IRVING MOTHER & SON BREAKFAST W/AL DOWNING - 1973-74 - The following is part of a series of articles written by Michael Leavitt about his real life experiences at Washington Irving Junior High School in Los Angeles, California from 1974-1976. The events are true and have been documented to help Michael's family better understand the racial tensions he endured during that era. And even amidst the turmoil, good times were plentiful and proof that even when you are given the sourest of lemons you can still make a great lemonade. If you haven't read the previous entries, then I invite you to enjoy them when you have time.
“DAD, WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE FOR YOU IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL?”
CHAPTER 11 - IRVING MOTHER & SON BREAKFAST W/AL DOWNING - 1973-74
In the 1973-74 school year I was a 7th grader attending Washington Irving Junior High School in East Los Angeles, California. At that point in my life I had a very clear direction and focus. According to my writing journal from Mrs. Zoellner's English class, I was on the fast track to play first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sure Wes Parker was playing very well at that position, and had just won 6 straight Gold Glove awards. Wes Parker was just ending his career and Steve Garvey was soon to be his permanent replacement and Steve would win four more Gold Glove awards. I just knew that I would do everything I could to follow in their footsteps and become the L.A. Dodgers' future first base all-star. There were a lot of flaws in my young thought processes, but I was tall and lanky with a good wingspan reach that would allow me to dig out those difficult throws to first base. All I needed to do was catch the attention of the Dodger organization... But how???
IRVING'S MOTHER & SON BREAKFAST
Coming to a new school in 7th grade, I was really surprised that they had a Mother and Son breakfast each year. I was even more excited when they announced that the guest speaker for the breakfast would be the Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Al Downing. Mr. Downing had come to the Dodgers in 1971 and was a 20 game winner that year. His record dipped to a 9-9 season just before his assignment to come and speak to the 7-9th grade boys and their Mothers at Washington Irving, maybe speaking to us was his punishment and motivation to do better in the upcoming season. I can remember being very excited when the breakfast was announced because I just knew that my Mom would see the importance, get the time off work, and allow for us to be at the breakfast together to see Mr. Al Downing.
THE BREAKFAST MORNING FINALLY ARRIVED
I remember not being able to sleep much the night before the breakfast. Coming to school with Mom was obviously embarrassing, yet it was just one more of those great memories with Mom in my youth. If I let her know that something was important, she was always there for me. She knew of my love for baseball, and especially my love for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember that each year her employer, Ralph M. Parsons, would have a work night at Dodger Stadium. This insured that I got to go at least once each season. I still remember how awesomely green the grass was in the Southern California night air as it was lit up with the tall towers of lights. And eating an official Dodger Dog while seated in the upper deck of the stadium was an incredible experience. I always took my glove, just in case, yet never did anything make it that high into the stratosphere.
The breakfast was held inside the school cafeteria. I remember our principal, Mr. Cloherty, being there and introducing our special guest speaker. What words of wisdom would be imparted upon our young minds?... I do not remember most of the discussion. I just know that I sat there mesmerized to be in the same room with the famous Dodger pitcher. Maybe this was my chance to make an impression... Nope, I was way too star struck.
HANK AARON'S RECORD
At one point late in the breakfast the discussion came up about Hank Aaron. I am sure that my kids have no understanding of all the hype regarding Babe Ruth's home run record. This was 1973 and Hank Aaron was a black man chasing a white man's long standing record. This was still the era of major race descrimination and our parents, and their parents were really having a hard time with skin color. My two favorite baseball players in that era were pitcher Bob Gibson and base stealer extraordinaire Lou Brock, both of the St. Louis Cardinals. At that time in my life I was more impressed by talent and I gave little thought to my favorite athelete's skin color.
Hank Aaron played for the Atlanta Braves and he was chasing the home run record set by Babe Ruth decades and decades earlier. In fact, Babe Ruth finish his record on May 25, 1935 as a Boston Brave, while playing the Pirates, and he hit 3 home runs that day. Yep Babe Ruth's home run numbers 712, 713, and 714 were all hit in one game. So here we were, 38 years later eating breakfast, and at the end of the 1973 season Hank Aaron was just a couple home runs shy of beating the 714 home run record. We were now having to wait through the seemingly long off-season until Hammering Hank would get the chance to finally break the incredible long standing record. I can't remember who asked, but the question presented for Al Downing's consideration was a great one...
"Mr. Downing, if you were pitching to Hank Aaron when he was trying to break Babe Ruth's home run record, would you give him an easy pitch to hit so that he could break the record?"
I sat there watching as Al Downing listened to the question posed, and then without any hesitation he gave a big smile and stated,
"I wouldn't care if it was my own Mother, I wouldn't give 'em an easy pitch to hit!"
The entire room broke out with laughter and applause. A short while later Mr. Downing was done speaking and I waited my turn to get his autograph and shake his hand. This was my chance to make an impression, yet I can't even remember if I had the courage to mutter a sound. Yep, I was even more tongue tied with Al Downing than I was trying to talk to the 7th grade girls. I remember leaving the breakfast, having felt Mr. Downing's love and intensity for the game, and I had an even stronger resolve to wear the Dodger blue in the coming years.
FAST FORWARD TO APRIL 1974
On April 8th, 1974, the L.A. Dodgers were playing in Atlanta before 53,775 people. Al Downing was facing Hank Aaron, who was tied with Babe Ruth at 714 home runs. In the fourth inning, and with the record on the line, Hank Aaron drove one deep and Dodger outfielder Billy Buckner nearly went over the left field fence trying to snatch the record breaking home run, but to no avail. The record was broken and Al Downing had served up the pitch that cleared the fence.
You might enjoy this brief account by sports writer Zachary Rhymer...
Set to do battle with the Braves on the big day were the Dodgers, who would be starting lefty hurler Al Downing. A Cy Young contender in 1971, it was to be his job to deny Aaron home run No. 715.
"I will pitch to Aaron no differently tonight," Downing said before the game, via Fimrite. "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. I think people will remember the pitcher who throws the last one he ever hits, not the 715th."
Downing's plan of attack wasn't necessarily dictated by the scouting report. In fact, Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager recalled to Bryant that the scouting report on Aaron included just two words: "Henry Aaron."
Said Yeager: "What else did you need to say? I mean, he was Henry Aaron."
When the game began, the home fans were more than ready for Aaron to come to bat. That happened in the bottom of the second after Downing and Atlanta's Ron Reed traded 1-2-3 innings in the first.
When Aaron was in the box to lead off the home half of the second, Downing was careful with him. Careful enough, as it turned out, to walk him on five pitches.
The crowd groaned. "Not right now, Henry," was Dodgers announcer Vin Scully's call.
Aaron came around to score on a double by Dusty Baker, but the Braves soon found themselves trailing 3-1 after Reed gave up a trio of runs in the third inning.
That was the score when Aaron came to the plate in the bottom of the fourth. Darrell Evans reached on an error to get to first with nobody out, meaning Aaron's 715th would also mean a tie game.
There was a long standing ovation for Aaron as he strode to the plate for his second at-bat, but the cheers turned to boos when Downing delivered low for ball one.
Then came the 1-0 pitch. It was a fastball, and Downing would soon be reminded what All-Star pitcher Curt Simmons had once said: "Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster."
As soon as the ball was in the air, it looked like it could be. And when it landed, it was.
The truth of the matter is that I have no clue who threw Hank Aaron his last home run pitch (#755) in Major League Baseball, but as a 7th grader I will never forget being glued to the TV set that Monday night as Al Downing was pitching to Hank Aaron on April 8, 1974.
NOTE: Thanks to Google, "07-20-1976- Hank Aaron hits home run number 755 versus Dick Drago of the California Angels."
MY DODGER CAREER
It should come as no surprise that I never did play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I have continued to play sports throughout my life. As my kids grew, I took on the role of coach and one of my son's teams was the Dodgers. It was awesome coaching the young Orem, Utah Dodger's to the city championships as we wore the greatest color in the world... Dodger Blue!
For as long as I can remember, I have always been very serious about playing sports and I can trace some of that intensity back to the cafeteria at Washington Irving, while eating breakfast with my Mom, and listening to Al Downing. It was the first time I had been in the same room with a professional baseball player and he left a strong impression upon me to do my best at whatever I was attempting to accomplish... Thanks Mr. Al Downing!!!
Make it a great day! Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com
Do you have memories of the Al Downing Mother & Son breakfast?
Fellow Irving classmate Billy Graham shared via Facebook, "Remember that day like it was yesterday. Think Annelie Graham only made two visits to Irving. That day and graduation. It was raining but not hard. Downing said something that day that I never forgot. He said everyone has a talent. It stuck with me,and actually kind of helped me during times when I thought I might not have any."
NOTE: Washington Irving Junior High School was 7th, 8th, and 9th grades during my 1974-76 tenure. I see that it is now named Washington Irving Middle School and features 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.
NOTE 2: Washington Irving has changed again. The internet shows it is now called the Irving Magnet School and is painted white and vibrant blue and features grades 5th through 8th. LINK