|"There's one sound that's really significant in your life as a pitcher, that makes you wake up in the middle of the night, and that's the sound of a bat when it hits a home run." -- Al Downing
Al Downing's name was forever etched in baseball's lore on April 8, 1974.
All things considered, the man who is perhaps (with apologies to 1890s star Mike Tiernan and 1940s base-stealing king George Case) the best major leaguer to come out of Trenton probably would have passed on the honor.
On that spring night in Atlanta, at 9:07 p.m., Downing, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, joined the ignomious ranks of Ralph Branca, Tom Zachary and Tracy Stallard -- men whose careers were overshadowed by one bad pitch -- by surrendering Hank Aaron's 715th home run.
The blast, a 385-foot shot to left-center, came with one on and Aaron's Atlanta Braves trailing Downing's Los Angeles Dodgers 4-1 in the fourth inning.
Aaron became baseball's home run king, surpassing Babe Ruth, who had held the all-time record for more than five decades.
While it ended a torturous ordeal for Aaron, whose life had been a living hell for years thanks to racially motivated death threats, Downing's career of infamy had just begun.
Prior to the game, Downing told reporters that, despite his team's 3 a.m. arrival that day, he was ready for the challenge, and predicted the game would be no different than any other, despite a 45-minute ceremony that preceded the game, Atlanta's home opener.
"I will pitch to Aaron no differently tonight," he told the media. "I'll mix my pitches up, move the locations. If I make a mistake, it's no disgrace. I don't think the pitcher should take the glory for No. 715. He won't deserve any accolades."
In Aaron's first at-bat against Downing, he walked, and the crowd of 53,775 Braves fans eager to witness history booed lustily. Aaron scored on an error, breaking Willie Mays' National League record for runs scored.
But that wasn't the record the world was waiting for.
In the fourth inning, with Darrell Evans on first, Downing bounced a breaking ball in the dirt to Aaron, drawing more boos.
Determined to challenge Aaron, Downing went at him with a high fastball. Aaron's short, economical swing sent the ball flying toward left field.
Left fielder Bill Buckner, who would become one of biggest scapegoats in the game's history for booting an easy grounder that cost the Boston Red Sox the 1986 World Series, and center fielder Jimmy Wynn gave chase.
But it was Braves reliever Tom House who retrieved the ball from the bullpen behind the fence, 385 feet from home plate.
"It was a fastball down the middle of the upper part of the plate," Downing said later. "I was trying to get it down to him, but I didn't.
"He's a great hitter. When he picks his pitch, he's pretty certain that's the pitch he's looking for. Chances are he's gonna hit it pretty good. When he did hit it, I didn't think it was out because I was watching Wynn, and Buckner. But the ball just kept carrying and carrying."
Being the victim of memorable hits has ruined some pitchers. Mitch Williams, who broke Philadelphia's heart when he allowed Joe Carter's World Series-clinching home run in 1993, was run out of town and was never successful pitcher again.
The California Angels' Donnie Moore, who gave up a similar homer to Dave Henderson in the 1986 playoffs, committed suicide three years later. Teammate Brian Downing blamed the death on the media, which savaged Moore as a scapegoat.
But Downing was philosophical about his role in history.
He even joked that he, Aaron, and San Francisco Giants slugger Willie McCovey were three of the best hitters in the game. Like Aaron and McCovey, Downing wore No. 44. Unlike those two Hall of Famers, Downing sported a .127 lifetime average with two home runs.
"Naturally, I didn't like giving up the home run," Downing said years later. "But now I take pride in being a part of the historical moment. There's no shame in giving it up."
Downing deserves to be remembered on his own merits, especially in Trenton.
His most memorable Trenton moment came in 1956, when he pitched Trenton's 15-year-old Babe Ruth team to a World Series title. Downing, facing another future major leaguer, Mickey Lolich of Huntington Park, Calif., hurled a 1-0 masterpiece to clinch the championship.
A graduate of Trenton High and Rider College, Downing went 9-2 as a senior for the Tornadoes in 1959.
The hard-throwing lefty posted a record of 62-48 with the Yankees from 1963-67, leading the league in strikeouts in 1964.
His best year came with the Dodgers in 1971, when he finished third in the Cy Young balloting with a 20-9 mark and a 2.68 ERA. For his career, he was 123-107, with a 3.22 ERA and 1639 strikeouts in 2,268 1/3 innings.
Downing was reunited with Aaron at a ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of the landmark homer in Atlanta this year. Apparently, Downing has kept his sense of humor, despite generation after generation of sportswriters who probe him about his ill-fated pitch.
Feigning bitterness, Downing once said: "I never say 7:15 anymore. I say quarter after seven."
|1974: A pitcher's unwanted fame|
|By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian|