Fifty years later, Downing recalls '63 season fondly
Southpaw was key factor in Yanks' pennant, had front-row seat for historic Series
NEW YORK -- Al Downing, from Trenton, N.J., was three weeks past his 20th birthday when he made his Major League debut in Yankees pinstripes on July 19, 1961.
With Elston Howard, who would become his primary mentor, behind the plate, Downing sailed through the first inning in Washington, striking out two Senators. But a single, three walks and a hit batsman got Downing an early shower in the second. When all five runners scored, the pitcher had a 45.00 ERA.
Downing had yet to make another mound appearance when the Yankees returned home and he stepped inside the hallowed home clubhouse for the first time.
"Pete Sheehy, who ran the clubhouse going back to the days of [Babe] Ruth and [Lou] Gehrig, used to sit on a trunk," Downing said. "He called me over. I had a high [jersey] number on the road and figured I'd get something in the 50s.
"Pete pointed over to my locker, and I was shocked to see No. 24 hanging there," Downing recalled. "Pete said, 'Al, we lost a great one who wore that number, and you're going to be a great pitcher.' He was referring to Willie Mays, who'd left New York [after the 1958 season] to go to San Francisco with the Giants.
"What Pete did that day meant the world to me."
Downing also recalls a gesture of support from Yogi Berra, who was 36 in 1961 and playing the outfield with Howard assuming the catching reins.
"After I'd gotten knocked out in the second inning [by the Senators] and the reporters came around," Downing said, "Yogi said, 'Write something good about him. He's going to be around here a long time.' Yogi was a great teammate -- like Ellie."
A few days later, against the Kansas City A's, Downing pitched four scoreless innings in relief. He threw extreme heat before radar readings but was not yet a finished product. He needed some refining.
In 1963, the kid from Trenton was ready. Summoned back to The Show in June, Downing threw a two-hit shutout in Washington in his first start. He would finish the season 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 22 starts, notching 171 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings.
The Yankees, with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hobbled by injuries, rode Howard's broad shoulders and dynamic pitching to the American League pennant. Howard, the first African-American player to wear a Yankees uniform, won the AL Most Valuable Player Award, ranking third in the league in slugging and fifth in homers, while earning a Rawlings Gold Glove Award.
When the Dodgers arrived at Yankee Stadium for the World Series, the Yankees were favored to resume their long-running domination of the former Bums of Brooklyn, broken only by the 1955 Dodgers' triumph.
In Game 1, with Sandy Koufax facing Whitey Ford, the Dodgers seized a 5-0 lead through three innings.
"Our yardstick with Koufax was, 'Let's see what kind of stuff he has as the game goes on,'" Downing recalled. "Mickey and Roger were playing, and we always felt we could come back. Sandy basically was throwing fastballs up early in the game. We were saying, 'He's going to get tired.'
"About the seventh inning, he was throwing harder. That's when we realized he was special."
Downing started Game 2 against Johnny Podres, another duel of lefties. The Dodgers had a two-run lead before Downing retired a batter. Willie Davis doubled home Maury Wills, who had singled and stolen second, and Jim Gilliam, who also singled.
Downing yielded another run on a blast by former Yankees star Bill "Moose" Skowron, striking out six in five innings. Maris ripped a hamstring pursuing Davis' double, and the Yankees' offense sputtered.
A 4-1 victory sent the Dodgers home in command. They completed the sweep behind Don Drysdale and Koufax at Dodger Stadium. Koufax outdueled Ford, 2-1, in Game 4, Mantle and Frank Howard launching home runs.
Fifty years later, the Series anniversary is being celebrated on one coast and observed on the other. The Dodgers make their first appearance in the Bronx since the 1981 World Series with a two-game series starting Tuesday night.
"We used only four pitchers in that World Series -- Koufax, Drysdale, Podres and [Ron] Perranoski," Wills, the team captain and catalyst, said. "Perranoski was the number one relief pitcher in baseball.
"We had a good, solid lineup -- not necessarily Hall of Fame players, but guys who knew how to play the game. With our pitching, we just needed to scrape together a few runs."
Known as "Ace" to teammates, Downing, 71, retired in 1977 and lives in the Los Angeles area, playing some golf and doing community work for the Yankees, such as fantasy camps.
After four consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings in pinstripes, leading the AL in strikeouts in 1964, Downing developed arm issues and became a finesse pitcher.
Landing in Los Angeles in 1971 at 30, he enjoyed his best season, going 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA in a career-high 262 1/3 innings pitched for the Dodgers. Downing finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting behind Ferguson Jenkins and Tom Seaver.
On April 8, 1974, with his career winding down, Downing threw the fastball in Atlanta that Hank Aaron lifted to left-center field for career home run No. 715, eclipsing the Bambino.
"People always bring that up, of course," Downing said. "It didn't bother me. Hank did that to a lot of guys."
Aaron and Downing met for a few moments the following night by the visitors' dugout. A young reporter, privileged to make it a threesome, walked away convinced he'd never again be in the company of two classier athletes.
Time proved the kid correct.