Greg Luzinski

This article was written by David E. Skelton

In 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates rookie catcher Steve Nicosia watched the 6’1”, 220 lb. right-handed power hitter crowd the batter’s box and wondered, “How are we ever going to get a pitch by him?”1 Nicosia was hardly alone in these thoughts. For much of his 15-year major-league career Greg Luzinski – whose large bat appeared toothpick-like in the burly slugger’s enormous hands – terrorized opposing batteries with some of the most prodigious blows in either league. Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson dubbed Luzinski “one of the best clutch hitters in baseball,”2 predicting he had a “chance to be the first National Leaguer to hit 60 homers.”3 A longtime favorite in Philadelphia, the fickle Phillies fans turned on Luzinski in the latter part of his career, paving the way for his March 1981 departure to his native Chicago. More than 30 years after his exit Luzinski still placed among the Phillies all-time leaders in a variety of offensive categories.

Gregory Michael Luzinski was born on November 22, 1950, into an athletic family with a brother (William) and son (Ryan) following in his footsteps as major-league first round picks. A second brother with unlimited potential was waylaid by a back injury from an automobile accident. The great-grandson of an immigrant from northern Poland (and strong Germanic roots from his paternal grandmother), Greg might not have pursued baseball at all. An All-American gridiron star – a fullback and linebacker at Notre Dame High School on the outskirts of Chicago – Greg declined football scholarships to the Universities of Notre Dame and Kansas to pursue his love of baseball. As a catcher and first baseman he led his high school to three successive undefeated seasons. Before his family moved to the Illinois suburb of Prospect Heights in 1960, Greg grew up within five miles of Wrigley Field and dreamt of replacing Ernie Banks at the infield corner.

But in 1968, as Luzinski was preparing to graduate high school, the Cubs did not show near the interest in the youngster as did the California Angels and, to a lesser extent, the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies Midwest scout, 66-year-old Bruce Connatser, was unable to watch Luzinski due to a serious illness. The Phillies were alerted of Luzinski’s potential by Mike Vuckovich, the neighbor of Notre Dame High’s baseball coach. Vuckovich was also a close friend of Phillies owner Bob Carpenter – they’d served in the Army together – and upon Vuckovich’s insistence Paul Owens, the Phillies farm director, contracted film of every move Luzinski made on the diamond. With the 11th pick of the 1968 amateur draft – one ahead of the Angels – the Phillies selected Luzinski based largely on the canned footage. A sizeable bonus induced a rapid signing and the 17-year-old soon found himself playing for the Short-Season A Huron (South Dakota) Phillies. Luzinski performed brilliantly by pacing the Northern League with 13 homers and 43 RBIs, with manager Dallas Green anointing Luzinski as “one of the best hitting prospects I ever saw.”4 Twelve years later Luzinski’s once-blossoming relationship with Green would turn bitterly sour.

From 1969-1971 Luzinski’s dominance continued in his rapid ascent through the minors, earning the label as a “can’t miss” prospect. A persistent All-Star in the Carolina, Eastern, and Pacific Coast Leagues, Luzinski placed among – if not led – the league leaders in homers and RBIs while in 1970 nosing out Larry Biittner for the Eastern League batting crown by .0001. It was during this same 1970 season that Luzinski, playing for the Reading (Pennsylvania) Phillies, began smacking some legendary drives. On May 2 he led the Phillies to a 7-3 win over the Manchester Yankees with a 500-plus foot blast that cleared an advertising sign atop the scoreboard in left-centerfield. Weeks later his three homers in three days – including two grand slams – contributed to a four-game sweep over the Waterbury Pirates.

Luzinski became the first Reading player in Eastern League history to garner more than 100 RBIs in a season. His .325-33-120 batting line earned both the 1970 Eastern League Louisville Slugger Award and a September call-up to Philadelphia. On September 9, 1970, more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Luzinski made his major-league debut as a pinch-hitter against the defending World Champion New York Mets. Two days later, as the Phillies first baseman, he captured his first base hit, a single off Montreal Expos righty Carl Morton. Luzinski received two additional starting assignments and four pinch-hitting appearances.

There is no indication the Phillies – in the midst of a massive rebuild since 1967 – gave any consideration to elevating the youngster to the parent club in 1971. Despite scouting reports identifying Luzinski with Harmon Killebrew-like power, Greg had also shown a propensity for amassing a large number of strikeouts (he set a Pacific Coast League record with 167 in 1971). It appears the organization hoped Luzinski would improve in this area with further seasoning in the minors. Additionally, despite a 95-loss campaign by the 1971 Phillies, first base was one of the few stable positions, ably manned by slugger Deron Johnson. Luzinski was assigned to the Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds. It was with the Class AAA team that Luzinski appears to have first earned the nickname “The Bull” for his thick chest and productive bat. He led the PCL in total bases while a .312-36-114 line earned another September call-up.

Luzinski would no longer be used in pinch-hitting roles. Manager Frank Lucchesi moved Johnson to third base, while Luzinski held down first for the Phillies’ final 27 games. On September 7, he connected for his first major-league home run, a towering shot to left that represented the longest drive in the newly-constructed Veterans Stadium. Five days later in New York he directed a massive 480-foot shot that cleared the second left field bullpen fence in   Shea Stadium – both drives invoking memories of Phillies slugging great Chuck Klein. Luzinski’s 10-game hitting streak from September 5-14 (including a hit in a suspended August 1 outing) matched the team’s longest run and he concluded his 100 at-bat stint with a .300-3-15 line. The off-season saw Luzinski tabbed as one of six untouchables as the Phillies, determined to slide the Chicago-native into the lineup, decided to convert him to a left fielder.

Luzinski’s family and friends crowded into Wrigley Field on April 15, 1972, as the 21-year-old made his opening day debut against the Cubs. Against a stiff wind Luzinski smacked a 4th inning homer off Hall of Fame righty   Ferguson Jenkins in a 4-2 Phillies win. Eight days later Luzinski was a single shy of the cycle in a three-hit performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Having agreed to write a first-year diary for a Philadelphia newspaper, Luzinski personally chronicled each these experiences. He described first-hand the massive 475-foot homer against the Cubs on May 16 that struck Veterans Stadium’s replica Liberty Bell beyond the centerfield fence, followed three months later by the first home run hit off the stadium scoreboard. Luzinski led the Phillies in hits (158), home runs (18) and RBIs (68) while drawing favorable comparisons with the rookie seasons of past greats. But Luzinski was not a rookie, having exceeded eligibility following his 90th career at-bat in 1971. He appears to have taken this news in stride when he quipped, “Anyway, next year, I won’t have to worry about the sophomore jinx.”5 Luzinski might have held his tongue had he foreseen his immediate future.

Through 46 games of the 1973 campaign Luzinski struggled with a meager .207-3-13 line. Determined to ride out the storm, new manager Danny Ozark stuck with the youngster and his patience soon paid off. In June Luzinski exploded with a .339-7-33 line that earned Player of the Month Honors in the National League. His success led the last-place team to its only winning month of the year. Pitchers unafraid of Luzinski in April and May became far more cautious as he collected more than five times as many walks from June forward. Luzinski’s hot hand continued through the summer as he again led the team in hits (174), homers (29) and RBIs (97).

Injuries marred Luzinski’s 1974 campaign at the same time the City of Brotherly Love found itself in unfamiliar territory: witness to a contending team. In spring training Luzinski was idled 10 days after sustaining a severe gash on the heel of his right hand against a wire fence. The injury seems to have continued to bother him as the season began. He struck out in nine of his first 11 at-bats and finished April with a .224 average.

Luzinski’s had a rebound which was short-lived when his right knee buckled on June 5 while chasing a foul ball. Ligament surgery was required and he did not return to the team until late-August. Luzinski’s powerful bat was a major loss as the Phillies missed the division flag by eight games. Hall of Fame teammate Mike Schmidt said “there is no way of estimating what the loss of Luzinski has cost the Phillies. ‘That bat in the lineup probably would have meant five extra wins – and I’m being conservative.’”6 Despite Luzinski’s mere 302 at-bats and injuries, other teams sought to trade for the slugger. The Atlanta Braves began courting the Phillies about Luzinski’s availability repeatedly through the spring of 1975.

Over the years Philadelphia would continue to be bombarded with trade inquiries – including queries from both sides of Chicago – as Luzinski posted four consecutive All-Star campaigns (he was the top vote-getter among NL outfielders 1976-1977, the top vote-getter among all NL players in 1978). In 1975 he became the first Phillie since 1950 to lead the league in RBIs (on a lesser-note, that same year Luzinski and Schmidt established a record 331 strikeouts among teammates). Luzinski averaged more than 32 home runs in each of the four seasons while garnering consideration for Most Valuable Player, two of which as runner-up. “If they had an award for dedication, the Bull would be right up there in that voting, too,”7 remarked an exuberant Ozark.

On September 26, 1976, Luzinski delivered a decisive three-run homer against the Expos to clinch the Eastern Division title – the first Philadelphia flag in 26 years. It marked the first of three consecutive division crowns for the Phillies, largely on the strength of the potent offensive generated by Luzinski, Schmidt, et al. Former Phillies slugger Dick Allen offered, “Greg Luzinski is the most dangerous hitter in the game … And he’s only starting to reach his potential. Wait until two or three years from now. They’re going to have to order more baseballs.”8

Through 1976 only 19 homers reached the upper deck of Veterans Stadium – Luzinski authored five of them. In 1977 he became the fourth player to blast a home run into the yellow seats – fifth tier – in the Astrodome in Houston. A year later he became the third player to park a homer into the left field loge sector at Dodger Stadium, while a year after that becoming the third player to homer into the fifth level at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium.

Johnny Bench’s described Luzinski’s power display during batting practice before the 1977 All-Star game in New York’s Yankee Stadium: “We were all kidding around, putting on a show. Joe Morgan hit a couple into the right field seats, Steve Garvey hit a couple into the bullpen … Then Luzinski stepped up and made it look like he was driving golf balls. Everything he hit went out of sight … It was awesome.”9

Luzinski’s imprint in Philadelphia extended well beyond his powerful bat. He purchased a home in the suburbs of New Jersey and was a favorite on the Philadelphia-region banquet tour. Dubbed “one of the world’s good guys,”10 Luzinski sparked interest among potential season-ticket holders when he participated in the yearly seven-city, three-and-one-half day press jaunts each January. But his true measure was glimpsed in the winter of 1976 after Luzinski inked a five-year contract with the Phillies. He purchased a block of Veterans Stadium box seats in left field – dubbed “The Bull Ring” – for use by underprivileged children. Luzinski’s involvement in community affairs were recognized with selection of the eighth annual Roberto Clemente Award. But the long-running love affair between player and Philadelphia fans soon witnessed a rapid falling out.

Sports fans in Philadelphia are not known for being the most patient of sorts. Most athletes have been subjected to their wrath at one time or another. Luzinski was hardly immune. As early as 1975, while mired in a 5-for-49 slump, boos reigned down upon the young left fielder. But the final straw appears to have occurred with a crucial fielding mishap by Luzinski in Game Three of the 1977 National League Championship Series, a day remembered by Phillie fans forever as “Black Friday.”

Known more for his powerful heft versus his play in the field – “I don’t think I’ll ever get paid for being a glover,”11 Luzinski admitted in 1974 – he was quite capable of handling himself. In 1973 he became the first Philadelphia outfielder in six years to lead the league in fielding percentage. Though regularly placing among the league leaders in errors committed by a left fielder, Luzinski also placed among the leaders in assists (pacing the league with 11 in 1977). A practice ensued – started by manager Ozark and continued by Dallas Green – to insert a defensive replacement in left field in the late innings. Inexplicably, Ozark did not pursue this long-held practice in the October 7, 1977 playoff against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Vet.

The playoffs were tied at one game apiece when the third game began. The Phillies held a 5-3 lead in the top of the ninth, with two out, when Dodgers pinch-hitter Manny Mota drove a liner to left that Luzinski initially broke in on, then instantly reversed course. The ball glanced off his glove for a double. Luzinski whirled and fired to second but the throw went through second baseman Ted Sizemore’s legs enabling Dodger baserunner Vic Davalillo to score and open the floodgates to a three-run inning and an eventual Phillies defeat. The Dodgers completed the Series sweep the following day amid pouring rain and a torrent of boos from the crowd. The defeat was later considered a major cause in breaking Philadelphia’s spirit.

Luzinski’s slow start to the 1978 season did little to bridge the chasm that now existed between him and the Philadelphia fans. The Phillies finished May with a dreadful 6-12 mark and Luzinski’s accompanying slump – 8-for-58 – drew the fans’ increased ire. The fate of both team and player began surging in June and Luzinski’s decisive three-run homer against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 30 – “the biggest thrill of my life”12 he allowed afterward – clinched the division title for the third consecutive year. But 1978 marked the last season Luzinski garnered 30 home runs or 100 RBIs in a Philadelphia uniform.

The Phillies’ fate seemed inexorably tied to Luzinski and that appearance was never more evident than in 1979. Great expectations attended the team following the winter free agent acquisition of Pete Rose whose presence, it was believed, would help the team overcome three consecutive eliminations in league championship series. Instead, injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the team and Philadelphia fans were merciless. Accurately assessing the woes, Luzinski said, “We haven’t been aggressive. The team’s not hitting and I’m not hitting. I’m so messed up I don’t even know what I’m doing wrong.”13 As always in Philadelphia, where fans have a difficult relationship with their team, they turned on Luzinski even though it was Ozark’s error in failing to send in a defensive replacement for him on Black Friday.

When the club dipped below .500 in late August Ozark was replaced by Dallas Green. Though the Phillies rebounded with a 19-11 mark under Green’s watch the team was hopelessly behind, finishing the campaign a distant 14 games out. Luzinski captured a mere 452 at-bats – fewest since his injury-marred 1974 campaign – with a .252-18-81 batting line. He particularly struggled at home – .187-7-30 – and his name was soon tied in rumored trades to Houston, Chicago, San Diego and Texas.

Few teams have captured a championship in a more soap-operatic fashion than the 1980 Phillies. Clubhouse dissension vied with reports of illegal drug use and Luzinski found himself in the middle of this drama.

Luzinski reported to spring training 25 pounds lighter determined to recapture the glory of seasons past. His efforts proved successful when Luzinski’s 15 homers through June 19 were exceeded in the National League only by fellow teammate Mike Schmidt. Fifteen days later Luzinski injured his knee sliding into second base. On July 28 he underwent surgery to remove a small portion of damaged knee cartilage and was unable to return until August 24. From his Medford, New Jersey home Luzinski read the newspaper accounts of the two major allegations engulfing the Phillies.

On July 8 – the same day Luzinski was placed on the disabled list – the Trenton (NJ) Times issued a report involving illegal amphetamines sold to the Phillies. The drugs were allegedly secured from Patrick Mazza, Jr., a doctor in Reading, Pennsylvania, and were said to be sold to many of the team’s marquee players including Luzinski, Pete Rose, Schmidt, and shortstop Larry Bowa. The players angrily denied the allegations and the story soon evaporated from the front pages.14 The story was barely subsiding when the team was plunged into another row.

On July 23 the Phillies concluded a 10-game road trip with six consecutive losses to fall four games behind first. After a tremendous start to the season the Phillies were, since June 1, treading water. Green became quite vocal in his condemnation of the team, questioning the character of his players. The manager had already upset many of the veterans with a platoon system that benched some of the long-established stars, including Luzinski, catcher Bob Boone and centerfielder Garry Maddox. As tensions mounted, Bowa and Luzinski were among the most vocal critics of Green with Luzinski referring to Green’s use of “’Gestapo’ tactics”15 in his managerial decision-making. Despite the deep tension the Feuding Phillies went on to the first world championship in the franchise’s history. The players had barely savored the celebratory champagne when Luzinski’s imminent departure was predicted among the sports pages.

The Phillies did not pull off a trade until five days after they acquired left fielder Gary Matthews from the Braves. On March 30, 1981, Luzinski, who was once rumored in trade for such notables as future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Bruce Sutter, was sold to the Chicago White Sox (the Phillies sought pitchers Steve Trout or Richard Dotson but when the White Sox did not budge, the Phillies settled on cash considerations). Meanwhile Luzinski was elated to move to his native-Chicago.

Despite Comiskey Park I’s reputation as a home run hitter’s graveyard, Luzinski thrived in his new surrounds. In the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, while used exclusively as a designated hitter, Luzinski led the White Sox with 21 homers, 62 RBIs and 55 runs scored. His efforts were recognized in a poll of baseball writers, broadcasters and club public relations directors with the first of two Outstanding Designated Hitter Awards (the second was awarded in 1983). In 1983, while leading the club to its first division flag, Luzinski demonstrated the prodigious power exhibited many times before in the National League. He set a franchise record with homers in five consecutive games and became the first player to hit three homers atop Comiskey’s second deck roof, prompting teammate Ron Kittle to quip, “They’re going to have to start a separate record book: ‘Most home run, roof.’”16 Echoing Mike Schmidt’s comments from years earlier, right fielder Harold Baines remarked, “It means a lot when the Bull is hitting well, because he can carry the club.”17

The reverse also rang true when Luzinski slumped in 1984. He did not capture his first home run until May 11 (31 games into the season) and, despite popping grand slams on consecutive games in June, finished the campaign with a meager .238-13-58 line in 412 at-bats. Meanwhile the White Sox collapsed to 74-88, suffering the largest tumble of a reigning champion since division play was instituted in 1969. The team warned of a likely pay cut in 1985 with no guarantee of a permanent role for the slugger. Despite interest shown from the Pirates, Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles Luzinski retired. In May 1985 rumors emerged of the Phillies attempting to entice Luzinski back into the fold as a pinch-hitter but nothing came of it. His reasons may be glimpsed in quotes made during his injury-marred 1974 season: “I can’t sit in the dugout … I [did it before and] almost went off my rocker.”18

But sitting in the dugout was precisely what Luzinski was doing a mere few years later. In 1993, after serving as both the baseball and football coach for his children’s high school – Holy Cross High in Deltran, New Jersey – Luzinski joined his former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa in Oakland to serve as the A’s batting coach. Two years later he began a three-year stint serving in the same capacity in Kansas City under the direction of manager and former Phillies teammate Bob Boone.

In the June 1992 MLB amateur draft Greg and his wife Jean19 proudly witnessed their son Ryan Luzinski selected in the first round by the Dodgers. Ryan would spend eight years in professional baseball. Greg, whose interest in sports had always extended beyond his beloved baseball, enjoyed hunting in upstate Pennsylvania while remaining active in basketball, tennis and especially golf (in 1974 the U.S. Golf Association classified Luzinski as a pro). A right knee replacement in 1997 limited his activities to the latter. He eventually settled in Bonita Springs, Florida, but returned frequently to the Philadelphia surrounds.

Possessing keen business acumen, in 1977 Luzinski invested in an indoor tennis and racquetball complex in New Jersey. He sponsored a number of celebrity tennis tournaments benefitting the American Cancer Society. Decades later, with the advent of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Luzinski opened Bull’s BBQ at the eastern end of Ashburn Alley, offering southern-style barbeque and “Bulldogs” (kielbasas). Not to be outdone, a food court within Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field invoked the memory of the Bull’s long remembered blasts with “Luzinski’s Rooftop Dogs and Polish.”

At 6’1” and variously described from 210 to 250 pounds, Luzinski was often cited for weight issues. “I’m one of those guys who is going to have a weight problem, no matter what … [but] as long as I do the job, what’s the difference?”20 In 6,505 at-bats Luzinski – with 307 home runs, 1,128 RBIs and a .276 batting average – appears to have certainly done his job (through 2014 he placed among the top 200 players lifetime in homers and RBIs).

In 1989 he was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. Nine years later a plaque was mounted on the Wall of Fame in Citizens Bank Park honoring Luzinski among the Philadelphia Phillies greats. The angst that existed between player and fans had, by the early part of the 21st century, dissipated completely. Luzinski was one of the most beloved at reunion events and Fantasy Camps. With the numbers he produced over a 15-year career one wonders how and why fans ever turned on Luzinski in the first place.

Last revised: June 17, 2015

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank SABR member Dennis l. VanLangen for input related to the 1980 amphetamines matter. Further thanks are extended to David H. Lippman for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

Ancestry.com

http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/ballparks/stadium_maps.jsp?c_id=cws

http://www.si.com/vault/2002/05/27/324251/greg-luzinski-phillies-slugger-august-29-1977

http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1975/04/23/page/65/article/luzinski-too-much-for-cubs

The Sporting News

 

Notes

1 “Nicosia Waits, Watches and Catches Pirate Eyes,” The Sporting News, May 26, 1979, 12.

2 “Luzinski Pacing Himself for Bully Year at Bat,” The Sporting News, March 19, 1977, 39.

3 “Luzinski’s Long Blasts Excite Phillies’ Fans,” The Sporting News, May 10, 1975, 3.

4 “The Bull Mr. Big as Bell Ringer of Phillies,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1977, 3.

5 “Jerome Holtzman: Dezelan Changes Mind, Won’t Sue,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1972, 46.

6 “Luzinski Tests Sore Knee, Phils Elated Over Result,” The Sporting News, August 31, 1974, 10.

7 “Super Comeback by Phils’ Luzinski,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1975, 59.

8 “N.L. flashes,” The Sporting News, September 6, 1975, 26.

9 “The Bull Mr. Big as Bell Ringer of Phillies,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1977, 3.

10 “Young Ideas by Dick Young,” The Sporting News, October 2, 1976, 14.

11 “The Bull’s No Gazelle, But He’s Philly Pride,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1974, 33.

12 “Philly Swingers Toll Requiem in Pittsburgh,” The Sporting News, October 14, 1978, 33.

13 “Shell-Shocked Phillies Trying to Pick Up Pieces,” The Sporting News, June 23, 1979, 35.

14 In a 1981 hearing before the Pennsylvania Board of Medical Education and Licensure, Dr. Mazza admitted to examiner Frederic Antoun that he “improperly prescribed” amphetamines to several Phillies players and their wives. His medical license was suspended for one year.

15 “Phils Phinally Win the Series,” The Sporting News, November 8, 1980, 47.

16 “Rooftop Blasts Routine for Bull,” The Sporting News, September 12, 1983, 17.

17 “White Sox End Slump in Style,” The Sporting News, July 23, 1984, 18.

18 “Luzinski Tests Sore Knee, Phils Elated Over Result,” The Sporting News, August 31, 1974, 10.

19 They married in 1974.

20 “Phils Want Luzinski to Ease Up, Avoid Injuries,” The Sporting News, March 15, 1975, 43.