Sunday, June 18, 2017

Meet the Brewers #38: Al Downing

Incredible as it seems, the 1970 Brewers reached the 38th player deployed for the team before the end of June. That seems incredible to me, at least. 1970 was a strange season, too, for the man who was Brewer #38 -- Al Downing -- as well. Downing came to the Brewers in a trade with the Oakland A's along with Brewer #34, Tito Francona, on June 11, yet Downing did not make his Milwaukee debut until June 28. That game was a disaster for Downing; he started the second game of a doubleheader against Oakland and did not make it out of the first inning.

1971 Topps
Alphonso Erwin Downing was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey. A very good biography of him can be found on the SB Nation Yankees blog, Pinstripe Alley. Downing became a Yankee after spending one year at Rider University. The Yankees signed Downing on the recommendation and advice of former Negro Leaguer Bill Yancy. His first Spring Training in still-segregated Florida in 1961 must have been eye opening to the New Jersey native. This is not to say that he did not deal with discrimination in New Jersey, but the fact that he could not stay at the same hotel with his white teammates must have been incredibly difficult to deal with for him.

Despite the rather rude introduction, Downing did not spend much time in the minor leagues -- totalling only 59 games in the minors over his entire career and with 5 of those games coming in 1968 as he worked on recovering from an injury he suffered in the latter part of 1967

1971 O-Pee-Chee
Downing's time with the Yankees was up and down. He struggled with control early in his career -- leading the league in walks issued in 1964 with 120 in 244 innings -- but he paired that with being a big strikeout pitcher -- leading the league in strikeouts in that same 1964 season with 217. He had swing-and-miss stuff, from all indications, and only in his final season in the majors did he ever allow more than one hit per inning.

Downing was an All-Star in 1967 thanks to stellar work in the early part of that season. He pitched the 9th and 10th innings of that game (which extended to 15 innings before Tony Perez hit a game-winning homer off Catfish Hunter in the top of the 15th and Tom Seaver shut down the AL All-Stars in the bottom of that inning for the save). In his two innings of work, Downing retired Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, and Bill Mazeroski while surrendering hits to Jim Wynn and Ernie Banks.

As I mentioned above, however, 1970 was a strange season for Downing for a number of reasons -- but first and foremost because he was no longer a Yankee. According to news reports at the time (The Sporting News), the Yankees were looking for a right-handed hitter to play first base -- Ralph Houk claimed that the team was trying to boost its power hitting -- so the Yankees traded with Oakland for 10-homer-hitting Danny Cater (along with a minor-league outfielder named Ossie Chavarria). In that trade, the A's received Downing and catcher Frank Fernandez (who was made surplus to requirements by the emergence of Thurman Munson).

Dell Today's 1971 Sticker (from the Dodgers team book)
Downing did not get much of an opportunity in Oakland. At the time of his trade in early June, he had appeared in just ten of Oakland's 57 games. He had been dropped from the starting rotation after a bad start on May 6 and fell out of favor with the A's. As The Sporting News characterized the trade that sent him to Milwaukee as seeming to be a rip-off of sorts:
The trade that sent Tito Francona and Al Downing to the Brewers for Steve Hovley was a swap that exchanged a 24-year-old .280 hitter who can play all three outfield positions for a 36-year-old pinch hitter who might retire after this year and a pitcher who wasn't being used at all recently.
Indeed, that is exactly what it looked like at the time. If Hovley hadn't been squarely fifth in line in the Oakland outfield behind Felipe Alou, Rick Monday, Reggie Jackson, and Tommy Davis and if Hovley hadn't hit .190/.229/.200 after the trade, that is. 

Of course, Downing's record wasn't exactly great in Milwaukee either. He walked more guys than he struck out -- 59 walks and 53 strikeouts in 94-1/3 innings. As a result, Frank Lane did not hesitate to ship Downing out to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February of 1971 in exchange for Andy Kosco.

1994 Miller Brewing Commemorative Set
I said above that 1970 was an odd season for Downing. That is because Al Downing spent 9 seasons with the Yankees and 7 with the Dodgers. Sandwiched in between is that awkward 1970 season with Oakland and Milwaukee. 

Getting out of Milwaukee was great for Downing's career. He appeared to be rejuvenated on the West Coast. Indeed, 1971 was Downing's best season on surface statistics. He threw 262-1/3 innings for the Dodgers and finished with a 20-9 record and a 2.68 ERA. He also led the league in shutouts with five. Those stats were good enough to garner him a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting -- though Downing's season was nowhere near as good as the guys in front of him (Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver). The effort in 1971 led the writers to award him the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.

That 1971 season -- along with his 1967 All-Star Game -- was the pinnacle of Downing's career. Most people of my generation and younger probably know Downing more as the guy who gave up Hank Aaron's 715th home run in 1974 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. After he retired from baseball after the 1977 season, he worked as a radio broadcaster for the Dodgers for several years as well as putting in a season on radio with the Atlanta Braves in 2000. He's now retired and comes back to Yankee Stadium on a regular basis for their Old-Timers Day. In fact, he's scheduled to be at the 71st annual version of the event on June 25. 

As for the baseball card aspects, Al Downing appeared on four total cards as a Brewer -- the ones shown above. Ironically, he appears as a Brewer and is listed as a Brewer on just the one card -- the 1971 Topps card above -- while being listed as a Dodger on two cards showing him as a Brewer. Then, when it came time for the Miller Brewing Commemorative set in 1994, the Brewers and Miller could only find a photo of him with the Dodgers. I have the 1971 Topps card and the 1994 Miller card, but not the 1971 O-Pee-Chee or the Dell Today's 1971 Baseball Sticker.

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