BY CHRIS REWERS
(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on Jan. 19, 2011.)
Whenever I watch footage of Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on Aug. 19, 1969, I am struck by the smiles on the faces of the Cubs players as they mobbed Holtzman after the final out.
The sports pages of the Sun-Times on Aug. 20, 1969 reported the news of Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter the previous day against the Atlanta Braves.
Those players – who included Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, and Glenn Beckert – probably thought the fun was just beginning. Little did they know that Holtzman’s gem was the last good thing that would happen to the Cubs that incredible season. It was all downhill from there.
Santo smashed a three-run homer in the first inning off Atlanta starter Phil Niekro to account for all the game’s scoring, and Holtzman took it from there.
A stiff 15 MPH breeze was blowing in from the northeast and Holtzman took full advantage of the conditions. The 23-year-old left-hander walked two – Gil Garrido in the third inning and Bob Didier in the fifth – and struck out none. Of the 27 outs Holtzman recorded, 15 were flyouts.
The most memorable of those flyouts came off the bat of leadoff hitter Henry Aaron in the seventh inning.
“Should have been a home run,” Holtzman told Rick Talley in The Cubs of ’69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). “On any other day it would have been over the houses across Waveland Avenue. I remember the trajectory. It was one of those high ones headed for distant places, and I remember (left fielder) Billy (Williams) backing up into that corner in left field, just standing there with his right arm against the wall. He kept looking up and looking up, and he knew it was going to land on the sidewalk. The ball was suddenly suspended up there – it seemed like 40 seconds between the time it left the bat and the time it started coming down – and finally it just dropped down into Billy’s glove. Without the wind, that ball would have landed in Evanston.
“I’ll never forget the look Hammer (Aaron ) gave me. Let’s face it, when Hammer hits it, you know it’s gone. He had those wrists and that top hand coming through, and when he started into that trot, he knew. Well, he was almost to second base when he saw Billy catch the ball. He made a U-turn around second and ran about four feet from me as he came past the mound. He just looked at me, puzzled, quizzical, and I just looked back at him. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.”
Bill Heath was the starting catcher for the Cubs that afternoon, but had to leave the game in the eighth inning when he took a Tommie Aaron foul tip off his throwing hand. Heath, who broke a finger and never played in the major leagues again, was replaced by Gene Oliver.
Felipe Alou popped out to the shortstop, Kessinger, to open the ninth and Felix Milan grounded out to third baseman santo for the second out. All that separated Holtzman from a no-no was the dangerous Henry Aaron.
“Ollie runs out to the mound and says, ‘You want to walk him?’ I say, ‘If he gets a hit, he gets a hit,’ ” Holtzman recalled.
As the crowd chanted, “We want an out!” Holtzman fell behind in the count. Aaron sharply fouled off a 3-and-1 pitch into the seats down the right-field line.
“Holtzman in a demonstration of real pitching class, challenged Aaron with that pitch,” Cubs TV broadcaster Jack Brickhouse noted.
Aaron fouled the next pitch back to the screen and then on Holtzman’s 112th pitch of the afternoon, hit a sharp grounder to the right of second. Second baseman Beckert, who was shaded toward the middle, was perfectly positioned. An obviously nervous Beckert fielded it cleanly and then seemingly took forever to make the throw to first baseman Ernie Banks to retire Aaron for the final out.
With the victory, the Cubs improved to 77-45 and maintained an eight-game lead over the second-place New York Mets in the NL East.
But that seemingly comfortable lead evaporated in an amazingly short period of time. Following Holtzman’s no-hitter, the Cubs lost seven of their next nine and their lead over the Mets was down to just 2.5 games by Aug. 27. The Mets passed the Cubs on Sept. 10 and pulled away to win the division by eight games. The Cubs lost 25 of their final 40 in the aftermath of Holtzman’s gem while the Mets went 33-11.
Holtzman’s fortunes down the stretch mirrored his team’s. He went 3-6 in his final nine starts.