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Today in 1969 Cubs history: Ken Holtzman throws a no-hitter

It was one of the best days of the year.

MLB via Getty Images

Ken Holtzman was pitching in the big leagues for the Cubs at age 19. The next year, 1966, he matched up against Sandy Koufax in what was billed as “The Battle of the Jewish Lefties” and nearly no-hit the pennant-winning Dodgers on September 25, allowing just one walk and facing the minimum through eight innings, settling for a 2-1, two-hit complete-game win.

He threw a couple of two-hitters in 1968 and another one in early August 1969 and fans figured a no-hitter might eventually happen.

August 19, 1969 dawned sunny in Chicago and, for the season, somewhat cool, with temperatures in the mid-70s and a strong northwest wind blowing in at Wrigley Field. The weather would turn out to be an important factor in the game against the Atlanta Braves.

Holtzman retired the Braves in order in the first and Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert led off the bottom of the inning with singles. One out later, Ron Santo came to bat:

Santo’s three-run homer was the only real offense the Cubs could muster off future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who allowed just five hits in seven innings’ work.

Meanwhile, Holtzman was cruising, allowing three walks, but no hits. After one of those walks, with two out in the third inning, Beckert made this slick play:

I mentioned the wind and that it would become important later in the game. Hank Aaron led off the seventh inning against Holtzman:

You can see Billy Williams just about give up on Aaron’s drive as he sets up to watch it go into the left-field bleachers. But the wind pushed it back, just enough for Billy to catch it against the wall. You can also get a good look at the bleacher wall before the basket was installed, which happened the following May.

Holtzman kept his no-hitter going, and here’s the final out:

The catcher wearing No. 12 is Gene Oliver, who played in only 23 games in 1969 and only three after Holtzman’s no-hitter due to various injuries. He wasn’t supposed to be in the no-hitter, either. Bill Heath, another backup, had started the game but had to leave after he was hit in the finger by a foul ball in the eighth inning. Heath never played in the major leagues again.

Incidentally, what you see at the end of the game-ending video is something you’d never see today — fans rushing the field. It was a common sight after games like this in that era. The last time I remember any fans doing anything like that was in this game, the Yankees’ clincher of the 1976 ALCS on Chris Chambliss’ walkoff homer:

You can see how dangerous that was; Chambliss later said he felt “fear” rounding the bases, and he likely never did touch the plate. After that MLB cracked down on any fans entering the field.

As for Holtzman, his no-hitter was one of only three in major-league history where the no-hit pitcher had no strikeouts. The others were in 1912 and 1923. Holtzman would throw another no-hitter June 3, 1971 against the Reds, a messy game in which Ken walked four and wound up scoring the only run in the game after reaching on an error. Here’s the last out of Holtzman’s 1971 no-hitter in Cincinnati:

But at the time in 1969, Kenny’s first no-hitter was seen as just another wonderful thing for the Cubs on their way, presumably, to postseason glory. In hindsight, this was the peak of the season. The Cubs were 77-45 and led the Mets by eight games after the win. The Cubs went just 15-25 the rest of the way, while the Mets blew by them with an incredible 33-11 record.

This series will continue throughout the season, noting key events on the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ memorable 1969 season. Thanks to BCBer MN exile for his assistance with the 1969 video clips.