Al Downing, who gave up Hank Aaron‘s record-breaking 715th homer, entered baseball loaded with potential. His fastball exploded and his curveball danced. Called by some “the black Sandy Koufax,” he never lived up to that billing, partly because of control problems and inconsistency and later because of arm miseries, but for four seasons he was excellent.
Recalled from the minors to the Yankees for good in June 1963, Downing maintained a summer-long electric pace of low-hit games. The first black starting pitcher in club history allowed a scant 5.84 hits per nine innings and finished with a 13-5 record. In 1964 he led the league with 217 strikeouts. Downing in 1967 became a complete pitcher, cutting down on his walks, mastering a changeup and mixing up his pitches. He finished 14-10 with the ninth-place Yankees.
Pitching for the Dodgers in 1971, Downing reached the pinnacle, winning 20 games, including a league-leading five shutouts.