Ken Holtzman, former MLB pitcher and St. Louisan, dies at 78

Ken Holtzman, former MLB pitcher and St. Louisan, dies at 78

ST. LOUIS – Ken Holtzman, a St. Louis native who pitched 15 years in the Major Leagues and was part of the Oakland Athletics dynasty from the 1970s, died Sunday evening at the age of 78 from an undisclosed heart ailment and respiratory issues.

Holtzman was born on Nov. 3, 1945, in St. Louis and grew up in University City.

Ken’s brother, Bob Holtzman, who pitched in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system in 1968 and 1969, said of Ken, “If he couldn’t make it to the Majors, nobody could.”

Growing up, Bob said Ken was typically the smallest player on any team. When he turned 13, Ken was 4’11” and needed to step up on a stand at his Bar Mitzvah, Bob said.

But Ken’s height didn’t matter. Bob said Ken dominated in the Khoury League all the way to high school. Ken finally had a growth spurt as a senior at University City High School. He went 31-3 that season and helped the Lions win their only state championship. Ken pitched a no-hitter in the semi-final game against Hillcrest.

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Ken was one of only six kids who attended University City High School to play in the Majors (Bud Black, Bernard Gilkey, Ed Mickelson, Robert Person, and Art Shamsky were the others).

He played college ball for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. By 19, Ken was 6’2″. When Major League Baseball held its first amateur draft in 1965, Bob claimed Bing Devine, a St. Louisan and Mets executive at the time, was interested in drafting Ken.

But for reasons Bob said were never explained, the Mets passed on Ken. So did the hometown Cardinals. The Chicago Cubs selected Ken in the fourth round of the draft. Other notable players selected in the 1965 MLB Draft include Johnny Bench, Craig Nettles, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver.

Ken Holtzman spent two months in the Cubs’ farm system before being called up. He debuted on Sept. 4, 1965, in relief in the top of the ninth inning and surrendered a home run to Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants. He got the next three batters to fly out. The Cubs lost that day, 7-3. Holtzman would make two additional relief appearances that season.

In 1966, Holtzman was placed on the starting rotation and went 11-16 as a rookie. And while the Cubs finished with the worst record in baseball, Holtzman holds the special distinction of being the last pitcher to beat Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in the regular season. More than 21,000 fans packed Wrigley Field on Sept. 25, 1966, for the duel between two Jewish pitchers, one an aging legend and the other a highly-touted prospect; the heir apparent.

The Cubs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first, but Koufax would hold the Chicago hitters at bay for his next seven innings on the mound. Holtzman was lights out. He carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning but gave up a pair of hits and a run. Holtzman stayed in, finished the Dodgers off, and ended the game with eight strikeouts and a 2-1 win over his hero.

Holtzman would have some successes over the next handful of seasons, but he requested a trade after the 1971 season. The Cubs sent Holtzman to the Athletics in exchange for outfielder Rick Monday, who was the first overall pick in the 1965 MLB Draft.

With the A’s, Holtzman flourished alongside pitchers “Catfish” Hunter, “Blue Moon” Odom, and Vida Blue as a formidable starting rotation. In four seasons with the Athletics, Holtzman went 77-55 with a 2.92 earned run average, was selected to two All-Star Games, and won three consecutive World Series titles.

Holtzman distinguished himself in the 1973 World Series by going 2-1, including going 5 1/3 strong innings in the deciding Game 7. In the 1974 Series, Holtzman hit a home run in Game 4. For more than three decades, he was the last pitcher to hit a home run in a World Series game. Joe Blanton of the Philadelphia Phillies (2008) now holds that distinction.

Holtzman finished his career with a 174-150 record and a 3.49 ERA. He surpassed Koufax as the winningest Jewish pitcher in Major League history and is second in strikeouts among Jewish pitchers, behind Koufax.

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