For instance, when I was probably six I got my first baseball glove. It was a Christmas gift wrapped under the tree and when I opened it, I really didn’t know what the hell it was since it didn’t have much to do with Batman, the "Emergency" TV show or Star Wars. But the details of that first glove—the nuance—explains a lot more than three decades later.
Before that brown, Wilson glove went everywhere with me, the stitching and writing were incredibly intriguing. Below the web were the words, “Grip-Tite Pocket,” which probably didn’t mean anything aside from some marketing schtick. In Rawlings gloves it reads, “Deep Well Pocket,” which is probably the same thing, or a fancy way for the glove makers to say, “If you squeeze it when the ball arrives, you will catch it.”
Nevertheless, the most interesting part about the glove wasn’t the gimmicks, the color, size or even the brand. It was the signature of someone named, “Richie Zisk.”
Why would the Wilson company sell baseball gloves to kids with Richie Zisk’s autograph on the pocket? It sounds like a pretty good question these days, but in the mid-to-late 1970s, Zisk was an above-average player kind of like Andre Ethier, as the Baseball-Reference comparables shows from the stats. But baseball stats weren’t inflated in the 1970s, so Zisk was probably more like Jayson Werth without the speed, or Corey Hart from the Brewers.
Werth and Hart are both All-Star players, but it’s doubtful their signatures are moving much in the way of leather from Wilson or Rawlings. Zisk even spent several seasons primarily as a DH and was top five for outfield errors twice (top three for fielding percentage twice, too), yet his signature stamped on gloves was enough to entice people to buy them. Specifically, my parents.
So just who was Richie Zisk?
Zisk, from Northern New Jersey, a Seton Hall alum and a longtime hitting coach in the Florida State League for the Cubs, was an MVP candidate with Pittsburgh in ’74 when he batted .313 and had 100 RBIs, and belted 30 homers with 101 RBIs and a .290 average for the Chicago White Sox, better known as the Southside Hitmen, in 1977. He’s better known, however, as the Pirates’ replacement in right field for Roberto Clemente after his death on New Year’s Eve of 1972. He was a September call-up for the World Champion Pirates in ’71 and batted .400 in the NLCS from 1974 to 1975.
After the 1976 season the Pirates traded him to Chicago for Goose Gossage and Terry Forster, mostly because they had Dave Parker, Al Oliver and Omar Moreno ready to play the outfield. But they also traded him because, according to Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, Zisk was a "lazy dreamer." Apparently Murtaugh didn't realize that when we think about it, a lazy dreamer is all anyone really wants to be.
“He’d stand out in the field and think about a movie he’d seen,” Murtaugh said, unaware that sometimes that's all a guy can do in the outfield.
Dreamer or not, the trade worked out pretty well since Zisk was a cog in the middle of the White Sox lineup and 20 of Gossage’s 26 saves were longer than one inning and nine were more than two innings, including a September four-inning save while the Pirates were trying to catch the Phillies in the NL East.
But when kids like me where getting Richie Zisk gloves for Christmas it was 1978 and Zisk and Gossage were the big free-agent acquisitions that winter. Goose, of course, signed on with the Yankees and won the World Series, while Zisk jumped to the Texas Rangers for a 10-year, $3 million deal where it was hoped he would be the difference for a team that won 94 games and came in second place in 1977.
Things started out well for Zisk in Texas in 1978. Firstly, reunited with Oliver in the outfield, the Rangers were a strong mix of speed and power. Most baseball analysts saw the Rangers as the team to beat in the AL West and maybe even the team to represent the American League in the World Series simply because they signed Zisk, got Oliver and had lefty Jon Matlack to pitch alongside Hall of Famer, Fergie Jenkins. There was nothing to dispel those notions when Zisk hit a walk-off homer off Gossage in the bottom of the ninth on opening day to beat the Yankees, 2-1.
It only got better for the first half of the season. The Rangers were in first place in late June and hanging around the top of the standings by the All-Star Break. Meanwhile, the fans voted Zisk to be the starting right fielder in the 1978 All-Star Game in San Diego where he batted cleanup and 1-for-2. It wasn’t quite like the 2-for-3 showing with a two-run double he belted off Tom Seaver in the 1977 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, but Zisk was a solid All-Star who hadn’t quite reached his prime.
Still, an eight-game losing streak to end July with a 10-20 record proved to be too much to overcome despite the fact the Rangers ended the season with 15 wins in the final 17 games.
Needless to say, before the 1980s had begun, Zisk and the Texas Rangers were worth buying high.
Only that was as good as it got.
The Rangers went backwards in 1979, finishing third. In 1980 they came in fourth and finished under .500. Zisk, didn’t exactly fade off statistically, rather, he just stayed the same. In 1978 he was an All-Star with 22 homers, 85 RBIs and a .262 average. In ’79 he went 18/64/.262. In 1980 Zisk hit 19 homers, drove in 77 and batted .290, but by then it was time to rebuild for the Rangers. Texas used him as the centerpiece in an 11-player deal with Seattle.
Zisk played just three seasons for the Mariners before retiring at the end of the 1983 season. In 1981 he was named Comeback Player of the Year when he batted .311 in the strike-shortened season. Though he played in approximately 100 fewer games for the Mariners, Zisk posted better advanced stats in Seattle than he did for Texas. When he retired at age 34 he hit 207 homers and had an .818 OPS with a .287 batting average.
But was it the type of career where the guy’s signature is pressed onto baseball gloves and then sold to parents to give to kids for Christmas? Probably not in the age where a player’s Q-rating matters more than his slugging percentage. The generations that followed kids like me likely had gloves modeled from Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr. Big stars signed gloves in the ‘70s, too. In fact, I still have my Johnny Bench Rawlings catchers’ mitt from way back and it’s still as good as ever. A little thin in the pocket, but ready for game action.
So what’s the deal with Zisk? Here’s my theory… maybe gloves, bats and iron-on shirts (I had a Luzinski decal… it was cool) are comparable to the modern day jersey-shirt, or “shirsey” in the popular parlance?
Either way, it’s possible that Zisk would have been able to move a whole lot of gloves if his Rangers got to the World Series the way this year’s club finally did. Since replacing the original Washington Senators in 1961, and then moving to Arlington, Tex. in 1971, the Senators/Rangers never won a playoff series… though they surprisingly find themselves trailing in the World Series to the Giants, 2-0.
Jon Miller, the current ESPN and Giants play-by-play man started out calling Rangers’ games and figured if any of the teams he worked for (the Orioles, Red Sox and A’s for a year) would have been able to get to the World Series, it would have been Zisk’s Rangers in 1978. Maybe that’s why Wilson put Zisk’s name on the gloves. Maybe they figured that the Rangers were going to get to the World Series so they might as well get ahead of the curve.
Who would have known that it was going to take the Rangers until 2010 to finally get there?