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Ken Holtzman: No-Hitters And More

Ken Holtzman splashed onto the Chicago baseball scene when he was barely 20 years old. Two no-hitters later, he wound up his career with three World Series rings.

Ken Holtzman pitches against the Montreal Expos on April 18, 1970. Photo courtesy Leo Bauby,
Ken Holtzman pitches against the Montreal Expos on April 18, 1970. Photo courtesy Leo Bauby,

As of this morning, the Cubs have not been no-hit in 7,095 consecutive games (of nine innings or more); that's a major league record. The 45th anniversary of the last time they were no-hit comes up in three weeks; Sandy Koufax's perfect game against the Cubs in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 1965 was the last time the Cubs failed to get a single hit in a game.

Today, though, is another significant no-hit anniversary -- for two no-hitters. On Aug. 19, 1965, in the first game of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field, the Reds' Jim Maloney no-hit the Cubs. It's the last no-hitter thrown by a visiting pitcher at Wrigley, the only 10-inning complete-game no-hitter in MLB history, and Maloney walked 10 -- the most ever in a no-hitter.

Four years to the day later, 41 years ago today, Cubs lefthander Ken Holtzman threw the first of his two no-hitters, a 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves. It was notable for two things: first, Holtzman had no strikeouts, a rarity in a no-hitter, and Billy Williams made a catch at the curve of the left-field wall on a deep drive by Hank Aaron that seemed destined for Waveland Avenue, preserving the no-hitter in the seventh inning.

From 1917 through June 19, 1952, the Cubs were not involved in any no-hit games, until Carl Erskine of the Dodgers no-hit them, and then on May 12, 1955, Sam Jones, known as "Sad Sam" for his hangdog-looking face, no-hit the Pirates in front of a "crowd" of 2,918 at Wrigley Field. Jones made the game dramatic by walking the bases loaded in the ninth inning and then striking out the side. The game began what appeared to be a flood of no-nos: over the next 17 seasons, there were five more involving the Cubs, including two by Holtzman, the only Cub pitcher since the 1880's to have more than one no-hit game. The second one was on the road, a 1-0 win over the Reds on June 3, 1971, in which Holtzman not only threw the no-hitter, but scored the only run of the game after reaching on an error. No-hitters seemed almost commonplace; a Cubs fan growing up in the 1960's figured he or she would see one every three years or so.

"No hit games are just well pitched games with a lot of luck and both of mine were no different," Holtzman says. "In the first one only the wind saved that ball hit by Henry Aaron from being a home run and a fortunate roll of an attempted bunt by Johnny Bench preventing a hit saved the second."

But since then, Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter against the Astros in Milwaukee on Sept. 14, 2008 is the only no-hitter the Cubs have been involved in at all in nearly 38 years, since Milt Pappas' near-perfect game on Sept. 2, 1972, the last no-hitter thrown at Wrigley Field.

And in 2010, a year filled with no-hitters and near-misses, it's appropriate to recall the accomplishments of the tall, slim lefthander Cubs fans grew to love as their team became a pennant contender in the late 1960's. Ken Holtzman was born in St. Louis and was the Cubs' fourth-round pick in the very first amateur draft in 1965. After blazing through a pair of minor-league levels that summer (a 1.99 ERA in 12 starts), he was pitching for the Cubs in Wrigley Field in September, making three relief appearances before his 20th birthday. There's no way today's pampered draftees make that jump; Holtzman says, "I was never a fan of the draft. It's like free agency; if everyone could become a free agent whenever their contract expired, regardless of years of service, salaries would level out or go down because the market would be flooded with job seekers instead of a controlled supply of talent."

It's an interesting position to take from a player who was active at a time when free agency was still a dream, and that was what his eventual boss, Charlie Finley of the Athletics, wanted owners to do. But still hitched to the fading star of the reserve clause, owners couldn't see the benefit of doing that. Instead, we have the arbitration system, which has cost owners more money in the long run.

One of Holtzman's biggest moments, besides his no-hitters, was his matchup with Sandy Koufax at Wrigley Field on Sept. 25, 1966. No one could have guessed on that day that it would be the only game featuring both Jewish lefthanders; Koufax unexpectedly retired before the following season. In what can be viewed in retrospect as a precursor of his no-hitters, Holtzman took a no-no into the ninth inning against the eventual NL champions (who led the Cubs by 33 games going into that Sunday afternoon affair), before allowing two hits and a run and defeating Koufax 2-1, Sandy's last regular-season defeat. Holtzman told me that game "was very meaningful for many reasons but the main one was that my parents were at Wrigley Field that day and because of the high esteem and admiration that our family had for Sandy, it made the meeting very special. I feel honored to be the last National League pitcher to beat him and it remains one of my biggest thrills."

After being a mainstay in 1969 and 1970, Holtzman's 1971 season was below par, with the only highlight being that second no-hitter. He asked for a trade and was the first of the core of those great teams that never made it to leave, winning three World Championships with the Oakland A's (and, in those early days of the DH, still knew how to hit; he hit two doubles and a home run in World Series competition). He speaks of mixed feelings about leaving the Cubs and heading to Oakland, though: "While I regret not making it to the playoffs, I was lucky to have played in a great city in a classic ballpark with some great players for a lot of loyal fans. Although I didn't care for Charlie Finley much, he has to be given some credit for assembling one of the greatest teams in history. Getting to pitch in many World Series and playoff games fulfilled all the hopes and dreams of my childhood. Because we played in a small gritty blue collar town with virtually no press coverage, that team will never enjoy the honor that it deserves. I don't wear any of my rings but just knowing that I have them is enough for me."

Holtzman eventually wound up with the Yankees, where he fell into Billy Martin's doghouse. Rusty from disuse, he was traded back to the Cubs on June 10, 1978. Without his fastball, he was on the downside of a fine career. In 1979, he put up a "remember this?" game when he shut out the Astros on three hits in the first half of a doubleheader on July 7, his final major league win (in which he also doubled, scored and drove in a run). His 174 victories, nine more than Koufax, still rank as the most for a Jewish major league pitcher.

Holtzman, who now lives outside St. Louis, made one more connection with baseball, briefly managing in a fledgling baseball league in Israel in 2007, but laments that didn't work out the way he would have wanted: "I was glad to get the chance to get to Israel for a few months; the baseball experiment was a big disappointment. Poorly planned and funded, it demonstrated that without a native amateur supply of talent for a basically alien sport, baseball in Israel would not survive."

Ted Lilly nearly threw a no-hitter for the Cubs at Wrigley Field on June 13 against the White Sox; Juan Pierre broke it up leading off the ninth inning. There have been many near no-no's at Wrigley since Pappas threw his 38 years ago; Holtzman says the main difference between pitching now and when he was a rotation starter "is the work load expectations of the starters and the specialization of the relievers. Since the end of the steroid era I've noticed the ERA's and runs per game stats returning to more historical levels so maybe starters will be staying longer."

In that case, in this year of pitching dominance, it seems only a matter of time until we see another no-hitter at Wrigley Field.