Born John Junior Summers, “Champ” was a natural athlete and even beat Jimmy Connors in a tennis match when they were youngsters. Summers took an unusual path to the big leagues – through Vietnam. Summers served in South Asia during the Tet Offensive. After Summers finished his tour of duty, he attended college at Southern Illinois University where he played baseball and basketball.
Summers signed with the Oakland A’s in 1971 after he was discovered playing men’s softball. In 1974, at the age of 28, Summers made his big league debut with the A’s. But he didn’t get much playing time as the A’s were in the midst of winning their third consecutive World Series title that season. It was pretty hard to crack a lineup with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace.
In 1975, Summers was dealt to the Chicago Cubs where he spent two seasons primarily as a pinch hitter and did much the same with the Cincinnati Reds in 1977 and 1978. But Summers’ fortunes would change in May 1979 when the Reds traded him to the Detroit Tigers. As the Tigers’ DH, Summers was an overnight sensation at the age of 33 hitting 20 homeruns in only 246 at bats while batting .313. For some reason, American League pitchers kept throwing Summers fastballs and he kept hitting them into the short porch of the right field upper deck in Tiger Stadium making him a favorite with both Tigers manager Sparky Anderson and with the bleacher creatures.
Summers enjoyed another solid season in 1980 hitting .297 with 17 homeruns and 60 RBI. However, his production fell off considerably in 1981 and prior to the 1982 season he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants for third baseman Enos Cabell. Summers was relegated to pinch hitting duty with the Giants over the next two seasons. He finished his big league career in 1984 with the San Diego Padres. His stint with the Padres is best remembered when he charged the Atlanta Braves dugout on his own after Pascual Perez who had plunked Alan Wiggins in the back on the first pitch of the game. Summers was met by Bob Horner and several Braves fans and taken to the ground in one of the ugliest brawls in MLB history.
Nevertheless, the Padres won the NL pennant and Summers got an at bat in Game 4 of the World Series against the Tigers in Detroit but struck out. It was his final big league appearance.
Summers spent 1989 and 1990 as the hitting coach for the New York Yankees serving under Bucky Dent but then pretty much left the game after that stint. He did spend a number of years operating “Champ Summers’ Summer Camp for Champs” before retiring to Florida to get up in the morning and play golf.
Gary “Bo” Collins, a former baseball coach at Southern Illinois, remembered when Summers tried out for the baseball team “riding down the field on a Harley without a shirt on.” Collins also remembered Summers this way:
He always talk about how lucky he’d been. He said he happened to be in the right place in the right time right before something bad was supposed to happen — and usually came out smelling like a rose.
No doubt it was smell of fortune smiling upon him.
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