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The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #51 Ken Holtzman

Missing a phone call.

How many times has that happened to you and as a result, you missed an event that became historic, or even legendary?

On September 25, 1966 I was not home when a friend of mine, a longtime Dodger fan, called saying he had an extra ticket to the Cubs game and wanting to know if I wanted to go. By the time I got home it was too late, so I missed...

... what was billed as "the first great matchup of the Jewish lefthanders", Kenny Holtzman and Sandy Koufax at Wrigley Field. No one knew at the time that Koufax would retire at the end of that season, and that the September 25 game (only one day after Yom Kippur) would be the only time these pitchers would face each other.

It was a matchup for the ages, despite the relative position of the two teams. The Dodgers were fighting for a pennant, which they eventually won; the Cubs were 33 games out of first place, in 10th place in a 10-team league.

But that day, Holtzman, a rookie, was better than the veteran Hall-of-Famer. The Cubs scored two runs in the first inning off Koufax... and Holtzman kept putting up zeroes. In fact, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning, having allowed only one baserunner (on a third-inning walk to Dick Schofield). Though he lost the no-hitter and shutout in the ninth, he won the game 2-1, and the near no-no was a precursor to the rest of Holtzman's Cub career.

Kenneth Dale Holtzman was born on November 3, 1945 in St. Louis and attended the University of Illinois, from where he was the Cubs' fourth-round choice in the very first amateur draft, held in 1965. By the end of that season he had made his major league debut at the age of 19, throwing three games in relief.

With the Cubs definitely in "building" mode, in 1966 Holtzman became a rotation starter; his 11-16 record belied a fine performance that included 9 complete games and a respectable 3.79 ERA. He might have burst onto the national scene the following year -- except that he had made military obligations during his college days and thus was asked to serve most of the 1967 season in the National Guard, after beginning the season in the rotation. They gave him passes to pitch for the Cubs on occasional weekends; he made twelve starts and went 9-0 with a fine 2.53 ERA. This included this 11-inning complete game against the Dodgers on May 14 (I know at least one BCB reader who will smile at the words "11-inning complete game"!), and four good performances on his weekend passes.

In 1968 Holtzman regressed a bit, posting an 11-14 record and what was for that year a mediocre 3.35 ERA (for perspective, in 1968, the "year of the pitcher", tenth place in the NL in ERA was 2.44!). The team struggled, too, coming from nine games under .500 (31-40 in late June) to finish a respectable 84-78.

1969 ... well, you all know what happened to the team that year, but Holtzman, at age 23, burst on the national scene with a 17-13 season, twelve complete games, six shutouts (tied for third in the NL), and his first no-hitter, thrown at Wrigley Field on August 19, that was saved in part by a catch by Billy Williams of a Hank Aaron fly ball that was knocked down by a strong wind blowing in over the LF wall.

Click here for Vince Lloyd's WGN radio call of Williams' great catch.

Click here for Lloyd's call of the last out of Holtzman's no-hitter, also a ball hit by Hank Aaron. (Both links open new browser windows containing .mp3 files)

Holtzman never was a big strikeout pitcher -- his best pitch was a looping, roundhouse curveball -- but oddly, he didn't strike out a single Atlanta Brave in that no-hitter. Another oddity in Kenny's first no-hitter -- it wasn't caught by Randy Hundley, but by backup Bill Heath. In the 8th inning, a foul tip off the bat of Hank Aaron's brother Tommie broke Heath's finger. Heath had to leave the game and never played in the major leagues again.

He followed up his '69 season with a nearly identical, 17-11, 3.38 year in 1970, but the Cubs again finished second, and in 1971, bothered by injury, he missed a lot of time in the second half. Before that, though, he threw his second no-hitter at Cincinnati on June 3; followed that up with an 11th-inning relief appearance two days later in Atlanta, and then threw a twelve-inning, nine-hit, twelve-strikeout shutout against the Pirates three days after that at Wrigley Field.

Man. No wonder he got hurt. Can you imagine a 2007-era manager asking a 25-year-old starting pitcher to do that?

And despite his poor 1971 season, many of us were saddened to see Holtzman traded to Oakland on November 29 of that year for Rick Monday -- even though Monday was a good player and had several good seasons for the Cubs, and even though Holtzman himself had asked to be traded.

Holtzman, meanwhile, became a key cog in the A's three-time World Series champions. In eight World Series games (seven starts) he was 4-1 with a 2.55 ERA, and from 1972 through 1975 he won 19, 21, 18 and 19 games. Never known as a great hitter with the Cubs, his double in the third inning of game seven of the 1973 World Series helped to start a four-run rally which would win the Series for the A's.

Holtzman loved pitching on those A's teams; scraggly-haired, he even grew a mustache to join in with the rest of Charlie Finley's hair-laden crew:

When he was traded along with Reggie Jackson to Baltimore on April 2, 1976, just before Opening Day (as Finley started to shed himself of high-paid stars before he'd have to pay them even more -- sound familiar?), he seemed to lose interest in pitching. After a decent (5-4, 2.86) first half, the Orioles suddenly shipped him to the Yankees on June 15, 1976 as part of a nine-player deal, the sort you never see these days.

Holtzman, a sensitive sort, never took to playing in the Bronx Zoo, whose stadium was never kind to soft-tossing lefties. He made a credible 21 starts for the Yankees (9-7, 4.17 ERA) but was left off their postseason roster and by 1977, was the forgotten man on the Yankee staff. He was pulled from their rotation in midseason and pitched only five times after July 1, the last being garbage-time mopup work in a 19-3 blowout at the hands of the expansion Blue Jays.

The following year, it was more of the same; George Steinbrenner had been upset with Holtzman for his refusal to waive his no-trade clause and forced manager Billy Martin to relegated him to occasional bullpen work. At last, Holtzman agreed to be dealt, to make a prodigal-son return to the Cubs, who acquired him on June 10, 1978 for a PTBNL. Unfortunately, in a move that would herald future such not-very-smart moves, the PTBNL turned out to be Ron Davis, who had several decent seasons as a closer in Minnesota in the early 1980's, long after Holtzman was out of baseball.

His return to the Cubs, though sentimentally sweet, wasn't very useful from a baseball sense. We used to joke, in those energy-crisis days, that Holtzman threw the "Ecology Pitch" (a 55-MPH fastball). He really had very little left, even at the relatively young age of 33. Before he hung up his spikes at the end of the 1979 season, though, he fired one last "remember me?" salvo -- a gorgeous three-hit shutout of the Astros in the first game of a doubleheader on July 7. It was his last major league win.

Holtzman's 80 wins as a Cub rank him 28th on the all-time team list; his 174 career wins are the record for a Jewish pitcher, and he is the only Cub pitcher since 1900 to throw more than one no-hitter. Since he retired, Holtzman has continued to live in the Chicago suburbs, where he has been very successful as a stockbroker and in the insurance business. He and his wife Michelle have three daughters, and as very observant Jews, keep a Kosher household.