Al Downing had a favorable relationship with Ralph Houk. The former catcher was Downing’s first manager in the major leagues, from 1961-1963. Houk liked Downing’s stuff and he respected the way the lefty handled himself on the mound.
In 1963 when he was 22 years old, Downing pitched ten complete games, four of them shutouts, for Houk, who loved his pitchers to go the distance. That season, Downing paced the American League in strikeouts per nine innings. The following year, Downing pitched 244 innings and led the AL with 217 K’s. He seemed to be the heir apparent to Whitey Ford as ace of the Yankees. But similarities to Whitey were only valid in the regular season – Downing did not pitch well in the World Series for Houk and the Bombers.
Houk stepped down as manager after the ’63 season and Downing suffered. But in 1966 “The Major” was back in uniform guiding the Yanks and one of his first projects was Downing. “He’s not pitching the way he did for me before, back in ’63,” Houk said. But Downing responded with an All-Star season in 1967, winning 14 games, four of them shutouts.
Downing was traded by the Yankees during the 1969 winter meetings, for Danny Cater, who was supposed to solve the Yanks’ first base problem. He hit .301 in his first season in the Bronx, but Cater faded and never had a stroke that could take advantage of the short right field in Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, Downing had a career year for the Dodgers in 1971, winning 20 games and firing five shutouts for Walter Alston’s pitching-rich club. But it was Al’s last hurrah – he suffered from poor run support the next few years in LA, came down with a sore shoulder, and ended his career with three years as a relief pitcher.