Illini Retrospective: The 1960s

Ken Holtzman was Illinois' team MVP in 1965 and went on to win three World Series with the Oakland A's.
Ken Holtzman was Illinois' team MVP in 1965 and went on to win three World Series with the Oakland A's.

April 15, 2010

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In anticipation of the Celebration of 130 Years of Illinois Baseball during the 
Purdue series May 14-16, will be showcasing a series of 
weekly features that look back at the history of the oldest sport on the Illinois campus. Illinois baseball began in the fall of 1879 and is one of the most storied 
program on campus. The Fighting Illini have won 28 Big Ten titles and have the 
seventh-most Major League players all-time among college programs with 70, 
according to Baseball Almanac. Each week leading up to the celebration 
weekend, Illini fans will have a chance to learn more about each decade since 
the 1940s - the teams, the players and the coaches.

Ten years after winning back-to-back Big Ten titles, the 1962 and 1963 Illini did it again. The Orange and Blue finished the 1962 season with a 10-5 conference record. In the District IV playoffs, Illinois defeated Detroit, 2-1, and lost to Western Michigan, 10-2. The Illini were knocked out of the tournament when the eventual NCAA Champion Michigan defeated them, 5-1.

In 1963, the Illini beat Iowa, 7-6, in the first game of a doubleheader to clench the Big Ten Title with a 10-5 conference record. Indiana defeated Ohio State, 9-8 earlier that day to give Illinois sole possession of the title. This was the Illini's 24th conference title in 68 years and head coach Lee Eilbracht's fourth title in 12 years. In the District IV playoffs, hosted at Illinois Field, the Orange and Blue defeated Valparaiso, 13-2, but were defeated by Western Michigan, 1-0, for the second-straight year. This meant that in order to make it to the College World Series, the Illini had to win three games in one day, a nearly impossible task. They defeated Notre Dame, 4-0, eliminating the Fighting Irish from the tournament. The Illini had to beat Western Michigan twice to advance and were successful in the first game, winning 8-0, but couldn't make it past them the third time, losing 7-0.

There were several notable pitchers during the 1960s, including All-American Tom Fletcher, Doug Mills, and Ken Holtzman. Mills was named the Big Ten ERA champion of 1961, posting a 1.03 ERA and was crowned the Illinois Athlete of the Year in 1962. In both years, Mills was recognized as an All-Big Ten selection. Mills threw a no-hitter against Wisconsin on April 29, 1961, becoming one of 10 Illini to ever accomplish the feat. Mills also earned letters at Illinois for basketball and football.

Mills is second in Illinois record books for the highest career winning percentage, posting a .947 percentage from 1960-62 by going 18-1. In 1961, he tied Ron Johnson for the Big Ten winning percentage title with a perfect 4-0 record in conference games. The next year, he tied teammate Tom Fletcher in the same feat boasting a 5-0 record. Mills finished his career with an impressive record of 18-1, and took a different route from his teammates that were headed to the Major Leagues.

"I was picked to play on the United States baseball team in the Pan-American games in May 1963," Mills said. "I was chosen over eight or nine guys to be the starting pitcher in the first game against Cuba."

Mills credits Eilbracht for his success and for teaching him the best lesson in life: planning ahead.

"All of us called Coach Eilbracht `Swami,' because he was the person that looked in the crystal ball," Mills said. "What he did for all of us was to teach us to think ahead. In baseball, that's what you have to do.

"In my business career and even today, I think of how important it is to think ahead and to plan ahead for the future. A lot of people don't plan ahead, so when the ball gets hit to them, they don't know what to do with it."

Mills' teammate, Fletcher, had a very impressive 1962 season as he was named an All-American, the only Illini All-American from the 1960s, and an All-Big Ten selection. Fletcher was the Big Ten ERA champion with a 0.40 ERA, and led the Big Ten in strikeouts with 42.

Another notable Illini pitcher was southpaw Ken Holtzman. He was voted the team MVP in 1965 and was an All-Big Ten selection in that same year.

During the 1960s, the Illini sent 11 players to the Major Leagues including: Ethan Blackaby (Milwaukee), Bob Burda (St. Louis), John Felske (Chicago Cubs), Tom Haller (San Francisco), Jim Hicks (Chicago White Sox), Bobby Klaus (Cincinatti), Gary Kolb (St. Louis), Em Lindbeck (Detroit), Ed Spiezio (St. Louis), Fletcher (Detroit), and Holtzman (Chicago Cubs). Haller, Spiezio, and Holtzman are three of seven Illini that have played in the World Series.

Holtzman is the most decorated Illini player, having helped his teams to four World Series titles - 1972-74 with the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees in 1977. Holtzman also was an All-Star in 1972 and '73, and Spiezio won the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, but lost the following year. Haller, a catcher, made it to the World Series in 1962 with the San Francisco Giants but lost in seven games. Haller was a three-time National League All-Star from 1966-68.

The 1960s equaled the 1940s as the decade producing the most Major Leaguers with 11 former Illini making their big-league debuts in the decade. Illinois also won two Big Ten titles and was one win away from reaching the College World Series, continuing the winning tradition passed down from the early Illini teams.