ENID, Okla. —
He got his nickname from his U.S. Naval prizefighting dad on the day he was born. “Dad took one look at me when I was born and said, ‘He looks like he just went 10 rounds with Joe Louis.’” From that day forward, John Junior Summers would forever be known simply as Champ. Summers, who died Thursday at the age of 66 following a 21⁄2 year battle with kidney cancer, never became a superstar, but had his moments.
Summers spent 11 seasons in the majors, finishing with a career average of .255 from 1974-1984, hit 54 home runs with 218 RBI. His best stretch was his three years in Detroit from 1979-1981, where he averaged .294, including hitting a career-high 21 home runs in 1979. He was a working-class guy in the true sense of the word and that’s what endeared him to Detroit fans so much. He had to make his own breaks.
He wasn’t a highly coveted prospect. Unlike today when players are scouted and groomed from the moment they show promise, Summers’ path to the big leagues was something that you are not likely to see in the modern era.
A native of Bremerton, Wash., Summers served in the Vietnam War as a member of the Army and did not play in the big leagues until he was 28 years old. He was signed by the Oakland Athletics in 1971 as an amateur free agent. And it wasn’t through networking, YouTube or through some draft clearinghouse. No, he was discovered playing in a men’s softball league.
To be fair, it’s not as if Summers was a completely unknown commodity as an athlete. He played basketball and baseball at Southern Illinois and later was named to the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
Champ bounced around between the minors and the majors, but flourished in Detroit under manager Sparky Anderson. During Summers’ stretch in Detroit, the Tigers strictly were middle-of-the-pack material, but he was a consistent bright spot. He was a fan-favorite for his hard-nosed play, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy his time in Detroit, which was affirmed by his wife Joy in announcing his death. “His favorite team was Detroit,” she said. “He stayed there the longest, and he loved the fans.”
He was traded away three seasons before the Tigers would win the World Series in 1984, but ironically, his last major league at-bat would be in the 1984 World Series as a member of the San Diego Padres against the Tigers. There would be no Hollywood script ending as he struck out in his only at-bat in the Series in what also would turn out to be his final Major League at-bat as well.
Summers was a fiery guy and that endeared him to fans as well. In his one season with San Diego, he famously charged the Atlanta Braves’ dugout wanting a piece of pitcher Pascual Perez, who had plunked Alan Wiggins. He didn’t make it to the dugout, as the Braves’ Bob Horner tackled him as a benches-clearing brawl erupted.
Champ was a throwback before there were throwbacks. He would never make it to Cooperstown, but deserves to be remembered – as a champ in his own right.
Ruthenberg is sports editor of the News & Eagle. Contact him at email@example.com.쇓