A certain generation of Midwestern Jewish boys will always have a special attachment to Ken Holtzman. Though his near-contemporary and fellow southpaw Sandy Koufax had the more dazzling career—and pitched his perfect game against the Cubs—it was Holtzman who had the most victories of any Jewish pitcher (174) in Major League Baseball history.
Besides, Koufax was a New Yorker who played in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. For those Chicago Jewish kids, Holtzman was a Midwesterner, just like them.
He grew up in University City, then a largely Jewish suburb just outside St. Louis, attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and spent most of his career with the Cubs. On the road, he kept kosher as best he could—he joked that the kosher food on airplanes was better than the regular meals—and of course he didn’t play on the High Holidays.
Holtzman also faced anti-Semitism as a player. But he was stoic about it. “I faced it directly when necessary and didn’t let it affect my responsibilities as a player and teammate to do everything possible to win and do my part,” he wrote the Forward in an email exchange. He’s also been careful to note that his managers never gave him a hard time about not playing on the High Holidays.
Holtzman enjoyed his greatest success during three years in Oakland, where he was traded in 1972—and where his team won three World Series. But those Midwestern kids will always remember him as a Cub. It was the hat he wore from 1965 to 1971, where he joined some of baseball’s greatest players, including eventual Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, on one of baseball’s losingest teams. He played for the Cubs again later, in 1978, and 1979, to close out his career after short post-Oakland stints with the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees.
Now that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, it’s tempting to wonder if Holtzman wishes his Cubs had done the same.
He does not. “I would have liked to have played in the World Series with the Cubs,” he wrote, “but playing in the postseason with the A’s was just as special. It was a boyhood dream to do so and the fact that I was part of one of the best teams of all time was extremely satisfying.” (For his parents, though, the best game he ever played was his duel against Koufax in 1966. Holtzman won, becoming the last National League pitcher to defeat Koufax, who retired that year. But Holtzman’s mother was so nervous, she didn’t see any of it; she spent the entire game pacing around Wrigley Field.)
He has, however, been thinking about some of his late, great Cubs teammates who never got to the World Series at all. “I’m sorry Ron Santo and Ernie Banks and Milt Pappas didn’t get a chance to see it this year because they were all great players and deserved to be on a pennant-winning team during their careers.”
Holtzman has said that his own greatest career regret was that he never got to play for his hometown Cardinals, let alone contribute to them winning a World Series as fellow hometown boy David Freese did in 2011. He did, however, hit a home run in the 1974 World Series for Oakland, an even more rare accomplishment for a pitcher.
These days Holtzman lives outside St. Louis. He has been watching this year’s Cubs, though more as a connoisseur than a fanatic.
“It was evident [the Cubs] had the best team all year,” Holtzman writes. “The current Cub management is finally doing what has to be done to compete with other big market teams: modernize the ballpark, go after expensive free agents and invest heavily in their farm system. They should be perennial contenders with a loyal fan base and unlimited financial resources.”
After his retirement in 1979, when he was just 33, Holtzman stayed in Chicago and worked as a stockbroker and as an insurance salesman. In 2007, he took a job as the manager of the Petkah Tikva Pioneers in the short-lived Israeli Baseball League.
“The Israeli baseball league was an excellent opportunity to see the country for several months but the baseball part was disappointing,” he wrote the Forward. “It was mismanaged, and that’s why it hasn’t been revived for almost 10 years now. Basketball, soccer and even tennis are more popular in Israel and they will need to develop their youth programs in order to generate interest in higher level baseball.”
Holtzman declined to say whether he thinks the Cubs or the Indians will win this year’s World Series. But he will be watching—from home.
Ken Holtzman—Chicago’s Jewry’s Local Koufax—Is Watching Today’s Cubs From Afar