November 3, 1945, is the birthdate of Ken Holtzman, a star major league pitcher and observant Jew who was vanquished only by the awfulness of Israeli baseball.
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Kenneth Dale Holtzman was born in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Henry Holtzman, was a machinist who had served in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II. His mother was the former Jacqueline Lapp.
The Holtzman family attended an Orthodox synagogue, where Ken celebrated his bar mitzvah, and regularly alternated having Friday night dinners with his maternal and paternal grandparents.
At University City High School, Ken’s 31-3 pitching record helped the school’s team win the 1963 state championship. While a student at the University of Illinois, he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1965.
Taking on Koufax
Holtzman’s first major league game was on September 4, 1965. In his first pitch to the first batter he faced, the Giants’ Jim Ray Hart, Holtzman gave up a home run. Five days later, he watched from the sidelines as his boyhood hero Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game – allowing no one on base – against the Cubs, and after it was over, asked Koufax for his autograph.
The following year, Holtzman’s first full season, however, he became the last pitcher to beat Sandy Koufax. So significant a figure had Koufax been in Holtzman’s home that he brought his parents to Wrigley Field from St. Louis to watch the game.
Holtzman pitched a no-hitter through the eighth inning and the Cubs beat the Dodgers 2-1. After the game, his mother confessed to him that she had been so nervous that she hadn’t been able to watch, and that she would have been happier if the contest had been a draw.
In November 1971, Holtzman was traded to the Oakland Athletics. In four seasons with the team, he never won fewer than 18 games, and he helped the A’s win three consecutive World Series, in 1972, ’73 and ’74.
Holtzman retired in 1979 after three losing seasons, during which he moved to the Orioles, the Yankees and finally the Cubs. He then worked as a stockbroker and later in the commercial insurance business before, in 1993, returning to school for an education degree.
After he and his wife of 26 years, with whom he had three daughters, divorced, Holtzman returned to St. Louis, where his elderly parents still lived, and took a job as supervisor of health and physical education at the city’s Jewish community center.
Managing the worst team in Israel
In 2007, the debut year of the ill-fated Israel Baseball League, Holtzman was named manager of the Petah Tikva Pioneers. The Pioneers had the worst record in the league, and Holtzman resigned a week before the season ended and returned to the United States, though not before blasting the owners, management and players for the bush-league atmosphere.
In interviews over the years, Holtzman alluded to the anti-Semitism he had encountered occasionally in the pros, from other players and even managers, but minimized its significance.
In conversation with Larry Ruttman, who has a chapter about Holtzman in his book “American Jews and America’s Game,” he also described being in Baltimore on Rosh Hashana of 1973, when the Orioles and the A’s were in a fierce pennant race. Wanting to attend synagogue, he called the local chamber of commerce for help. The next morning, a stretch limousine picked him up at his hotel and took him to Bnai Israel synagogue, where he was led straight to the first row, and greeted by his host, Jerold Hoffberger – the owner of the Orioles.
“I said to myself,” recalled Holtzman, “‘Oh my God, the owner of the opposing team. We’re both missing today’s game, and I have to pitch against his team in Oakland when I get home.’” Fortunately, Hoffberger turned out to be “the nicest guy in the world,” and following services, he invited Holtzman back to his home for lunch. The next day, rested from his extra day off, Holtzman led his team to a 2-1 victory over the Orioles, and the A’s went on to win the pennant and the World Series.
“I always thought there was some divine intervention,” Holtzman concluded his tale.