Fate can be a little bit unkind to many players. Sometimes we remember a player more for one bad moment in their career rather than a nice career spread out over more than a decade. A typical player remembered that way is Bill Buckner who had the misfortune of not handling what appeared to be a routine ground ball during game six of the 1986 World Series. Buckner won a batting title, had well over 2,500 career hits and even made a valiant effort to climb the wall to attempt to catch what would be Hank Aaron’s 715th homer. The pitcher who surrendered the homer to Buckner probably could have called him after the World Series and told him about some of the future questions and comments he would face.
That pitcher who surrendered Hank Aaron’s 715th career homer was veteran Al Downing who had quite a ride in baseball. Plucked off the Rider University campus by the New York Yankees, he began his career with the almost mythical '61 team during the famed home run chase featuring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
On the evening of April 8, 1974, Downing took the mound at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium and faced the Braves in their home opener. Of course, at that time, the Braves were a member of the Western Division while the Chicago Cubs, who were in several hundred miles west of Atlanta was in the Eastern Division. For years, no one really understood why this geographical nonsense was allowed to continue.
In the fourth inning, with constant trivia answer Darrell Evans on first base courtesy of an error, Aaron blasted the ball over Buckner’s head and into the Atlanta bullpen, unleashing a huge celebration of Aaron’s accomplishment. That pitch ended Downing’s evening. The other two pitchers were Mike Marshall, who was on his way to tossing more than 200 innings that season as a reliever and Charlie Hough who later gave up an historic homer when Reggie Jackson hit his third bomb in game six of the 1977 World Series.
Although Downing’s career in baseball was nice and he later became a broadcaster, he will always be remembered for one pitch which left the ballpark on an April Atlanta evening on a game nationally televised on NBC. Fortunately, fans have been fairly kind to Downing, who is now 72 and has handled the notoriety with grace and good humor over the past 40 years.
The 1962 Al Downing rookie card carries a little more value than a common, thanks in part to his place in baseball history, but the fact that it appeared 12 seasons before he gave up Aaron’s homer is a testament to his success as a pitcher. Downing had just turned 20 when he made his big league debut with the Yankees. In 1963, he was 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA during his first full season as a starter. In 1964, he led the league in strikeouts. However, by ’69 he was relegated to the bullpen and then bounced to Oakland and Milwaukee, troubled at times by a sore arm, before his career turned back around in Los Angeles.
He won the Comeback Player of the Year in 1971, winning 20 games and tossing five shutouts while finishing third in the Cy Young race. He retired in 1977 and at age 72, he still stays active in the Dodgers’ Speakers Bureau.
The rookie card? It can be found ungraded for $5-10 in EX/NM and better ungraded. You can see all of Downing's cards on eBay here.
Fate can be unkind sometimes and how one deals with those vagary tells us a lot about how they really are as people and thanks in part to autograph sessions featuring their dates with infamy, both Downing and Buckner (whose 1970 rookie card you can see here) have made a few bucks in the memorabilia industry. Hopefully collectors also appreciate them for their body of work as players.