Ken Holtzman, MLB’s Winningest Jewish Pitcher
When the Chicago Cubs called up Ken Holtzman from the Rookie Pioneer League in 1965, some within the organization predicted that the lefty flamethrower would be the next Sandy Koufax. Both were tall, lean, Jewish flamethrowers.
Holtzman had an outstanding 17-year-long career that included two stints with the Cubs, and one go-around each with the Oakland Athletics, the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees. During his time on the slab with the A’s, Holtzman peaked. From 1972 through 1975, Holtzman won 19, 21, 18 and 19 games. In the World Series, when the chips were down, Holtzman excelled on the mound and with the lumber. Against the Hall of Fame-stacked, powerful Cincinnati Reds — Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez — Holtzman won the 1972 World Series opener, and would eventually record a 4–1, 2.55 ERA during the five fall classics he participated in. As if to mock the as-yet-unheard-of universal designated hitter, Holtzman had a career World Series .333 batting average that included two doubles.
Upon joining the Cubs, Holtzman soon became the rotations go-to guy. In 1966, in his first-ever major league start against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Drysdale, Holtzman earned a 2–0 victory. One highlight that year was a late-season matchup between Holtzman and his boyhood idol, and the hurler he had been compared to, Koufax. The matchup took place at Wrigley Field on September 25. The 24th was Yom Kippur, and neither Holtzman nor Koufax was in uniform; both were observing the Jewish Holy Day.
The Cubs scored two runs in the first inning against Koufax, all the support Holtzman needed. He entered the ninth inning with a no-hitter before giving up two harmless singles. Holtzman got the complete-game 2–0 win, striking out eight. In 1969, Holtzman notched his first no-hitter, 2–0 against the Atlanta Braves, and 318-game winner-to-be Joe Niekro. Holtzman’s masterpiece included a peculiar footnote — he didn’t strike out a single batter. Since 1901, a no-hitter without a strike out had happened only four times. With today’s 100-pitch limit, the baseball oddity will never happen again. Holtzman pitched his second no-hitter against the Reds in 1971.
After Cubs manager Leo Durocher directed anti-Semitic slurs at Holtzman, the pitcher demanded a trade, a fortuitous development for the lefty. In exchange for outstanding Cubs outfielder Rick Monday, an Arizona State All-American, Holtzman went to the A’s, a team on the cusp of winning three consecutive World Series championships. One of Holtzman’s new teammates was Mike Epstein, a one-time University of California fullback and defensive tackle. The irreverent, bombastic A’s nicknamed Holtzman and Epstein, “Jew” and “Superjew.” Neither took offense at the crude clubhouse labels.
On September 5, 1972, during an off day in Chicago, when news reached Holtzman that Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli Olympic athletes hostage, and killed two, he sought out Epstein. They walked the streets, comforting each other, wondering what the Israelis had done to precipitate such hate, and why the Munich Massacre happened. Explaining their long walk on Chicago’s empty streets, Epstein who had once drawn the Star of David on his mitt, said to a Pittsburgh Press reporter: “I put on tefillin at different shuls in different cities. I was Bar Mitzvahed. I can read Hebrew. I’m a Jew.” The next day, in remembrance of the deceased, Holtzman and Epstein donned black arm bands on their jerseys’ sleeves, and kept them on through the playoffs. Remembered Epstein: “It was an emotional period. I’m glad we did something.”
After Epstein went hitless in the 1972 World Series, A’s owner Charles O. Finley dumped him and his 26 home runs to the Texas Rangers. Two years later, Epstein ended his nine-year career with the California Angels where he hit .206. Out of baseball, he began a successful batting school on the West Coast. Now retired, Epstein is 80.
Holtzman never achieved the Koufax-like Hall of Fame success that some had predicted for him. But he was elected to the 1972 and 1973 American League All-Star games. Holtzman finished his career with a record of 174–150, and a 3.49 ERA. He won nine more games in his career than Sandy Koufax’s 165 total which made Holtzman history’s winningest Jewish pitcher. In 2007, Holtzman briefly returned to baseball when he managed the Israel Baseball League’s Petach Tikva Pioneers. His experience with the league was an unhappy one, and he left the team before the season ended. Holtzman, now 77, is retired and lives outside St. Louis, his birthplace.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.