This article was written by Rich Puerzer
Upon his arrival in the major leagues, Ken Holtzman was promoted as the new Sandy Koufax. A hard-throwing, left-handed Jewish pitcher, Holtzman quickly became the ace of the Chicago Cubs staff and one of the best pitchers in the majors. He enjoyed a fine career, spending his best years with the tumultuous and talented Oakland A’s. Holtzman was known as something of a thinking man’s ballplayer – he was quoted as having read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in the original French, and was a staunch union advocate and player representative during the nascent years of free agency. Holtzman’s pitching career had a rocky ending and he retired at the age of 33, but he is remembered today as a very good, if still underestimated pitcher.
Kenneth Dale Holtzman was born on November 3, 1945, in St. Louis. Henry Holtzman, his father, was in the machinery business while his mother, Jacqueline, was a homemaker. Ken grew up in the St. Louis suburb of University City. He graduated in 1963 from University City High School, where he had an overall pitching record of 31-3. Holtzman then entered the University of Illinois, where he studied business administration and played baseball. Holtzman was selected in the fourth round of the 1965 amateur draft by the Chicago Cubs. The 6-foot-2, lanky left-hander was 19 years old and was in his sophomore year at Illinois. He was given a reported bonus of $65,000.1 Holtzman joined the Cubs organization, but later graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and later earned a master’s degree.
Holtzman joined the Treasure Valley Cubs (Caldwell, Idaho) in the Rookie Pioneer League. He started four games for the team, winning each and allowing only 21 baserunners in 27 innings while compiling an earned-run average of 1.00. He was quickly promoted to the Wenatchee (Washington) Chiefs of the Class A Northwest League. There Holtzman started eight games and went 4-3 with an ERA of 2.44 in 59 innings. In his 86 innings of minor-league work, he struck out 114 batters.2 Based on his success in the minors, albeit at the Class A level, Holtzman was called up to the Cubs. He made his major-league debut on September 4, called in to pitch the ninth inning with the Cubs down 6-3 to the San Francisco Giants. He promptly gave up a home run to Jim Ray Hart before retiring the side. Holtzman pitched in three games for the Cubs in 1965, and demonstrated that he would contend for a spot in the starting rotation the following season.
Cubs manager Leo Durocher wanted to put Holtzman into the starting rotation for the 1966 season. Holtzman later reflected that “[Durocher] gave me a chance right away at age 20.”3 After an early-season relief appearance, he made his first major-league start on April 24 in a matchup against Don Drysdale and the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Holtzman pitched six shutout innings and got the win in the 2-0 Cubs victory.
Despite a lineup featuring three future Hall of Fame players, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams, the 1966 Cubs were a terrible team. They won only 59 games and finished in the basement of the National League. In spite of the Cubs’ poor season, Holtzman’s rookie-year performance was not bad. He led the team with 11 wins and 171 strikeouts in 220⅔ innings pitched and showed great promise. One highlight was a late-season matchup between Holtzman and his boyhood idol, Sandy Koufax. Holtzman faced Koufax on Sunday, September 25, in a game that drew 21,659 fans to Wrigley Field. (In Holtzman’s previous outing, four days earlier, the attendance at Wrigley was 530.) The 24th was Yom Kippur and neither Holtzman nor Koufax was in uniform as they both observed the Jewish holy day. The Cubs scored two runs in the first inning against Koufax, and Holtzman was stellar on the mound. He went into the ninth inning with a no-hitter before giving up singles to Ducky Schofield and Maury Wills. Holtzman got the complete-game 2-0 win, striking out eight Dodgers.
The 1967 season was an unusual one for Holtzman. He got off to a very good start, winning his first five decisions and posting an ERA of 2.33. He was then called up by the Illinois National Guard for a six-month tour of duty. Holtzman was sent first to Fort Polk in Louisiana and later to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. While in Texas, Holtzman learned that he would be allowed to get weekend passes so he could return to the Cubs to pitch. To help him prepare, the Cubs sent former catcher and coach (as a part of the “College of Coaches” approach that the Cubs took in 1961 and 1962) El Tappe to Texas to work with Holtzman when he was off duty.
Beginning in mid-August, Holtzman was granted weekend passes, and flew to wherever the Cubs were playing. He pitched in four games, August 13 and 20 and September 3 and 30. He was extremely, and perhaps surprisingly, effective in each outing, winning all four. All told, he posted a record of 9-0 and an ERA of 2.53 for the season. Holtzman regressed a bit in the 1968 season, which was again disrupted by military duty, including in August when his unit served guard duty during the stormy Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was able to start 32 games and pitch 215 innings, and posted a record of 11-14 and an ERA of 3.35.
The 1969 campaign was both a breakthrough and heartbreaking season for Holtzman and the Cubs. He got off to a great start, including a span in mid-May of 33 innings without allowing a run. By June 10, Holtzman had a record of 10-1 and the Cubs held a seven-game lead in the National League East. His best performance of the season came on August 19, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves and pitcher Phil Niekro. Holtzman was aided by a wind that blew in from center field and kept a seventh-inning drive by Henry Aaron in the park; left fielder Billy Williams caught it at the wall. Holtzman faced Aaron again with two out in the ninth inning, and induced a groundout that ended the game. The game was unique in that Holtzman did not strike out a single batter in the game.
For the Cubs, this game was unfortunately one of the final highlights of the season, as they went on to lose what seemed an insurmountable lead and the division to the “miracle” New York Mets. During their September swoon, Holtzman was not terribly effective on the mound; he went 1-5 as the Cubs collapsed. He finished the season with a record of 17-13 and a 3.58 ERA.
In 1970 Holtzman was the number-two pitcher in the Cubs rotation, with Fergie Jenkins as the team’s ace. The Cubs had another good season, but finished second in the division again, this time behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. Holtzman finished the season again with 17 wins, posting a record of 17-11 and an ERA of 3.38. He struck out 202 batters, the only time in his career he exceeded 200 strikeouts in a season. This was likely a result of pitching 287⅔ innings. In 1971 Holtzman fell out of favor with manager Durocher.
Between interruptions to his season for military duty and criticism from Durocher, Holtzman grew unhappy. Durocher rapped Holtzman in the press for not using his fastball enough and relying too much on his curve. He insinuated that Holtzman was not making his best effort. Allegedly, Durocher also made anti-Semitic slurs about Holtzman. Holtzman struggled throughout the season, but did have one exceptional game. On June 3 he tossed his second no-hitter, this time against the Cincinnati Reds in Riverfront Stadium. He struck out six and walked four in the 1-0 win. His opponent on the mound was Gary Nolan, and the run he gave up was unearned. Aside from the no-hitter, the season was a difficult one for Holtzman. He finished with a record of 9-15 and an ERA of 4.48.
After absorbing the criticism of Durocher, Holtzman asked for a trade. While he had had a poor season, he was still only 25 years old and had not suffered any injuries. The Cubs followed through on his request, and on November 29, 1971, Holtzman was traded to the Oakland A’s for outfielder Rick Monday. The trade took Holtzman from the hapless Cubs to an Oakland A’s team on the cusp of greatness.
With the addition of Holtzman, the 1972 Oakland A’s had a pitching staff that was even stronger than it had been in 1971, when the A’s won 101 games. Holtzman joined fellow left-hander and 1971 Cy Young Award winner Vida Blue, as well as Catfish Hunter, and Blue Moon Odom in the A’s pitching rotation. Because of Holtzman’s struggles in 1971, A’s owner Charlie Finley cut his pay from $56,500 in 1971 to $53,250 for 1972. But Holtzman had a much better chance to succeed in Oakland. Because of the players’ strike, which delayed the opening of the 1972 season, and Vida Blue’s contract holdout to start the season, the pitching rotation was not set at the start of the season. As a result, Holtzman ended up as the Opening Day pitcher. He faced the Minnesota Twins on April 15, pitching a strong eight innings before giving way to reliever Rollie Fingers with a 3-2 lead. Fingers blew the save and the win for Holtzman, but the A’s came back to win in 11 innings.
Holtzman was a highly effective pitcher all season long. He was named to the American League All-Star team, although he did not pitch in the game. Holtzman had a fine September and October, winning his final five decisions of the season. He finished with a record of 19-11 and an ERA of 2.51. In the League Championship Series, against the Tigers, Holtzman started Game Three, with the A’s having won the first two games. He gave up two runs in the fourth inning, and was pinch-hit for in the fifth. The A’s offense could not do much against Tigers starter Joe Coleman, and the A’s ended up losing, 3-0.
Holtzman had better luck in the World Series. He pitched Game One, matched up against Gary Nolan of the Cincinnati Reds. Holtzman pitched well enough against the potent Reds offense to get the win, with relief help from Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue. Holtzman also started Game Four, facing Reds starter Don Gullett. Holtzman pitched well before leaving the game with a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning with two outs and Dave Concepción at third. Reliever Vida Blue lost the lead, but the A’s prevailed, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Holtzman pitched once more in the Series, making a relief appearance in the eighth inning of Game Seven. With the A’s leading, 3-1, Holtzman relieved Catfish Hunter after Hunter allowed a leadoff single to Pete Rose. Holtzman gave up a double to Joe Morgan, putting the tying runs on base. Holtzman was then relieved by Rollie Fingers, who allowed Rose to score on a sacrifice fly by Tony Perez. But Fingers allowed no other runs and finished off the game, and the World Series.
After his and the A’s success in 1972, Holtzman was given a raise by the penurious Charlie Finley, to $66,500. The 1973 season was another great one for Holtzman. He had a very strong first half, going 7-0 in May and putting together a record of 10-2 with an ERA of 1.56 by June 1. He hit a rough patch in June, going 1-6 for the month. Nevertheless, he was named to the All-Star team, and pitched in the game, relieving teammate and starter Catfish Hunter with one out in the second inning. After getting Johnny Bench to ground out, he give up a single to former Cubs teammate Ron Santo, then induced Chris Speier to ground out. Holtzman then gave way to a parade of relievers in the exhibition. He steadied his season in July and finished 1973 as a 20-game winner, with a record of 21-13 and a 2.97 ERA.
Holtzman pitched Game Three of the American League Championship Series against Orioles starter Mike Cuellar in Oakland with the series tied at 1-1. It was one of the most thrilling postseason games ever played. Holtzman gave up a solo home run to Orioles first baseman Earl Williams in the second inning, then matched Cuellar in shutting down the opposition. The A’s tied up the score, 1-1, in the eighth inning, and both Holtzman and Cuellar continued to pitch as the game went into extra innings. Holtzman continued to shut down the Orioles through 11 innings before Bert Campaneris hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the inning. Holtzman pitched 11 innings, giving up only three hits and one walk, and pitching through three errors by the A’s to earn the 2-1 win.
In the World Series, against the New York Mets, the A’s leaned heavily on Holtzman, who started Games One, Four, and Seven, matched up against Mets starter Jon Matlack in each game. In Game One Holtzman gave up one run in five innings and got the win. In Game Four, he gave up a three-run home run to Rusty Staub in the first inning, then walked John Milner and gave up a single to Jerry Grote, and was taken out after getting only two outs in the first inning. A’s manager Dick Williams did not lose faith in Holtzman, however, and started him in Game Seven. Holtzman pitched well and also helped himself at the plate. In the third inning of the scoreless game, Holtzman doubled and later scored on a Campaneris home run that was a part of a four-run rally. Holtzman pitched 5⅓ innings, and got the win as the A’s won their second World Series in a row.
The next season, 1974, was another great year for both Holtzman and the A’s. Before the season, Holtzman won his arbitration case, securing a $93,000 contract, $13,000 more than Finley had offered. Holtzman was again the number three starter in the A’s rotation behind Hunter and Blue, although all three hurlers would have been the ace on many other teams. He finished the season with a record of 19-17 and an ERA of 3.07, helping the A’s to their fourth consecutive postseason appearance. The A’s faced the Orioles again in the League Championship Series. After the A’s lost the first game of the five-game series, in Oakland, Holtzman faced Dave McNally in Game Two. Holtzman pitched brilliantly, throwing a complete game and shutting out the Orioles, 5-0. He allowed five hits and two walks, with only one Oriole batter getting as far as second base.
Holtzman continued his dominant pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first all-California World Series. The pitching matchup for Game One of the Series was Holtzman and Andy Messersmith. Holtzman pitched 4⅓ innings and allowed one unearned run before giving way to Rollie Fingers, who picked up the win. In addition to his pitching, Holtzman doubled off Messersmith in the fifth, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a bunt single by Campaneris. It was the second run of the game for the A’s, who went on to win by a score of 3-2. Holtzman and Messersmith faced off again in Game Four, and again Holtzman helped himself at the plate, this time hitting a home run in the third inning of the scoreless game. He pitched 7⅔ innings and allowed two runs before handing over a 5-2 lead to Fingers. Holtzman earned the win, the fourth and final World Series victory of his career.
After the season Holtzman had acrimonious contract negotiations with Finley. They again went to arbitration, with Finley offering $93,000, the same as Holtzman earned in 1974, and Holtzman asking $112,000. After the arbitration hearing, much to the chagrin of Holtzman, Finley went public with a statistical analysis of what he deemed Holtzman’s shortcomings. Finley won the case. The dealings with Finley greatly frustrated Holtzman, who spoke of retiring and joining a Chicago investment firm, perhaps even before the end of the season.4
Although his record was 3-6 at the end of May, Holtzman had a fairly strong start to the 1975 season, allowing three runs or more in only two of his first 12 starts. On June 8, against the Tigers, he came tantalizingly close to pitching his third no-hitter. In the fourth inning, Holtzman walked a batter, who was immediately erased by a double play. Then, after 8⅔ hitless innings, the 27th Tiger to come the plate, weak-hitting shortstop Tom Veryzer doubled to break up the no-hitter. Holtzman proceeded to strike out the next batter, Ron LeFlore, and won the game, 4-0. Holtzman pitched effectively for the remainder of the season, finishing with a record of 18-14, and an ERA of 3.14.
In the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, the A’s faced the Boston Red Sox in the League Championship Series. Holtzman pitched Game One, matched up against Red Sox ace Luis Tiant. The Red Sox took a quick lead, scoring two unearned runs in the first inning. Then in the seventh, Dwight Evans and Rick Burleson doubled off Holtzman, knocking him from the game, as the Red Sox scored five runs in the inning. Holtzman was charged with the loss as the Red Sox won the game 7-1. After an A’s loss in Game Two of the series, Holtzman was called upon to start Game Three on just two days’ rest. He pitched valiantly, but in the top of the fourth the Red Sox scored an unearned run to take the lead. Then in the fifth, the Red Sox knocked Holtzman from the game and went on to win, 5-3, and sweep the series.
After the 1975 season, major-league players and owners were negotiating a new contract and agreed to suspend the arbitration process. As a result, Finley offered Holtzman and eight other A’s contracts with 20 percent pay cuts, the maximum allowable cut. Holtzman and several other players chose to remain unsigned and report to spring training in an effort to become free agents after the season. He was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Charlie Finley’s negotiating tactics and his approach to his players. On April 2 Holtzman was freed from Finley. In a blockbuster deal, Holtzman, Reggie Jackson, and minor-league pitcher Bill Von Bommel were traded to Baltimore for pitchers Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell and outfielder Don Baylor. Holtzman pitched well for the Orioles, holding an ERA of 2.86 in mid-June. However, his stay in Baltimore ended abruptly. At the trading deadline, June 15, he was a part of a ten-player trade between the Orioles and the New York Yankees. Holtzman, along with pitchers Doyle Alexander, Grant Jackson, and Jimmy Freeman, and catcher Elrod Hendricks were traded to the Yankees for catcher Rick Dempsey and pitchers Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, and Dave Pagan. Holtzman provided a solid left-handed starter for the Yankees. However, the Yankees had traded to their division rivals several players who would later star for the Orioles.
The trade reunited Holtzman with Catfish Hunter, and for a time it was thought that Vida Blue would also be a Yankee. But Finley’s sale of Blue to the Yankees was disallowed by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Holtzman stepped into the Yankee pitching staff, but was not nearly as strong as he had been in previous years with the A’s. By season’s end, he had with a record of 14-11 (9-7 with the Yankees), but with an uncharacteristically high ERA of 3.65. His strikeout totals for the season were significantly lower than in previous years, only 66 in 246⅔ innings. And although the Yankees won their division, Holtzman, who of course had a tremendous amount of postseason pitching experience, pitched in neither the League Championship Series nor the World Series.
In the offseason Holtzman got a five-year, $825,000 contract. He began the season in the starting rotation. However, after a few starts, including a particularly disastrous one on May 16 in which he could get only one out before being relieved, Holtzman found himself in Yankee manager Billy Martin’s doghouse. For most of the remaining season, Holtzman pitched out the bullpen and rarely when the game was on the line. He was essentially unable to strike out batters, amassing only 14 whiffs in 71⅔ innings. He finished the season with a record of 2-3, with his last decision coming in mid-May. As in 1976, Holtzman again did not appear in the playoffs or World Series.
Much has been made over the years of Billy Martin disliking Holtzman, and perhaps displaying a streak of anti-Semitism in his treatment of the pitcher. Likewise, George Steinbrenner seemed to dislike Holtzman both for his performance on the field, especially after just getting a large contract, and also for his work with the players union as the player representative for the team. However, there is no question that Holtzman’s performance on the mound was not close to what it had been in the recent past.
Holtzman started the 1978 season in the Yankees’ rotation again, but lasted for only two starts before he was benched again. He did not pitch again for a month, when in mid-May he made a start, which was likely to showcase him for suitors in a trade. After two more relief appearances later in May, Holtzman was traded to the Cubs on June 10 for pitcher Ron Davis. Holtzman was both relieved to get away from Billy Martin and the Yankees, and happy to be going back to Chicago, where his career began and where he made his home. His pitching did not improve, however. Holtzman first pitched out of the bullpen for the Cubs, then joined the rotation for a few weeks, then went back to the bullpen. He was not terribly effective in either role, and between his time with the Yankees and the Cubs, finished the season with a record of 1-3 and an ERA of 5.60. In 70⅔ innings he struck out just 39 while walking 44.
Holtzman fared a little better for the Cubs in 1979. He worked as a fifth starter, although he made three relief appearances to go along with his 20 starts. He had two especially good outings against Houston. On May 12 and July 7, he shut out the Astros. However, after two rough starts in late July and early August, Holtzman was relegated to the bullpen once more. He made one more start, and pitched quite well, on September 19 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In seven innings he held the Cardinals scoreless, giving up four hits and two walks before giving way to reliever Bruce Sutter, who blew the lead for Holtzman. It was Holtzman’s last major-league appearance. Immediately after the season, the Cubs released him. While the Yankees would pay his contract for two more seasons, Holtzman was out of baseball at the age of 33.
Holtzman finished his career with a record of 174-150 and an ERA of 3.49. He won nine more games in his career than Sandy Koufax, making Holtzman the winningest Jewish pitcher of all time. He received a handful of votes for the Hall of Fame in 1985 and 1986, the two years that he was considered for election into the Hall. After baseball, Holtzman worked as a stockbroker and in the insurance industry. In 2007 he briefly returned to the sport when he managed the Petah Tikva Pioneers in the new Israel Baseball League. He did not have a good experience with the team however; he was unhappy with how the league was run, and left the team before the season was complete.5 As of 2014 Holtzman was retired and living outside St. Louis.
Clark, Tom, Champagne and Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).
Clark, Tom, Baseball: The Figures (Berkeley, California: Serendipity Books, 1976).
Clark, Tom, Fan Poems (Plainfield, Vermont: North Atlantic Books, 1976).
Feldman, Doug, Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
Gold, Eddie, and Art Ahrens, The New Era Cubs: 1941-1985 (Chicago: Bonus Books, 1985).
James, Bill, and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers (New York: Fireside, 2004).
Markusen, Bruce, A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (Haworth, New Jersey: St. Johann Press, 2002).
Neyer, Rob, and Eddie Epstein, Baseball Dynasties (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000).
1. Eddie Gold and Art Ahrens, The New Era Cubs: 1941-1985, 143.
3. Doug Feldman, Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs, 38.
4. Tom Clark, Champagne and Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s, 306.
5. Joel Greenberg, “Israeli Baseball League Turns Sour For Holtzman,” Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2007. (The league folded after one season.)