It's the 1974 baseball season that Al Downing is most noted for. Downing pitched for four teams and appeared in three World Series. As a Yankee in 1964, he led the American League in strikeouts. Seven seasons later, he went 20-9 with the Dodgers. However, most fans remember the 17-year veteran for something other than his career feats. On April 8 at 9:07 p.m. EST, a national television audience watched Downing serve up the pitch that Hank Aaron hit out of the ballpark for his 715th home run -- a new major league record.
The shot ended a mini-controversy. Braves owner Bill Bartholomay wanted Aaron to sit out the opening three-game series at Cincinnati, hoping his aging star would break the record before a packed hometown crowd. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, however, insisted Aaron play. And on the first swing of his first at-bat of the year, the 40-year-old outfielder tied Babe Ruth's seemingly unreachable record. By season's end, Aaron had upped his career total to 733.
Other notable milestones involved Redbirds Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. En route to a disappointing 11-13 season, the 38-year-old Gibson became only the second pitcher to record 3,000 Ks, while the 35-year-old Brock hit .306 and established a new steals record, swiping 118.
In the American League, Detroit's Al Kaline wrapped up an outstanding 22-year career by collecting his 3,000th hit (also finishing with 399 homers). Angels flamethrower Nolan Ryan notched his third career no-hitter.
The one record-setter who figured in a pennant race was Dodger reliever Mike Marshall. Los Angeles won the National League West, finishing 4 up on Cincinnati, as the Cy Young winner appeared in an unprecedented 106 games, winning 15 and leading the league with 21 saves.
Teammate Steve Garvey (.312 average, 21 homers, 111 RBI) won the MVP Award. Garvey also hit .389 in the National League Championship Series to lead LA over Pittsburgh three games to one. The Pirates had won the National League East on the bats of Richie Zisk (100 RBI), Al Oliver (.321 average), and Willie Stargell (25 home runs).
The Oakland A's displayed the form that made them World Champions in 1972 and 1973, finishing 5 games ahead of Texas. Catfish Hunter (25-12) won the 1974 Cy Young Award, and Reggie Jackson (.289 average, 29 home runs, 93 RBI) supplied the pop.
The most compelling pennant race of the season came in the American League East. Baltimore rallied to win 27 of 33 to edge the Yankees by 2 games. However, the Orioles were no match for the A's in the American League Championship Series, falling three games to one.
Oakland and Los Angeles waged California's version of a Subway Series. The first three games were decided by the identical scores of 3-2. Jackson's homer gave Oakland the edge in game one, and Los Angeles evened the Series in game two when Marshall picked off designated runner Herb Washington to kill a ninth-inning rally.
In game three, the A's capitalized on two Dodger errors, giving them a two-games-to-one World Series lead. Oakland won game four 5-2, as pitcher Ken Holtzman, who had logged in two regular seasons without an at-bat, belted a home run.
In game five, with his team trailing 3-2, Dodger Bill Buckner was gunned down trying to stretch a double into a triple in the eighth inning. A's reliever Rollie Fingers preserved the win, giving Oakland its third title in as many years. It was the only non-Yankee three-peat in World Series history.
Check out headlines and summaries of major stories from the 1974 baseball season on the next page.