#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Greg Luzinski
In a decade where 30-home run seasons were authored by only the top sluggers in the game, Greg Luzinski topped that mark in three of four campaigns from 1975-78.
It was a mark matched by only Mike Schmidt and Bobby Bonds during that offensively-suppressed era – and it stamped Luzinski as one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
Gregory Michael Luzinski was born Nov. 22, 1950, in Chicago. With broad shoulders, large hands and the frame of a fullback, Luzinski made a name for himself in the Chicagoland amateur leagues before he was legally able to drive a car. He posted a stretch with 18 hits in 19 at-bats for the Prospect Heights Little League team to the state finals. And by the summer of 1966, Luzinski was playing American Legion baseball before joining the Lions, a powerhouse team located in nearby Arlington Heights.
“In my five years of coaching here,” Larry Nomellini told the Arlington Heights Herald, “I’ve never seen a kid who comes close to him as a hitter.”
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But Luzinski also starred on the football field for Notre Dame High School in Niles, a north-side suburb of Chicago. The Dons went 9-0 during Luzinski’s junior season, and soon the rugged fullback – who scored 11 touchdowns that year – was receiving scholarship offers from schools around the country, including the University of Notre Dame, his favorite team.
Baseball, however, remained his first love. And in 1968, the Phillies took Luzinski with the 11th overall pick in that summer’s MLB Draft.
The Phillies signed Luzinski to a bonus worth a reported $45,000 and sent the 17-year-old to Huron, S.D., of the Northern League, where he tied a league record with 13 home runs and finished second in the loop with 43 RBI in 57 games.
“I’ve just been meeting the ball well,” Luzinski told the The Daily Plainsman of his late-season surge. “Maybe it’s just getting over the initial pressure of playing my first season in pro ball.”
Luzinski’s manager that year was Dallas Green, who would play a major role in Luzinski’s career journey a decade later.
Luzinski hit 31 homers with 92 RBI for Class A Raleigh-Durham of the Carolina League in 1969 – weathering the effects of a scary beaning that left him crumpled at home plate – then torched Eastern League pitching with Double-A Reading in 1970 to the tune of a .325 batting average (tops in the league), 33 home runs and 120 RBI.
The Phillies rewarded Luzinski with a late-season call-up in 1970, and he appeared in eight games in September – mostly as a first baseman and pinch hitter. But with veteran Deron Johnson blocking Luzinski at first base, the Phillies sent their top prospect to Triple-A in 1971 – and Luzinski responded by hitting .312 with 36 homers and 114 RBI for the Eugene Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League.
By 1972, Luzinski was the Phillies’ Opening Day left fielder. And despite his 6-foot-1, 231-pound frame, Luzinski was surprisingly adept in the outfield.
“I never saw a guy work harder in Spring Training,” Phillies general manager Paul Owens told the Philadelphia Daily News. “He never picked up a first baseman’s glove the whole spring. And he’d chase guys out of left field so he could handle every ball.”
Already known as “Bull”, Luzinski hit .281 in 1972 with 18 homers and 68 RBI. The next season, he bashed 29 home runs – sixth-best in the National League – to go with 97 RBI and a .285 batting average. He struck out 135 times (fourth-highest in the league), but Luzinski always maintained a strong batting average despite a swing that often produced light-tower power.
It was a plate approach that helped him weather an early season slump that saw him hitting just .207 entering June and hearing the Philadelphia boo birds for the first time.
“That doesn’t bother me one bit,” Luzinski told The News Journal of Wilmington, Del. “I know I can hit and that’s all that really matters.”
Luzinski hit .339 with 33 RBI in June of 1973 to put an end to the slump, winning NL Player of the Month honors.
By 1974, the Phillies were assembling a team that would dominate the NL East for most of the second half of the decade. But with Mike Schmidt, Dave Cash and Larry Bowa combining to give Philadelphia a topnotch infield, Luzinski battled injuries. He lacerated his left hand on an outfield fence in West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 28, sending him into a slump that saw him lugging a .224 batting average into May.
Then on June 5, Luzinski’s right knee crumpled when he caught his spikes on the Veterans Stadium turf while chasing a foul ball hit by Atlanta Braves leadoff batter Ralph Garr.
“Greg doesn’t say much,” his Phillies teammate Larry Bowa told the Courier-Post of Camden, N.J., “but he is really scared, really concerned.”
That same day, the Phillies took Lonnie Smith – the player who would eventually replace Luzinski in left field – with the third overall pick in the 1974 MLB Draft.
Within the week, Luzinski was diagnosed with a torn ligament and underwent knee surgery. He returned to the lineup in August and finished the season with a .272 batting average, seven home runs and 48 RBI in 85 games.
“I was grateful that I played that last month,” Luzinski told the Asbury Park Press in Spring Training of 1975. “That way I didn’t have to sit all winter and think about whether I could play or not.”
Luzinski had nothing to worry about. In 1975, he led the big leagues with 120 RBI and 322 total bases while hitting .300 with 34 home runs and 89 walks. He finished second to the Reds’ Joe Morgan in the NL Most Valuable Player voting, and the Phillies finished second in the NL East with 86 wins – their most since 1966.
“Personally, it was very satisfying,” Luzinski told United Press International. “I guess the ultimate goal is to be MVP and win the World Series.”
In 1976, Luzinski and the Phillies took another step toward the Fall Classic when they won the NL East title. His three-run homer in the sixth inning against the Expos on Sept. 26 broke a scoreless tie and led to Philadelphia’s 4-1 win – a victory that clinched the NL East title and put the Phillies in the postseason for the first time since 1950.
“That home run was a long time coming,” Luzinski told UPI. “It sure was good to see it go over the fence in such a key game.”
Luzinski finished the season with a .304 batting average, 21 homers and 95 RBI. He had a homer and three RBI in the NLCS, but the Reds swept the Phillies en route to their second straight World Series crown. Following the season, Luzinski signed a five-year contract.
By this point, the 25-year-old Luzinski had emerged as one of the game’s most powerful sluggers. He had hit five of the 20 home runs that had reached the upper deck of Veterans Stadium through the ’76 season, and in 1979 he became just the second player to hit a ball into the left field upper deck at Pennsylvania’s other big league park: Three Rivers Stadium.
“It was the first one I ever watched,” Luzinski told the Pittsburgh Press of his mammoth home run. “I just flipped my bat. I didn’t even know where first base was.”
The Phillies repeated their NL East title in 1977, and Luzinski posted a virtual duplicate of his 1975 season with a .309 average, 39 home runs and 130 RBI. He again finished second in the NL MVP voting, this time finishing just 36 points behind the Reds’ George Foster.
In the NLCS vs. the Dodgers, Luzinski’s two-run, first-inning home run in Game 1 propelled the Phillies to a 7-5 win. But with the series tied at a game apiece in Game 3, Luzinski was unable to catch a Manny Mota line drive at the wall, bringing home a run to cut Philadelphia's lead to 5-4 and denying the Phillies what looked to be the game’s final out. Los Angeles rallied to win the game 6-5 and the series 3-games-to-1.
The Phillies entered the 1978 season as the favorites in the NL East, and Luzinski – coming off a season where he was named a Topps all-star – figured prominently in the team’s prospects. Philadelphia fought off a late-season charge from Pittsburgh to win the division for the third straight year, and Luzinski totaled 35 home runs and 101 RBI while earning his fourth straight All-Star Game selection and also earning the Roberto Clemente Award for his work in the community and his stellar play.
But once again – despite Luzinski’s six hits, including a triple and two home runs – the Dodgers defeated Philadelphia in the NLCS.
The Phillies went all-in for 1979, signing free agent Pete Rose to play first base. But injuries and an ineffective bullpen doomed the team to a fourth-place finish and cost manager Danny Ozark his job. Luzinski hit .252 with 18 homers and 81 RBI in 137 games.
New manager Dallas Green, who had been Luzinski’s first pro skipper in 1968, infused the team with a new spirit – and Luzinski was hitting .281 with 15 homers and 41 RBI through the team’s first 56 games in 1980. But on July 5, Luzinski injured his troublesome right knee while sliding into second base vs. the Cardinals. He underwent surgery July 28 and missed 45 games.
He returned in August to help the Phillies’ drive to their fourth NL East title in five years, finishing the season with a .228 batting average, 19 homers and 56 RBI in 106 games. His two-run, sixth-inning home run in Game 1 of the ALCS vs. Houston turned a 1-0 Astros advantage into a 2-1 Phillies lead that would become a 3-1 win – and Luzinski finished the NLCS with a .294 batting average and four RBI in five games to help Philadelphia advance to the World Series.
But in the Fall Classic, Luzinski appeared in only three games as Lonnie Smith took most of the at-bats as the Phillies’ left fielder. Luzinski went 0-for-9 as Philadelphia won its elusive World Series title.
The championship glow did not last long. Throughout the offseason, rumors swirled that the Phillies were shopping Luzinski. He struggled at the plate in Spring Training, hitting just .160 through eight games despite Green saying that he thought Luzinski was “on his way to having a good year.”
Then, the Phillies acquired outfielder Gary Matthews from the Braves on March 25, 1981. Six days later, the Phillies sold Luzinski’s contract to the White Sox in a cash-only transaction – sending him back to his hometown.
“There’s no secret that there was a lot of verbal abuse between us,” Luzinski told the South Bend Tribune in February of 1982 of his relationship with Green. “Our relationship is probably one of the reasons that I’m now playing in Chicago.”
Now a fulltime DH, Luzinski hit 21 home runs and recorded 62 RBI in 104 games in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign in the final season of the contract he signed in 1977, winning the Designated Hitter of the Year Award. The White Sox immediately brought him back with a three-year, $2.25 million deal – and Luzinski hit .292 with 18 homers and 102 RBI in 1982.
He recorded his fourth-and-final 30-plus home run season in 1983 – finishing with 32 homers and 95 RBI while helping the White Sox win the AL West title and again winning the DH of the Year Award. But the White Sox lost to the Orioles in the ALCS.
Luzinski struggled in 1984, though he tied a record with grand slams in back-to-back games June 8-9 and hit his 300th career home run on July 5. But he finished the season with just 13 homers and 58 RBI in 125 games.
He became a free agent after the season but found few offers and retired on Feb. 5, 1985, taking a position as the freshman baseball coach at Holy Cross High School near his home in Medford. N.J.
“The realization was that nobody wanted me,” Luzinski told USA Today.
Luzinski finished his 15-year career with a .286 batting average, a .363 on-base percentage, 307 homers and 1,128 RBI. He later coached in the big leagues, and his son, Ryan, was a first-round pick of the Dodgers in the 1992 MLB Draft out of Holy Cross High School.
“The day I don’t think I can play,” Luzinski told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1972, “I better get out of the game.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum