Ken Holtzman, who threw two no-hitters for the Cubs, is dead at age 78

Ken Holtzman, a left-hander who threw two no-hitters for the Chicago Cubs and won three World Series with the Oakland A’s in a career that spanned 15 seasons, died Monday in St. Louis. He was 78.

He had been hospitalized for the past three weeks with heart and respiratory conditions, his brother, Bob, said in confirming the death.

Holtzman won 174 games, the most for a Jewish pitcher in Major League Baseball — nine more than Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, considered one of the greatest pitchers ever who had a shorter career.

In addition to his win tally, Holtzman, who was slim at 1.88 meters and 79 kilos, had a career earned run average of 3.49 and was selected to the 1972 and 1973 All-Star teams.

Holtzman, 23, threw his first no-hitter on August 19, 1969, a 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves — a performance distinguished by the fact that he didn’t strike out any Braves. It was the first time since 1923 that a no-hitter was thrown without a strikeout.

“I didn’t have my good curves and I must have been throwing 90 percent fastballs,” Holtzman told The Atlanta Constitution afterward. “When I saw early in the race that my curve wasn’t breaking, I thought it could be a long day.”

His second no-hitter came on June 3, 1971, against the Cincinnati Reds at their home stadium, Riverfront Stadium, where he struck out six and walked four.

“The fans in the front row behind our dugout didn’t let me forget there was a no-hitter tonight,” he told The Chicago Tribune. “I think they were going to yell at me from the fourth inning on that I was going to lose my no-hitter.”

But it was a highlight of a difficult season, in which his record was 9-15 and his ERA rose to 4.48 from 3.38 the year before. He also had a difficult relationship with Manager Leo Durocher.

This offseason, the Cubs traded Holtzman to Oakland for outfielder Rick Monday.

“The skies have cleared now,” Holtzman told The Tribune. “I wouldn’t have cared if the Cubs had traded me for twenty eggs.”

The trade revived his career.

Kenneth Dale Holtzman was born on November 3, 1945 in St. Louis. His father, Henry, was a machinery dealer. His mother, Jacqueline (Lapp) Holtzman, managed the house.

Holtzman had a 31-3 record at University City High School, outside St. Louis, and played for the University of Illinois. As a sophomore, he won six games and struck out 72 batters in 57 innings. He was selected by the Cubs in the fourth round of the 1965 amateur draft.

He spent most of the 1965 season in the minor leagues, compiling an 8–3 record, before being called up by the Cubs.

Holtzman left the Cubs in 1971 with a 74-69 record. He fared significantly better with the A’s, a 1970s dynasty that included Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers. In Oakland’s World Series championship years, from 1972 to 1974, Holtzman had a 59-41 regular season record. In World Series games he was 4-1.

In early 1976, Holtzman was one of nine A’s players whose unsigned contracts were extended with a 20 percent salary cut by Charles O. Finley, the team’s erratic owner.

“The man doesn’t care whether I leave or not,” Holtzman, a union activist who served as the team’s player representative, told The New York Times during spring training that year.

Shortly thereafter, he and Jackson were traded to the Baltimore Orioles. But in late June, Holtzman was sent to the Yankees in a 10-player trade. In New York, however, his pitching was not as effective as it had been in Oakland, and manager Billy Martin refused to use him in the postseason rotation in 1976, when the Yankees were swept by the Reds, and again in 1977, when the Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.

After the fifth game of the Series, Holtzman was asked if he expected to pitch in the remaining games.

“No, not really, not now that I haven’t been used all year,” he told The Times, referring to a regular season in which he appeared in just 18 games, some of them as a reliever.

His appearances became even less frequent in 1978. He threw just 17⅔ innings in five games before being traded back to the Cubs. At the time of the trade, Holtzman had challenged the Yankees’ decision to place him on the 21-day disabled list due to an ailing back.

“I think they’re just happy to get rid of me,” he told The Times.

He had a 6-12 record with the Cubs until they fired him after the 1979 season.

Holtzman, who became an insurance broker after his active career, headed the athletic department of the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis for many years after his retirement.

He returned to baseball in 2007 as manager of a team in the Israel Baseball League. Dan Kurtzer, the commissioner, said in a telephone interview that Holtzman’s experience in the Major League Baseball Players Association made it difficult to be a manager.

“From the beginning I made it clear to him that he was part of the management, but that never got through,” he said. “We had some labor issues and I needed the managers to support me, and Ken struggled with that because he was labor-oriented.”

Holtzman left the team — the Petach Tikva Pioneers, based near Tel Aviv, who finished last — with two weeks left in the season. Two months before his departure, he told an Israeli website that the league’s organizers had thrown themselves into their first and only season without proper preparation, such as sufficient fields.

In addition to his brother Bob, a former minor league pitcher, Holtzman is survived by his daughters Robyn Schuster, Stacey Steffens and Lauren Fyle; four grandchildren; and a sister, Janice Koertel. His marriage to Michelle Collons ended in divorce.

Holtzman, as a Cub, and Koufax, with the Dodgers, faced each other once, on September 25, 1966, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

It was Holtzman’s first full season and Koufax’s last. In the fifth inning, at which point Holtzman had not allowed a hit, Bob Holtzman told their father he was going to the men’s room. “He said, ‘You’re not going anywhere, he’s throwing a no-hitter,’” the brother recalled in a telephone interview. “He wouldn’t let me leave my seat.”

Holtzman carried the no-hitter into the ninth inning, but it was broken by the first hitter, Dick Schofield, who singled to center field. Holtzman then surrendered the shutout, but won 2-1 on a two-hitter, striking out eight. Koufax gave up four hits.

“I was happy with my performance,” Koufax told The Los Angeles Times, “but Ken was too good for us today.”

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