, Downing got word that he had been traded to the Oakland A’s. And, after a midseason deal that sent him to Milwaukee the next summer, Downing was dealt again ­-- to the Los Angeles Dodgers ­-- in February 1971.

It was in Los Angeles that Downing was able to experience a pitching renaissance. In his first season there, Downing put together his most complete effort. At 30 years old, he won 20 games for the first and only time, while also tossing 12 complete games with a National League–leading five shutouts. Downing’s 2.68 ERA in ’71 was the second-best mark of his career.

“I enjoyed what I was able to do that season because it kept us in the pennant race,” Downing says. “A lot of our guys said that I was the difference maker because they didn’t count on me to win 20 games. But more than anything, it confirmed that I could still pitch in the majors. I had learned how to be effective without the same velocity I once had from watching Whitey (Ford) and from being around him earlier in my career, and it was satisfying to now do some of the same things he had done.”

Although the 1971 season was Downing’s last impact performance, he pitched for the Dodgers for six more years, winning 26 more games and finishing his career with a 123-107 record. During that time, he would find himself linked to the Great Bambino yet again.

On April 8, 1974, the Braves’ Hank Aaron drove a Downing pitch over the left-center field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for his 715th career home run, surpassing the record set by the immortal Yankees slugger.

For Downing, giving up the home run that eclipsed Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable mark was never a source of embarrassment. He had long respected Aaron for the way he handled being a target of bigotry, and his admiration for the Braves slugger only heightened after the home run.

“If I had been in the league for only a year or two, it might have been more emotional for me,” Downing says, “But I had been around for a long time, and I was content knowing that I threw him a good pitch.

“Hank was a true mentor to a lot of young black guys coming through the big leagues,” Downing continues. “The next day, Hank called our clubhouse and asked to talk to me. He told me not to feel bad because he was going to break the record anyway, and the fact that he hit the home run off me didn’t mean I wasn’t a good pitcher. I thanked him, congratulated him and told him that I respected everything he had done.”

As Downing, who never got married and “doesn’t regret that either,” reached the end of his trip down memory lane, he began a slightly shorter journey, along a walking path that brought him to the iconic entranceway of the Rose Bowl Stadium.

“Whenever I’m up here, I take a few minutes to walk over to the stadium,” Downing says. “It’s something that never gets old.”

Downing’s feelings about coming back to the Bronx, which he does each summer, are similar.

“I really appreciate the time I spent playing for the Yankees,” says Downing, who worked as a broadcaster for almost three decades following his playing career. “It’s something that stays with you forever. When I come back for Old-Timers’ Day, I think about how my life has played out. I was a kid from Trenton, who nobody paid much attention to, and before I knew it, I was pitching for the New York Yankees. That makes me feel real good.”