The art of airbrushing evokes strong reactions from card collectors. Many collectors have bemoaned the airbrushing efforts of the 1970s and ’80s, chiding the overly bright colors and the uneven lines that make so many of the cards look like they were “painted.”
I come from a different camp on this issue. I have to admit to liking a lot of the airbrush efforts in the years before “Photo Shop” made it easier to transplant new team colors onto old photographs. There’s something surreal, something intriguing about those old airbrush jobs. In a way, they’re examples of baseball cards meeting the art of painting, creating a juxtaposition of photography vs. drawing. At the very least, they provide an interesting conversation piece for old card collectors like me.
Ken Holtzman’s 1972 card gives us a classic example of Topps airbrushing. During the winter, the Cubs had traded the veteran left-hander to Oakland, but Topps did not have any photographs of Holtzman wearing an A’s uniform at the time of the card’s publication. So Topps resorted to the airbrush.
The result is an explosion of vivid green and gold, a slightly askew cap, a cartoonish A’s insignia, and an unusual turtleneck undershirt. I don’t remember players from this era wearing turtlenecks, but perhaps Topps added a little extra green to the top to cover up some unwanted blue coloring from Holtzman’s days with the Cubs.
There’s something else noteworthy about the Holtzman card. As pictured here, Holtzman looks an awful lot like “Neidermeyer,” the memorable character from the 1978 cult classic, Animal House. Neidermeyer was the sadistic and evil ROTC leader who subjected his recruits to the utmost belligerence.
Niedermeyer was played by the underrated character actor Mark Metcalf, who might be better known to younger fans for playing “The Maestro” on two memorable episodes of Seinfeld. And for those fans of music videos, Metcalf also portrayed the father in the introduction to Twisted Sister’s iconic “We’re Not Going To Take It.”
Of course, none of this was relevant in 1972. There was a consensus from Oakland fans and media regarding Holtzman: Why did the A’s settle for Holtzman in return for a productive center fielder like Rick Monday? Holtzman had suffered through a miserable season in 1971, winning only nine of 24 decisions with a bloated ERA of 4.48. “I just had a bad year,” Holtzman explained to a reporter for The Sporting News. “There were no physical problems. I just couldn’t get started. I couldn’t get straightened out.”
On several occasions, Holtzman saw his season interrupted by stints in the Marine Corps Reserve, which fulfilled his duty during the Vietnam War. Holtzman also experienced difficult relationship with Cubs manager Leo Durocher.
Holtzman and Durocher had hardly spoken during the second half of the season. Durocher had previously criticized Holtzman for not using his fastball often enough and relying too much on what the manager called a “lollipop” curve. Durocher also questioned Holtzman’s effort.
“I wasn’t happy when Leo Durocher was quoted in the paper saying I wasn’t trying,” Holtzman told Bay Area sportswriter Glenn Dickey. After Durocher publicly criticized Holtzman, the left-hander asked Cubs general manager John Holland to trade him.
Holtzman claimed that Durocher’s handling of the team, rather than his own relationship with the manager, prompted his trade request. “I didn’t have any real trouble with Leo,” Holtzman said to Dickey. “I got along all right with him. But I didn’t like the way he’d criticize players sometimes in the papers, instead of confronting a player directly.”
Holtzman was being diplomatic in his assessment of Durocher. In reality, Holtzman struggled badly under the brutal management style of Durocher. According to at least one writer, Durocher repeatedly made anti-Semitic slurs toward Holtzman, even calling him a “kike.” Durocher also resented Holtzman for being unavailable to pitch during certain Jewish holidays.
With Durocher out of the picture, Charlie Finley entered the scene. The Oakland owner welcomed Holtzman by cutting his salary 10 per cent. Still, the A’s liked Holtzman for many reasons. Despite his off performance in 1971, Holtzman was still only 26 years old—and healthy. “I’ve never had arm trouble in my life,” Holtzman told The Sporting News. He still had a live fastball and pinpoint control.
Once likened to his pitching hero—another Jewish left-hander by the name of Sandy Koufax—Holtzman had enjoyed back-to-back seasons of 17 wins in 1969 and ’70 while keeping his ERA under 3.60. He had twice pitched no-hitters, a sign of his powerful repertoire of pitches.
Holtzman had an unusual delivery, turning his back almost completely away from the hitter and then throwing across his body. Yet, it was a fluid delivery, which made his deceptive fastball approach hitters with late explosion. “What I try to do,” Holtzman told sportswriter Larry Elderkin, “is set up the hitter for a pitch that I think will bother his timing.” When batters began to anticipate his sneaky fastball, Holtzman countered with a large, looping overhand curveball that doubled as a change-of-speed.
For Holtzman, the trade to the A’s turned out to the best of all possible career moves. The Cubs’ decision to trade him not only freed Holtzman from the clutches of Durocher, but it also placed him in the pitcher-friendly environs of the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, with an excellent defense behind him.
Pitching first for Dick Williams and then Alvin Dark, Holtzman played a huge role in Oakland’s championship run. As the No. 3 starter behind Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue, Holtzman won a combined 59 games during his first three seasons in the Bay Area. Those seasons coincided with three consecutive world championships. As a bonus, Holtzman launched a surprising home run in the 1974 World Series, helping the A’s to a crucial win in a seven-game match-up.
All should have been well, but Holtzman began to hint at retirement in 1973 and ‘74. He indicated that he might call it quits at the end of the 1975 season. He didn’t really like baseball, not the way that other players did, and was beginning to tire of the constant travel, which kept him away from his family for long stretches.
“I figure I’ll pitch maybe two, three more years,” Holtzman said in a 1973 interview with Glenn Dickey. “I’ll have my 10-year pension then. I’ve never thought I’d be the kind of guy who would pitch 17 years. When the thrill is gone, when it’s a chore to suit up, that’s when I’ll quit.” Holtzman had indicated that winning a World Series was his chief goal; since he had achieved that, he regarded all else as “anticlimactic.”
Such thoughts were nothing new for Holtzman. He had actually considered quitting during his rookie season of 1965, after giving up a home run to Jim Ray Hart on the very first pitch of his major league career. Thankfully, Holtzman thought better of his decision, choosing to remain with the Cubs.
Ultimately, it was a contract dispute with Finley, and not retirement, that short-circuited his stay in Oakland. So in the waning days of spring training in 1976, Finley included him in the blockbuster trade that sent Reggie Jackson to the Orioles for slugging outfielder/first baseman Don Baylor and right-hander Mike Torrez.
With free agency awaiting him at the end of the 1976 season, Holtzman had already indicated he had no intention of signing with Finley and the A’s. He simply had no affection for Finley. “Charlie just doesn’t know how to treat people,” Holtzman told The New York Times. “I remember after we won the 1972 World Series and when we got back to Oakland, there was this big welcome for us. I was standing there with my father-in-law and Charlie came over and snarled, ‘Why aren’t you up on the grandstand greeting the people?’ Actually, the police had told us to stand off to the side until they got the fans in control. But he embarrassed me in front of my father-in-law.”
Given his impending free agency, Holtzman did not last the year in Baltimore, either. The Orioles thought they had a trade with the Royals, but Holtzman’s unwillingness to sign a new contract with Kansas City caused the Royals to cancel the deal. So just before the June 15 trading deadline, the Orioles sent Holtzman to the Yankees as part of a massive 10-man trade that netted Baltimore left-handers Rudy May, Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez and catcher Rick Dempsey.
Billy Martin awaited Holtzman in New York. They did not mesh well. There were whispers of anti-Semitism from the manager toward the pitcher. While the actual existence and level of Martin’s bigotry remains debatable, there is no doubt that the manager eventually buried Holtzman.
Holtzman struggled in pinstripes to the tune of a 4.14 ERA, his highest since his days with the Cubs. Holtzman was just 31 and just two seasons removed from his status as an elite left-hander, but Martin lost confidence in him quickly. In 1977, Martin called on him only 18 times, and only seven times as a starter.
Martin was not working alone. According to some Yankees observers, George Steinbrenner was disappointed in his 1976 midseason acquisition and wanted to trade Holtzman, but there was the little matter of a “no-trade” clause. Holtzman refused to waive the no-trade, drawing the further wrath of The Boss. That decision, coupled with Holtzman’s status as the Yankees’ player representative, may have pushed Steinbrenner to the limit. According to some within the organization, Steinbrenner ordered Martin to keep Holtzman confined to the bullpen. At one point, the Yankees placed Holtzman on the disabled list, even though he was not hurt.
Essentially, Martin and Steinbrenner treated Holtzman as “worthless and weak,” to borrow Neidermeyer’s favorite catch phrase in addressing his Animal House recruits. Unfortunately, Holtzman never recovered from the mistreatment. In June of 1978, the Yankees traded him to the Cubs for a young Ron Davis, but Holtzman didn’t come close to recapturing his former glory. By the end of the 1979 season, he was out of baseball, done at the age of 33. If he could take any solace, it was knowing that he won more games than any Jewish pitcher in history, breaking the mark of the great Koufax.
Of course, it’s certainly possible that Holtzman’s early pitching demise resulted from a heavy workload. From 1968 to 1976, Holtzman pitched at least 215 innings each season except one. And some of his innings pitched totals were astounding: 266, 287 and 297. Little doubt that those numbers were a factor in his career decline, Yet, I have to believe that Martin’s handling of Holtzman took its toll, too.
To no one’s surprise, given his frequent hints at retirement, Holtzman has not returned to Organized Ball as either a coach or a manager. He did manage a team in the short-lived Israel Baseball League, but with disastrous results. His team played horribly, he resigned his position, and then he lobbed insults at the league for its lack of direction and organization. It was a bad situation for both Holtzman and the ill-fated league.
From a physical standpoint, Holtzman has not aged well since his days in Oakland and New York. He has put on a great deal of weight, giving him a roundish physique, and has lost most of his hair. Frankly, he is almost unrecognizable to those fans who remember him pitching for the A’s.
The extra weight and the loss of hair have had little effect on his personality. Earlier this year, he attended a 40th anniversary reunion of the 1972 A’s at the Oakland ballpark. My sources tell me Holtzman was the most colorful and outspoken of all the retired ballplayers in attendance.
While he no longer looks like Neidermeyer, it’s refreshing that Holtzman hasn’t mellowed with age. He’s still intelligent, still feisty, still blunt, and still has no patience for those he feels are incompetent or unfair. It’s reassuring to know that Ken Holtzman hasn’t really changed at all.