NEW YORK – Former Major Leaguer Al Downing was saddened Friday to learn about the passing of Hank Aaron, but the two rivals will forever be linked together in baseball history. Downing has the distinction of allowing Aaron’s 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.
At the time, Downing was pitching at the tail end of his career. Best known for his years with the Yankees, the left-hander had his only 20-win season with the Dodgers in 1971 and was still in their rotation when he faced the Braves during the fourth game of the ’74 season.
Downing knew ahead of time what was at stake. After tying Ruth against the Reds on Opening Day, Aaron didn’t play the second game and was held hitless in the third game of that series before returning home to face the Dodgers.
Downing knew the stadium would be packed, but he wasn’t concerned about allowing the record-breaking home run -- he simply wanted to make sure no one was on base when Aaron stepped into the batter’s box.
“There had never been a lot of people in the seats when we went to Atlanta, even though they were one of our big rivals in the National League West,” the 79-year old Downing said via telephone. “I thought people were going to be there. There is going to be a lot of noise. You have to really concentrate because it’s more than you are normally accustomed to.”
By the time the game started, everything went into warp speed for Downing. He was staked to a 3-1 lead after three innings, helping himself with an RBI single in the third. In the bottom of the fourth, Downing became forever a part of baseball lore.
Darrell Evans reached first base on an error by shortstop Bill Russell, bringing Aaron to the plate. In his first at-bat, Downing had walked him on five pitches, drawing boos from the crowd. Aaron took the first pitch low for a ball, and Downing’s next offering was a fastball that Aaron blasted over the left-field wall to tie the game at 3.
“I had my work cut out. I go, ‘There goes my two-run lead,’ and he hits the home run and ties the game,” Downing said.
Downing applauded as Aaron rounded the bases.
“When he picks out his pitch, it’s going somewhere,” Downing said after the game. “But when he first hit it, I didn’t think it was gone. I was watching left fielder Bill Buckner, and the wind, but the ball kept carrying, carrying …”
The Braves set off fireworks and held an 11-minute celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment, and when Downing returned to the mound, he had lost his control. He walked Dusty Baker and Davey Johnson before leaving the game in favor of Mike Marshall. Downing didn’t stick around to watch the rest of the game, which the Braves won, 7-4, and went back to his hotel room.
The next day, Aaron wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with Downing. Aaron had a young kid in the clubhouse tell Downing to meet him in the hitting cage when the Braves took batting practice.
“Hank had a nice sense of humor,” Downing said. “We talked and he told me, ‘I want to tell you, don’t you feel embarrassed by the fact that you gave up the home run. You have been a good pitcher your entire career and you don’t have to walk around with your head down.’ … Then he said he is glad it’s over with.”
That was not the first time Downing had a conversation with Aaron. They first met through Elston Howard, Downing’s former teammate with the Yankees, in 1964. Even then, Aaron gave Downing words of encouragement.
“'I know this is your first year in the big leagues. If you need any advice, call me and I’ll be glad to help you out,’ ... I never forgot that,” Downing remembered. “It was really comforting because I heard from Ellie [Howard] that Hank was a good guy.”