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August 19, 1969: Ken Holtzman's No-Hitter

Today is the anniversary of a significant event in Cubs history. Let's look back.

Ken Holtzman pitches against the Expos in April 1970
Ken Holtzman pitches against the Expos in April 1970
Courtesy Leo Bauby

The 1969 Cubs are written about often. Perhaps this doesn't mean much to you; you might be far too young to know anything about that team except what you've read in baseball history books and maybe you're tired of hearing about men who never won anything and are now in their 70s and 80s.

But there's at least one event that's worth remembering, and it happened 44 years ago today.

The Cubs had been on a rollicking ride all that summer. The August 19 game was the first of a 10-game homestand; the Cubs had just returned from a 12-game trip to Houston and the West Coast. Those locations had been burial grounds for Cubs teams in the past, but the '69 Cubs went 8-4 on that trip, including a sweep in the hated Astrodome.

They were 76-45, eight games in first place, when the Braves visited Wrigley Field Tuesday, August 19 for the first of a three-game series. The set was important to the Braves, too; they would eventually win the N.L. West that year, but that race involved five teams -- all but the expansion Padres. On that date, the Reds and Dodgers were tied for first place and the Braves, Astros and Giants were all tied, 1½ games behind.

So when Ken Holtzman took the mound that Tuesday afternoon, it was to try to extend the Cubs' lead while the Braves desperately tried to gain ground. It was a bright, sunny, but coolish day for mid-August, much like some of the recent days this year. The game-time temperature was 76, and a cold front had blown through the area just the day before; the wind was blowing in strongly from left field. This wind will become important on this day.

Ron Santo gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead in the first inning; Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert singled, and after Billy Williams struck out, Santo hit a three-run homer. The Cubs didn't score any more runs that day, but they didn't need to.

That's because Holtzman started mowing down Braves. He had issued just two walks entering the seventh inning, when Hank Aaron lofted a fly ball that on most normal days would have been on Waveland Avenue. But the wind pushed it back -- literally. Billy Williams has told the story many times of how he thought the ball was gone, and watched it blown back where he caught it, right in the "well" in left field, back against the ivy.

One inning later, another oddity occurred while Gil Garrido was batting. Garrido fouled a ball off catcher Bill Heath's throwing hand. Heath had to leave the game and Gene Oliver finished up at catcher -- making this game one of only two no-hitters in major-league history caught by more than one catcher. (There was almost a third last week; if Yu Darvish had finished his no-no after A.J. Pierzynski was ejected, that game would have joined the list.)

Heath had suffered a broken finger on the play. He never played in the major leagues again.

Aaron's blast in the seventh was the last real danger to Holtzman's no-hitter; in the ninth, Felipe Alou popped up to shortstop and Felix Millan grounded to third base. Up stepped Aaron again and the near-capacity house of 37,514 was nervous. Holtzman got Aaron to ground to Beckert at second, setting off a wild celebration.

At the time it happened, Holtzman's no-hitter -- the first by a Cub in nine years -- was seen as just another happy milestone on the way to a Cubs pennant.

In hindsight, it was the climax of the season. The Cubs' division lead, as big as nine games just a few days earlier, began to shrink. The team was 77-45 after that game, 32 games over .500, their high point of the season. They wouldn't be that far over .500 again until 2008. They went 15-25 the rest of the way. You don't need to hear the rest of that story.

For one afternoon, it was glory on the North Side. Holtzman threw another no-hitter for the Cubs in 1971, but it took a trade to the Athletics to get him into the postseason.

Holtzman's 1969 no-hitter has one other distinction. It's one of just two complete-game no-hitters in major-league history where there were no strikeouts. Here's the other one. And here's the August 19, 1969 boxscore.

The current edition of the Cubs, obviously, won't have anything close to what happened even into August 1969. Perhaps one day, we'll be able to celebrate a no-hitter; one member of the current rotation (Edwin Jackson) has thrown one in the past, and another (Travis Wood) took one into the ninth inning in his third major-league start.

Until then, look back and reflect on this great moment from Cubs history.