Sandy Koufax was pitching brilliantly in 1965; only those closest to Koufax could have guessed that he would retire just a year later, due to severe arthritis in his pitching arm. Unnoticed by all but a few people, in 1965, Ken Holtzman, a Jewish southpaw from St. Louis, signed a bonus contract with the Chicago Cubs. Almost immediately, the young man from St. Louis would be hailed as the next Koufax.
It is difficult to overstate the comparison between Holtzman and Koufax and the emotions of fans of Koufax and the young Holtzman, especially in 1966 when Holtzman and Koufax faced each other a day after Yom Kippur. Both had gone to the synagogue. Holtzman's mother was torn between her son winning and Sandy, who had become a Jewish household name, even being extolled in Jewish households as the "New Patriarch." And later in the hit movie The Big Lebowski John Goodman was heard to utter, "Three thousand years of beautiful tradition: from Moses to Sandy Koufax." Ken's mother finally said to her son, "Maybe you can get a no-decision." Ken beat Sandy that day, 2-1, and his mother said, "I was rooting for you to be just like Sandy."
Kenneth Dale Holtzman was born on November 3, 1945, in St. Louis to Henry and Jacqueline Holtzman. His father was in the machinery business, his mother a housewife. Ken played ball on the University City High School team, graduating in 1963. Holtzman then went to the University of Illinois, graduating in 1967 with a B.A. in Business Administration.
Holtzman started his career in 1965 with Caldwell (Ohio) in the Pioneer League and went 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA Promoted to Wenatchee (Washington) in the Northwest League, he won 4 and lost 3 with an ERA of 2.44. On a fast track, he was called up to the Cubs on September 4, 1965, appearing in three games with a 2.25 ERA. His debut was not auspicious as he gave up a homer to his first batter, Jim Ray Hart. But he settled down and was mildly impressive. In 1966 he stayed with the Cubs and won 11 and lost 16. Holtzman led the team in strikeouts with 171. The 1967 season was cut short for Holtzman, as he was in the National Guard, but it was very successful: 9-0 with an ERA of 2.52.
In 1969, Holtzman was part of the stellar Cubs team consisting of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley and Ferguson Jenkins. Well on their way to an apparent pennant with a 9-1/2 game lead in mid August, the curse of the goat caught up with them again, and the Cubbies foundered in the stretch as the miracle Mets won the pennant.
Holtzman stayed with the Cubs through the 1971 season and pitched two no-hitters. He took down the Braves, 3-0, on August 19, 1969, and threw a 1-0 masterpiece on June 3, 1971, in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, he wasn't happy in Chicago, believing that manager Leo Durocher was holding him down.
He asked for and was granted a trade to the Oakland Athletics of the American League. In 1972 he won 19 games with the A's with an ERA of 2.52. The pitching staff on the A's was solid with hurlers like Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and reliever Rollie Fingers. Two other Jewish players were on the A's: Mike Epstein and Joel Horlen. Ken was honored that year by being selected to play on the American League All-Star team. He was also the player representative for the A's. That year the A's beat Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in seven games to win the World Series. Holtzman won Game 1, pitched well in Game 4 but had no and relieved in Game 7, winding up with a 2.13 ERA.
Another great year followed in 1973 as Ken won 21 games. Again the A's went to the World Series and defeated the Mets in seven games. Holtzman picked up two of the four victories for the A's. Again he was picked to represent the A's in the All-Star Game. Another honor was given him when he was named by The Sporting News as the American League's best left-handed pitcher. Nineteen seventy-four was another banner season for both the A's and Ken Holtzman. The A's won their third consecutive World Series, defeating the Dodgers in five games. Ken won 19 games that season, then picked up a win in Game 4 to go with his 1.50 ERA.
Holtzman provided the irony that can be achieved only in baseball during the 1973 and 1974 World Series. Having hit like a pitcher (.163 average with 2 home runs) all through his career, in each Series he turned into not quite Babe Ruth but a reasonably close facsimile. In the third inning of Game 1 of the 1973 Series, with one out he doubled down the left field line off the Mets' Jon Matlack and scored the first run of the game when Bert Campaneris' grounder went through Felix Milan's legs. The Athletics won, 2-0. Then in Game 7, he attacked Matlack again with one out, another double down the left field line. One more time he scored the first run of the game, coming around on Campaneris' homer. Oakland won the game, 4-1, and the Series. Proving that he wasn't a one-Series wonder, he gave an encore performance in 1974 against the Dodgers. In Game 1, he drew a lead-off walk from Andy Messersmith in the third inning and was sacrificed to second by Campaneris, where he remained as Billy North and Sal Bando struck out. He doubled down the left field line with one out in the fifth, went to third on a wild pitch, and scored on Campaneris' suicide squeeze. Game 1 went to the A's, 3-2. Holtzman saved his best for Game 4. With one out in the third, he started the scoring by taking a Messersmith pitch over the left field fence. Oakland won the game, 5-2, and finished the Series the next day. Holtzman's offensive contribution for the two Series was four hits (three doubles and the homer) in seven at-bats.
The A's won their fourth straight Division title in 1975 but were defeated in the ALCS by the Red Sox. Holtzman won 18 games during the season. The following spring, Ken and Reggie Jackson were traded to the Baltimore Orioles after protracted salary disputes with Athletics' owner Charles O. Finley. Ken played only half a season with Baltimore before he was traded to the Yankees. He won 14 that year with both the Orioles and Yankees. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin had little use for Ken, and Holtzman's production dropped off precipitously in 1977 and 1978, as he won only a total of three games.
Holtzman took a pragmatic approach to Martin's passing over him late in the 1976 season: "If they want me to pitch I'll pitch, if they want me in the bullpen I'll go there. Whatever they want I don't care as long as the checks keep coming in." Kenny had become a no-nonsense guy when it came to the business end of baseball. Intelligent and educated, he understood the tough business end of baseball.
Traded to the Cubs in 1978, he did not win a game and had three losses. In 1979 after another losing season with the Cubs he retired from baseball.
Holtzman married Michelle Collons in 1971. The have three daughters. In retirement he has put his business degree to use and worked as a stockbroker and in the commercial insurance business. The Holtzmans live in Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. Serious about his Jewish faith, he never pitched on a religious holiday. The Holtzmans still keep a kosher household.
Holtzman pitched for 15 years in the majors. He won 174 and lost 150 with an ERA of 3.49. His record doesn't look bad beside Koufax', and he did win nine more games than Sandy. However, he also lost 67 more games with an ERA almost three-quarters of a point higher. Nevertheless, Holtzman was a very fine pitcher in his own right. Coming on to the scene just when Koufax was retiring might have intimidated a lesser man, but Ken Holtzman more than held his own. He wasn't Koufax, but neither was anyone else.
Goodman, Howard. Palm Beach (Florida) Sun Sentinal. October 14, 2003. Online.
Horvitz, Peter S., and Joachim Horvitz. The Big Book of Jewish Baseball. New York: SPI Books, 2001.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
Ken Holtzman files from the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York.
Leavy, Jane. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Light, Jonathan Fraser. The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1997.
Nemec, David and Wisnia Saul. Baseball: More than 150 Years. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, 1997.