The “Polish Prince” Richie Zisk was wildly popular during his one season in Chicago, slugging home runs for the 1977 South Side Hit Men.
Remember that guy?
Zisk was born on February 6, 1949, in Brooklyn. He’d end up second all-time among Major Leaguers born on February 6 – only 507 behind Babe Ruth. He attended Parsippany High School in New Jersey, where he was All-State in baseball, All-County in basketball, and he even played soccer. While he was drafted by the Pirates out of high school in the 3rd round in 1967, he found time to attend Seton Hall University.
Zisk made his pro debut in 1967 at Salem of the Appalachian League, where at age 18 he tore through the competition, hitting .307/.422/.630 with 16 HR and 51 RBI in 56 games. Everywhere he went, he hit. In 1970 with Waterbury (AA), he led the Eastern League with 34 home runs. The next two years with the Charleston Charlies (AAA), he led the International League with 109 RBI in 1971 and with 26 home runs in 1972.
Zisk received a seven-game Major League trial at the end of the 1971 season. Surrounded by stars, he was able to hold his own. For example, in his September 8, 1971, MLB debut, he entered the game in the 8th inning as a defensive replacement in right field for Roberto Clemente. In the bottom of the inning, he collected a single in his lone at-bat (off the Cubs’ Joe Decker), then the next batter up was Willie Stargell. Richie collected his first big league homer on September 18 off Ray Sadecki of the Mets. It was a two-run blast scoring the great Clemente.
The powerful outfielder got another 17-game taste of the big leagues in 1972 as well, and by 1973 he was there to stay, hitting .324/.364/.526 with 10 HR and 54 RBI in 103 games in his rookie year. He played full-time in 1974 and was equally good, hitting .313/.386/.476 with 17 HR and 100 RBI. He went from 9th in Rookie of the Year voting to 9th in NL MVP voting. 1974 also saw Zisk hit for the cycle (June 9) and post impressive RBI streaks; a 5-game multi-RBI streak from June 25-July 2, and a 10-game RBI streak from August 4-13. He even saw his first postseason action, going 3 for 10 in the NLCS against the Dodgers.
The following year, he’d go 5-for-10 in the NLCS against the Reds, after completing his first career 20-HR season during the regular season. He hit another 21 long ones in 1976. In 1977, he’d have a new home.
White Sox owner Bill Veeck along with his GM Roland Hemond figured they weren’t going to be able to pay his fireballing duo of Rich “Goose” Gossage & Terry Forster in free agency, so the two pitchers (both with one-year left before they hit the market) were packaged in a deal to Pittsburgh for Richie Zisk and pitcher Silvio Martínez. A deal was also made sending Bucky Dent to the Bronx for outfielder Oscar Gamble and pitchers LaMarr Hoyt & Bob Polinsky. Pitcher Steve Stone & third baseman Eric Soderholm were given contracts in hope of bounce-back seasons. The South Side Hit Men were born.
Richie Zisk’s White Sox debut couldn’t have gone much better. The opening day right fielder went 4-for-6 with a homer in his first at-bat. The game was played in snowy, frigid conditions in Toronto – the inaugural game in Toronto Blue Jays history, so Zisk’s first inning homer was the first ever American League home run hit in Canada. He kept on rolling, by the end of May, Zisk was hitting an excellent .306/.366/.636 with 14 home runs. The year before, the White Sox home run leaders were Jorge Orta & Jim Spencer – with 14 for the entire season.
Zisk was the lone White Sox representative at the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, going 2 for 3 with a 2-run double off Tom Seaver. Back home at Comiskey Park, fans were hanging banners which read “Pitch at Risk to Rich Zisk.” The White Sox were hitting home runs in bunches and scoring a lot of runs. Their pitching wasn’t quite at the same level, but they were fun to watch. The 1977 White Sox home run total of 192 shattered the previous franchise record of 138 set in 1971. That number would stand until they hit 195 in 1996. Zisk and Oscar Gamble became the first 30-homer duo in White Sox franchise history, and The Sporting News AL Comeback Player of the Year Eric Soderholm added 25. The Sox held a share of first place as late as August 20, but they couldn’t hang on, and finished in 3rd place with a strong 90-72 showing.
Zisk posted career highs in home runs (30) and RBI (101) while hitting .290/.355/.514. Richie would be the only player in White Sox history to hit a Comiskey Park roof shot (June 4) & a home run into the Comiskey bleachers (May 22) in the same season (thanks to the SoxNerd Dave Marran for that nugget). He enjoyed playing in Chicago, but the White Sox couldn’t compete with the offer Richie was given by the Rangers in November. A 10-year, nearly $3Million contract would make him a Texas Ranger for the next decade, or at least that was the idea at the time.
The year 1978 saw Zisk’s second consecutive All-Star selection, as Zisk averaged .271/.339/.435 with 20 HR and 75 RBI in his first three seasons with the Rangers. Not quite the production he had with the South Side Hit Men, but not bad either. After three seasons, the Rangers decided to move Zisk, packaging him with utility man Rick Auerbach and pitchers Steve Finch, Brian Allard, Ken Clay & Jerry Don Gleaton and sending them to Seattle for catcher Larry Cox, infielder Mario Mendoza (of the infamous Mendoza Line), outfielder Leon Roberts, DH Willie Horton & pitcher Rick Honeycutt.
Zisk still had something left in the tank, winning The Sporting News 1981 AL Comeback Player of the Year for the Mariners in 1981, which seems strange when you look at his numbers. He hit .290/.344/.460 with 19 HR, 77 RBI in 135 games for the Rangers in 1980, then hit .311/.366/.485 with 16 HR & 43 RBI for the Mariners in a strike-shortened 1981. It’s hard to tell exactly what he was coming back from. He had one last 20-HR season (21) in 1982 before being limited to 90 games in 1983. By now, Zisk had already undergone several knee surgeries and was on the DL all of 1984. Zisk ended up playing only six seasons out of the ten-year contract he signed prior to the 1978 season.
Zisk finished his MLB career with 1,453 games, 1,477 hits, .287/.353/.466, 207 HR, 792 RBI. He’s one of four players in MLB history whose last name begins with Z to have 200+ career home runs, trailing only Ryan Zimmerman (270), Todd Zeile (253) & Gus Zernial (237).
After his playing career, Zisk earned a degree in communications and tried his hand at broadcasting, but instead took a job in the Cubs organization in 1986. For a while, he worked as a roving instructor but set in as a hitting coach for the Cubs High-A Daytona affiliate in 1995. Zisk had a long run with Daytona, even filling in as manager in 2000 (when they won a league championship) and 2005, and in 2007 he had his number 22 retired by the team. In 2011-12 he served as a roving scout for the Cubs, and in 2014, he was inducted into the Florida State League Hall of Fame for his work with the Daytona Cubs.
The ”Polish Prince” was even inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame (located in Troy, MI) on June 10, 2004!
He only played for Chicago for one year, but he was a key player on an iconic team. Nobody could forget Richie Zisk.