MLB Mourns Passing of Ken Holtzman

MLB Mourns Passing of Ken Holtzman

Holtzman was Major League Baseball’s all-time winningest Jewish pitcher and recorded two no-hitters.

Ken Holtzman, the all-time winningest Jewish pitcher who the Chicago Cubs refer to as one of their greatest lefties ever, passed away last month at the age of 78 // Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Social Media
Ken Holtzman, the all-time winningest Jewish pitcher who the Chicago Cubs refer to as one of their greatest lefties ever, passed away last month at the age of 78 // Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Social Media

Last month, the Jewish sports community lost one of its legacy members when two-time All-Star left-handed pitcher Ken Holtzman – who had more career wins than Sandy Koufax and a lower ERA than Tom Glavine – passed away at the age of 78.

MLB’s all-time winningest Jewish pitcher and the author of two no-hitters (one of which came against Atlanta without a single strikeout), Holzman was a mainstay of the Oakland A’s pitching rotation when the “Swingin’ A’s” won three consecutive World Series from 1972-74 following his solid seven-year run with the Chicago Cubs.

Shortly after Holtzman died on April 14, it was reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (his hometown’s paper of record) that he had been hospitalized for three weeks with cardiac issues.

One of the most celebrated Jewish athletes of the 20th century, Holtzman broke into the big leagues as a 19-year-old for the Cubs in 1965. Indeed, he was still an undergrad at the University of Illinois when he got his first taste of big-league action while playing with future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo against Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants. Even more impressively, several years later in 1969, Holtzman was serving in the military, yet returned to the Cubs to pitch weekend games. Whereas many pitchers would find the disruption of their routine insurmountable, Holtzman reeled off 17 wins in ’69.

Following his career with the dynastic A’s, Holtzman was dealt to Baltimore along with Reggie Jackson in April 1976, and traded again that season to the New York Yankees. He won another World Series with the Yanks in 1977, though he did not appear in the postseason, and was traded back to Chicago where he would play the final two seasons of his career, one in which he went 174-150 with a tidy 3.49 ERA.

Statistically, Holtzman’s best season was during Oakland’s first championship campaign in 1972, when he finished with a 2.51 ERA. It was also a season in which he was reunited with a longtime friend, Art Shamsky, coincidentally a fellow Jewish ballplayer who also grew up in St. Louis and attended the same high school, University City Senior High, albeit at different times. Shamsky, who stayed close with Holtzman through the years and always made it a point to get together when he was back home, spoke to the AJT about the decades-long friendship.

“Kenny was a wonderful guy,” shared Shamsky, perhaps most well-known for being a member of the “Miracle Mets” in 1969. “My relationship with him was great. I have great memories of my friendship with Kenny.

“Whenever I could get him to come meet me, we really enjoyed reminiscing and talking about our youth and our mutual friends, our careers, and our little bit of time together. Our relationship even as rivals was great. [The Cubs and Mets battled for National League supremacy in the late 1960s.] It made for us to be good friends. I’ve always respected his thought process.”

Holtzman was a very thoughtful guy, so much so that he garnered the moniker “The Thinker” from baseball writers of the day and channeled his cerebral nature toward serving as a player representative during the 1970s when Marvin Miller (a fellow towering Jewish baseball figure) and the MLB Players Association secured the right of free agency for players whose contracts had expired. Shamsky recalls Holtzman being a bulldog when it came to advocating for the players’ union.

“I would venture to say that Kenny in some ways was a hard-liner,” Shamsky pointed out. “He knew all the aspects of the negotiations. He knew all about it and was right on top of it. To his credit, he was very adamant about players’ rights and the players association.”

Even long after he retired, Holtzman never felt shy about articulating his true feelings about anything baseball related. In 2007, Holtzman, along with fellow Jewish former big-leaguers Shamsky and Ron Blomberg, moved to Israel to coach in the first (and only) season of the Israel Baseball League. After about six weeks, Holtzman decided he had had enough and returned to the States.

“One of the things that I think affected him in Israel was the fact that the conditions were really not good,” recalled Shamsky. “We all went over there with apprehensions about starting this league in 2007. Baseball was not a major sport in Israel. It was really starting from the ground up. I think he found a lot of problems with the way it went over there. He just did not enjoy it for whatever reason.”

Nevertheless, Holtzman’s abbreviated stay in the Israel Baseball League didn’t diminish his golden legacy on the diamond. He was very good in the regular season and even better come October as his postseason resume included a 6-4 mark and 2.30 ERA. For good measure, Holtzman also belted a homer in Game 4 of the 1974 World Series, an impressive feat for an American League pitcher at the time as they were no longer hitting in the regular season with the introduction of the designated hitter.

Holtzman’s most memorable pitching performance wasn’t during a World Series for Oakland, but rather on the afternoon of Sept. 25, 1966, when he and the Cubs were going up against Koufax and the Dodgers. In his penultimate start of his sophomore season, Holtzman took a no-hitter into the ninth and ended up edging Koufax, 2-1. It was a brilliant outing (two hits allowed and eight strikeouts) against a living legend that was a sign of greater things to come.

“I knew when he [Holtzman] signed with the Cubs that he was going to be a really good pitcher,” added Shamsky. “He had great stuff. It was just a matter of time until he got to the big leagues.

“In an era that had great pitching, Kenny was right up there in that era of the late sixties and seventies. Particularly in the National League, they had so many great pitchers back then. He was just a great left-handed pitcher. I had the utmost respect for him as a player.”

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