Ken Holloway: Detroit’s other Yankee Killer

Ken Holloway beat the New York Yankees 15 times for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s.

Ken Holloway beat the New York Yankees 15 times for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s.

Fans of the Detroit Tigers may remember Frank Lary, who so dominated New York during his career that he earned the nickname “The Yankee Killer.”

For a decade from 1954 to 1963, Lary went 28-13 in 49 starts against the Yankees, a remarkable record considering the Bronx Bombers were at their “Bronx Bomberest” at that time, winning eight pennants while steamrolling over the rest of the American League.

But decades earlier, when the Yankees were in the infancy of their dynastic aspirations, another Detroit moundsman mastered the mighty New Yorkers time and again, against all odds.

Ken Holloway wasn’t a pitcher that anyone ever really clamored after. Growing up in the deep south in rural Georgia, Holloway strengthened his body working on a farm. At the age of 17 he somehow managed to get into the University of Georgia where he walked on to the baseball team and earned a spot on the pitching staff. He loved the game but he had never really played much organized baseball. When he pitched his first spring game for the Bulldogs in 1917, he had to be shown how to hold runners on base. Unfortunately, he allowed too many opposing batters to reach base and Holloway was twice cut from the team. But he showed a tenacious determination and he eventually pitched well for the college team.

Maybe it was his dogged determination, or maybe it was his Georgian accent, but Holloway caught the attention of Ty Cobb, the greatest baseball player in the game and a proud son of The Peach State. Cobb invited Holloway to spring training with the Tigers in Texas in 1922. The barrel-chested Holloway was unimpressive in spring camp and failed to make the team. Manager Cobb had a poor pitching crew however, and late in the season Holloway was summoned for one appearance at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. The big right-hander pitched one inning and wasn’t invited to stay with the club. It seemed his career was over before it really started.

But the next season, with Cobb and his “Ty-gers” still desperate for strong arms, Holloway was invited again to spring camp. This time, Holloway went north with the team and Cobb inserted his fellow Georgian into his starting rotation. In his first big league start, on April 19, 1923, Holloway defeated the St. Louis Browns while tossing a complete game. He completed his next game too, and by then he had impressed Cobb enough with his stamina that Holloway was one of the few Detroit ballplayers to hold favor with The Georgia Peach. Holloway’s subsequent success against Cobb’s most hated rival only proved to cement the connection between the two, though Holloway never really liked the cranky Detroit skipper.

His first start against Babe Ruth and the mighty Yanks was not so glorious. On May 14, Holloway was pounded for 12 hits and seven runs in a 16-11 Detroit loss at Navin Field. But later that season, Holloway delighted Cobb when he beat the Bombers twice. Cob especially liked the fact that Ruth struggled against Holloway’s offerings. In 1924, Holloway was 4-0 against the Yankees, beating them twice in two days in may when he fired a complete game and then came back the next afternoon with two shutout innings of relief.

Even though he typically posted mediocre numbers and only went 64-52 for his career, Holloway was a demon when it came to facing New York, especially in Yankee Stadium. Overall, Holloway went 15-6 with 10 wins at Yankee Stadium against Babe Ruth’s Yankees in the 1920s, as the Pinstripe Dynasty was being established. The Yanks won the pennant six times in the decade, but Holloway was one pitcher they often struggled against. Unfortunately for Ty and the Tigers they could only pitch the Georgian every four days.

The Yankees tried to pry Holloway away from the Tigers a few times, but first he went to Cleveland in 1929 in a trade that netted veteran pitcher George Uhle for Detroit. Finally, in the middle of the ’30 season, the Yanks got their man, acquiring Holloway from the Indians for cash. But the 32-year old had en empty tank by then, and after appearing in 16 games, he was shipped to the minor leagues. He didn’t pitch well for the Yanks, but at least he wasn’t beating them anymore.

Despite a modest career and a career 4.40 ERA, Ken Holloway’s uncanny success against baseball’s best team truly made him Detroit’s first “Yankee Killer.”