Sports Outside the Beltway

Al Downing Has No Regrets Over 715

The AJC has a feature on Al Downing, the former big league pitcher and baseball announcer best known for giving up Hank Aaron‘s 715th home run.

Dodgers pitcher Al Downing watches as Hank Aaron, trailed by two fans, runs out homer No. 715.

[I]n an instant on April 8, 1974, Downing became forever linked with Hank Aaron. The Atlanta slugger hit his historic 715th home run off Downing, who was on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although 310 pitchers gave up home runs to Aaron, Downing is the Jeopardy question, the clue in the crossword puzzle, the answer in a Trivial Pursuit game.

Al Downing Has No Regrets Over 715 “I think people have a tendency to look at me as if that moment defines my career,” said Downing, 66, who retired in 1977 after winning 123 games in 17 years in the major leagues. “I always tell them, ‘That moment was Henry’s moment. It wasn’t my moment. It could have been anybody on that mound giving up that home run. Henry was the common denominator.’ ”

Now the numbers are adding up for Barry Bonds. Very soon an unwitting pitcher — who will it be? — will serve up No. 756 and find his name inextricably tied to Bonds. Downing will empathize with the man on the mound, but he won’t feel sorry for him. “Why should you feel sorry for a guy who’s doing what he loves?” he said. “He’s playing baseball. Very few people get an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues.”


After Tom Glavine gave up Bonds’ 11th homer of the season on May 8, the former Braves pitcher said that if the Mets had to face Bonds again before he got the record, “I can assure you I wouldn’t want to be the guy who gave up the home run.” Downing didn’t have that attitude when he was playing. “You can say, ‘I hope it’s not me,’ but that’s like saying, ‘I hope I don’t have to pitch in a big game,’ ” said Downing, who pitched in three World Series, was the first black starting pitcher in Yankees history and once was compared favorably with Sandy Koufax. “You live for a big game; you live for moments like that.”


Dodgers manager Walter Alston chose Downing to pitch after Aaron had hit No. 714 two games earlier. “He didn’t know I’d give up a home run,” Downing said. “But he said, ‘You’ve pitched in World Series, All-Star Games. … You’re a veteran.’ I was almost 33. He said, ‘I know that you can handle the pressure of that moment.’ ”


Downing is offended by people who say, “You must have grooved the pitch.”

“They’re the people who don’t know much about the sport,” he said. “I say that’s an insult to Hank Aaron. … It’s like saying somebody let Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points on him. He did it because he could; they didn’t let him.”

Downing, who lives in Valencia, Calif., and has retired as a broadcaster, said Aaron has always been gracious about their shared history. When they saw each other at the 25th anniversary celebration in 1999, Aaron asked, “How many home runs did I hit off of you?” Downing answered, “Three,” which, by the way, was 14 fewer than Aaron hit off Don Drysdale. “He [Aaron] said, ‘I wasn’t sure if it was two or three.’ People always act as if I hit 30 home runs off you. I say, ‘No, Al Downing was a good pitcher.’ “

And seemingly a decent, well-adjusted man. He’s absolutely right about one thing: Whoever gives up Bonds’ 756th home run will be some guy doing what he loves. It could be a kid up for his one cup of coffee in the Bigs or a future Hall of Famer. Bonds is a superstar; he can hit number 756 off of anyone. And, certainly, it’s no disgrace to be the victim of one of the best to ever play the game.


Selected list of pitchers surrendering momentous hits or home runs:

1927: Tom Zachary, Washington Senators — Babe Ruth’s 60th homer of the season

1951: Ralph Branca, Brooklyn Dodgers — Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer

1961: Tracy Stallard, Boston Red Sox — Roger Maris’ 61st homer of the season

1974: Al Downing, L.A. Dodgers — Hank Aaron’s 715th homer of his career

1985: Eric Show, San Diego Padres — Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit of his career

1998: Steve Trachsel, Chicago Cubs — Mark McGwire’s 62nd homer of the season

2001: Chan Ho Park, L.A. Dodgers — Barry Bonds’ 71st homer of the season

No Hall of Famers in that bunch but several very good pitchers, certainly including Al Downing.

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Al Downing was my favorite baseball broadcaster, because I always
learned something from listening to him. He used to be on the “Z” channel in LA and I never missed his commentary. The only current broadcaster serving the same function is Joe Morgan.

Thanks to Al for teaching me more about the game.


Posted by Ken | August 12, 2007 | 08:00 pm | Permalink

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