Ken Holtzman, who threw 2 no-hitters for the Chicago Cubs before winning 3 World Series in Oakland, dies at 78

Ken Holtzman’s first no-hitter, against the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 19, 1969, at Wrigley Field, was the highest of highs in a memorable Chicago Cubs season that built to a crescendo before an epic September collapse.

Hyped as the “next Sandy Koufax” when he came up to the Cubs in 1965, Holtzman would go on to throw another no-hitter in 1971 to add to his reputation as one of the best left-handers in franchise history, then enjoyed more success in Oakland, where he became an All-Star and helped the Athletics win three consecutive World Series.

While the New York Mets overtook the ’69 Cubs in September on their way to their first championship, Holtzman and his teammates — including Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins — would become so beloved in Chicago, it was almost as if blowing the division title made them more relatable to fans.

Holtzman, who died Sunday at age 78, finished with a 174-150 record, 1,601 strikeouts and a 3.49 ERA in 15 seasons, seven of them with the Cubs. He and Jake Arrieta are the only pitchers to throw two no-hitters for the Cubs in the modern era, with Holtzman’s second coming against the Cincinnati Reds on June 3, 1971, at Riverfront Stadium.

Holtzman’s 174 victories are the most by a Jewish pitcher — nine more than Koufax, a Hall of Famer regarded as one of the most dominant pitchers in history. Holtzman picked up 80 of those wins as a Cub.

Much of Holtzman’s team success occurred after he asked for and was granted a trade to the A’s following the 1971 season for outfielder Rick Monday.

Holtzman played a prominent role on three World Series champions (1972-74), winning 59 games during that span and homering off Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the 1974 World Series. He was the last pitcher to hit a home run in a World Series until Joe Blanton did so for the Philadelphia Phillies against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

A St. Louis native, Holtzman was a fourth-round draft pick by the Cubs in 1965 after earning All-Big Ten honors at Illinois. He’s a member of the St. Louis Sports and University of Illinois Athletics halls of fame.

He signed with the Cubs for a reported $65,000 bonus and made three relief appearances for the major-league team in September 1965.

“When (Cubs coach) Buck O’Neil picked me up at the airport for my first day in the big leagues, he drove me to the hotel and then to the park and introduced me to Ernie first, who was very gracious and welcoming to this scared 19-year-old rookie,” Holtzman recalled to the Tribune after Banks’ death in 2015.

“I’ve told many people since I’ve retired that my biggest thrill in my major-league career was not the many World Series I was in or All-Star Games, no-hitters, etc., but the very first day I suited up and walked on that beautiful green carpet alongside Banks, Santo, Williams and other players that I had read about as a kid.

“I told Ernie that one day after I had retired when I saw him in Chicago for some event, and he knew exactly what I meant, even though he never had the opportunity to play in the postseason.”

Holtzman became a full-time member of the Cubs rotation in 1966 and beat Koufax and the Dodgers 2-1 on Sept. 25 at Wrigley Field in their only head-to-head matchup. Neither pitcher was at the ballpark the previous day in observance of Yom Kippur.

The loss was the last of Koufax’s storied career.

Holtzman served in the National Guard the following season but went 9-0 in 12 starts. He pitched his first no-hitter against the Braves and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on Aug. 19, 1969, despite not recording a strikeout and walking three.

A would-be home run by Hank Aaron in the seventh inning stayed in the ballpark thanks to an incoming wind, and Williams caught it in the vines with his back to the wall as a sellout crowd of 41,033 breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“I thought it was gone,” Holtzman said afterward. “Even with the wind.”

Holtzman was mobbed out on the mound after Aaron grounded out to end the game. The Cubs led the Mets by eight games after the win, and visions of their first World Series appearance since 1945 danced in the heads of every fan watching and celebrating the no-hitter.

Holtzman won 17 games and tossed six shutouts that season, including three straight during a career-best streak of 33⅔ scoreless innings in May. The late collapse broke the hearts of Cubs Nation, but most of the key players returned in 1970 and ’71, when they fell short again.

By ’71, Holtzman had tired of manager Leo Durocher, who applied tough-love tactics to his veterans and bickered that Holtzman wasn’t throwing his fastball enough and relying more on his “lollipop” curve. He was dealt to the A’s after the ’71 season, joining another solid core that included Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers.

“I wouldn’t have cared if the Cubs had traded me for two dozen eggs,” Holtzman said after being dealt for Monday.

Playing for Durocher prepared Holtzman for owners Charles O. Finley of the A’s and George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.

Holtzman, like several A’s players, engaged in contract disputes with the thrifty Finley. Holtzman and Finley split their arbitration decisions after the 1973 and 1974 seasons.

Holtzman went 77-55 with a 2.92 ERA in four seasons for the A’s and was named to their 50th anniversary team in 2018. He nearly had his third no-hitter in 1975 against the Detroit Tigers, but Tom Veryzer’s shot to center barely eluded center fielder Billy North and Holtzman had to settle for a one-hit shutout.

Though he won 18 games in ’75, contentious negotiations with Finley finally resulted in the A’s trading Holtzman and Jackson to the Baltimore Orioles as part of a six-player deal shortly before the 1976 season. Holtzman lasted only 11 weeks with the Orioles before he was traded to the Yankees in a 10-player trade.

He received a five-year, $825,000 contract, but his struggles drew the ire of manager Billy Martin and Steinbrenner, and he did not get to pitch in the World Series for the Yankees in 1976 or ’77. Holtzman was dispatched to the bullpen before he returned to the Cubs in the middle of the 1978 season in a trade for reliever Ron Davis.

Though he once said he hated Wrigley Field and didn’t “ever want to pitch here again or anywhere else for the Cubs,” Holtzman was welcomed back by fans who fondly remembered his climb up the organizational ladder and his part in bringing the Cubs back to relevance in the late 1960s.

Holtzman, however, couldn’t regain his effectiveness and was released after the 1979 season. He was paid for the final two years of his contract by the Yankees after returning to St. Louis, where he embarked on new careers as a stockbroker and in insurance.

Though Holtzman never returned for Cubs Conventions or other events commemorating former teammates such as Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins, he remained proud of his contributions, especially in that memorable ’69 season.

“I think the ’69 Cubs remain a special memory for so many Chicago fans,” he told the Tribune in 2015, “because for 24 years they had been second-division dwellers and now, in the age of the baby boomers and the upheaval of American culture, we were going to be the end of the futility and the beginning of a new era in Chicago sports.

“When it all collapsed at the end, it was so disappointing that many of those fans simply refused to forget the fun and excitement of the first five months of that season, and now, as parents and grandparents, that team remains a link to their youth. Ernie Banks represents the heart and excellence of that team, just like Stan Musial does for Cardinals fans and Roberto Clemente does for Pirates fans.”

Holtzman also will be remembered as one of those greats from the ’69 Cubs — and as one of the greatest lefties ever to call Wrigley Field home.

Mark Gonzales is a former Chicago Tribune reporter.