On Rosh Hashanah, remembering baseball’s winningest Jewish pitcher

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When the Chicago Cubs called up Ken Holtzman from the Rookie Pioneer League in 1965, some within the organization predicted that the lefty would be the next Sandy Koufax. Both were tall, lean, and 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. He peaked in the mid-1970s, winning the 1972 World Series opener against the Cincinnati Reds and a stacked lineup that included Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. Holtzman ultimately won three World Series with the A’s, and hurled two no-hitters during his 15-year career.

During his early years with the Cubs, Holtzman was matched up against his boyhood idol and the hurler he had been compared to, Sandy Koufax. The matchup took place at Wrigley Field on the day after Yom Kippur, and neither pitcher was in uniform – both were observing the Jewish Holy Day.

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. 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.

Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].