“I knew I was pitching against a good-hitting ballclub, and everyone knew Mr. Aaron was right in the middle of all that,” Downing said in reference to Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players in baseball history, who died Friday at 86. “You don’t go up there thinking, ‘Oh, he might hit No. 715.’ You’re just telling yourself: ‘Here comes Hank. This is the way I’ll pitch to Hank.’ Your main objective was to win the ballgame, not worry about 715.”
Aaron hit his 714th career home run against the Cincinnati Reds four days earlier, tying Babe Ruth’s record when he smacked a three-run shot on the first pitch he saw that season.
With two games remaining in the series, Braves manager Eddie Mathews held Aaron out of the lineup the following game as both hoped he might eclipse Ruth’s record in Atlanta. But MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn threatened “very serious consequences” if Aaron didn’t play in the series finale, prompting Aaron to say, “If I get a pitch to hit out of the ballpark [here], I’m going to try to dispose of it.”
He went 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts in the series finale, setting the stage for his moment with Downing in the next game against the Dodgers.
Downing walked a 40-year-old Aaron on five pitches in the first at-bat. In the fourth inning, his first pitch to Aaron was called a ball, eliciting boos from a sellout crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. On the next pitch, the left-handed Downing crouched, cocked and fired a slider Aaron shot 385 feet over the left field wall for No. 715.
“I knew it was out of the ballpark,” Downing said. “It was a line drive. Hank was a line drive hitter. He was not a flyball hitter. The difference with Hank and other line drive hitters: His line drives just seemed to carry and carry and carry.
“[Hall of Fame broadcaster Milo Hamilton] for years would say, ‘Al, we’re joined at the hip.’ At first, I said wait a minute now. I’m the one who gave up that home run. But he was really being nice. We were joined at the hip: Hank, Milo and myself. Milo was calling it, Hank was batting and I was pitching. I think it was more of a tribute to the moment and what Hank Aaron was and what he represented.”
Downing, 79, said he first met Aaron through his former New York Yankees teammate Elston Howard during spring training before his first MLB season in 1961. He considered himself a “youngster” compared to Aaron, who was 40 when he hit the record-setting home run.
“He and Elston were friends from years of playing against one another,” Downing recalled. “Mr. Aaron said: ‘Welcome to the big leagues. If you need any advice about life up here, just give me a call.’ ”
Downing, a 1967 All Star selection and the 1971 National League Comeback Player of the Year, was the losing pitcher in the 7-4 final that night in 1974. But he feels no shame for his performance that night or throughout a career that pitted him against some of baseball’s best.
“I never worried about the moment or people seeing me give that up. It wasn’t my moment, it was Mr. Aaron’s moment,” he said. “It could’ve been a lot of guys up there. I tell people this all the time; I don’t care what anybody says about baseball, that was the golden era of baseball. From 1950 until about 1990, that was the golden era. It’s not that it hasn’t gotten better, it’s just that moment there — you see the past month or so, we’ve lost seven or eight Hall of Famers from that era alone — tells you what that era was all about. So people ask if you were intimidated facing Hank Aaron. Well, every time you went there, you were facing a potential Hall of Famer, it seemed.”
As a fellow Black player, Downing can relate to some of the challenges Aaron faced in the 1960s and 1970s.
“[Aaron] had hard times, we all had hard times. But you never heard him get upset about the things he had to go through. He knew a lot of people were going through them. He wasn’t saying, ‘Why me?’ He’d tell you, ‘I’m trying to set the stage for somebody coming along later, so maybe they’ll understand everything better, and you can’t lose sight of your goals,’” Downing said.
Downing admires Aaron as a player and a pioneer, someone who paved the way for future generations of Black baseball players “with such dignity and grace.” He describes the Hall of Famer as a reliable friend and a humble star in the face of death threats and a gradually intensified national spotlight.
“Remember, for so many years, not a knock against anyone, he played in Milwaukee first and then in Atlanta. Those weren’t baseball cities. Most of the games you saw on television were coming out of New York,” Downing said. “People didn’t know who he was. Then all of a sudden, he got to 600 home runs and people were like, ‘Where’d this guy come from?’ And even then, you’d hear: ‘Well, he’s already 30. He’ll never break the record.’ But he did. And he broke it with ease, like he did a lot of things in the game.”