Champ Summers took a dangerous and interesting path to major leagues

John "Champ" Summers made a stop in Vietnam before he debuted in the major leagues.

John “Champ” Summers made a stop in Vietnam before he debuted in the major leagues.

My first impressions of Champ Summers as a batting coach were not good. When Summers, the former Tiger who was named the Yankees’ hitting guru in 1989, replaced the fired Frank Howard, players whispered criticisms about their new coach. They said that Summers did not put in the long hours working with hitters the way that Howard did. Howard spent the whole day at the ballpark; Summers did not. Summers wasn’t lazy, but he just didn’t seem to have the strong work ethic or intense passion for the game that Howard did.

That said, it’s important to dig further into the personal histories of coaches and players. Summers, who died last October, certainly had an intriguing back-story. I first saw his name in one of those preseason publications that were so popular in the 1970s. The roster of the Oakland A’s listed him as John Summers. I soon learned that they wouldn’t call him that for long; his real identity was “Champ” Summers, a label that would remain with him for the rest of his career.

Champ Summers is one of the greatest baseball names ever. His father, a boxing champion in the Navy, bestowed the nickname because he thought his son had a boxer’s face, worn and beaten. When I first heard the nickname, I thought to myself that this was the name of a guy who would eventually win a batting title.

Summers did not take a conventional route to the major leagues. First, he survived a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he served as a paratrooper. One day while driving an Army truck, he drove over a landmine, which exploded. Summers suffered a concussion and a broken nose, but remarkably escaped a far more dire fate. After his tour of duty ended, he attended Southern Illinois University and actually turned to softball. It was while playing in a slo-pitch softball league that a friend suggested he try out for the school’s baseball team. Summers accepted the advice, made the team, and was soon discovered by A’s scout George Bradley.

As an outfielder coming up with the A’s in 1974, Summers faced the roadblock of a crowded outfield. The two-time defending world champions already had players like Joe Rudi, Billy North, Reggie Jackson and Claudell Washington ready to man the outfield. How was a young player like Summers, a good but not elite prospect, going to break through that starting outfield. Frankly, he never had a chance. He would have to settle for a few pinch-hit at-bats and hope that someone came down injured, or hope that the A’s would make a trade.

The A’s satisfied that hope by completing a trade with the Cubs. After being traded by Oakland, Summers was very critical of his A’s teammates, saying that they were not very supportive of a young, struggling player. Rather than try to take young players under their wings, the A’s veterans didn’t lend a helping hand to their up-and-coming brethren, at least according to Summers. It was safe to say that Summers didn’t have very fond memories of his days in Oakland, even though the A’s won their third consecutive world championship in 1974.

In joining the Cubs as the player to be named later for journeyman right-hander Jim Todd, Summers encountered an outfield that was not as deep or as talented as Oakland’s, but that didn’t mean an automatic role as a starting outfielder. The Cubs still featured Jose Cardenal, Rick Monday, and Jerry Morales (the future Tiger). Furthermore, the Cubs could offer Summers no time as a DH, given the of the absence of that rule in National League play. The Cubs gave Summers slightly more playing time than he had received in Oakland, but he never panned out as an everyday outfielder at Wrigley Field.

After two seasons in Chicago, the Cubs traded Summers to the Reds for outfielder Dave Schneck, also a veteran of Vietnam. More roadblocks, serious roadblocks, were posed by “The Big Red Machine,” coming off two straight world championships and boasting an outfield of George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Ken Griffey. Once again, there was nowhere for Summers to play. As in Oakland and Chicago, he saw All-Star outfielders everywhere. He had to settle for two and a half seasons of fragmented play as a glorified pinch-hitter.

In May of 1979, Summers finally received a reprieve. The Reds traded him to the Tigers for a player to be named later, which turned out to be a forgettable pitcher named Sheldon Burnside. Concerned about the declining production of Rusty Staub (who would be traded later that summer), the Tigers needed an outfielder. They turned to Summers, giving him the chance to play regularly against right-handed pitching.

Given his first opportunity at extended playing time, the 33-year-old Summers played like a left-handed version of Al Kaline. In 246 at-bats, he batted .313, walked more than he struck out, ripped 20 home runs, and compiled an OPS of 1.028. Ranking as one of the Tigers’ most productive hitters, Summers helped the rebuilding Tigers reach 86 wins for the season.

Summers continued the rampage in 1980. Sparky Anderson, who had overlooked Summers as his manager in Cincinnati, continued to use him against right-handed pitching. Splitting his time between DH and the outfield, Champ hit .297, bashed 17 home runs, and slugged .504. His left-handed pull swing seemed tailor-made for Tiger Stadium, with its overhanging deck in right field.

For two seasons, Summers tormented American League righties. If there were an All-Star team for platoon players, Summers would have made it. He became something of a cult favorite in Detroit, where fans regarded him as representative of the common man. Fans in the right fielder bleachers formed a section known as “Champ’s Camp.” Summers loved the attention and developed a fondness for Detroit.

His performance finally started to slip in 1981, not surprising considering that he had turned 35. A fragmented, strike-riddled 64-game season for Summers put his Detroit future in jeopardy.

Summers went to spring training with the Tigers in 1982, but he would not break camp and head to Detroit. In early March, the Tigers sent him to the Giants for utility infielder Enos Cabell. He put in two lackluster seasons with San Francisco (though he did hit well as a pinch-hitter in his first season), before finishing out his career with the Padres in 1984. Though he didn’t hit much, he found himself on a pennant winner and made his first appearance in the World Series, where he ironically faced the Tigers. Summers went hitless in one at-bat as the Padres lost to a vintage Tigers team.

I didn’t hear Summers’ name again until the middle of the 1989 season, when the Yankees fired Dallas Green as manager and purged much of his coaching staff. Summers joined the staff as hitting coach, where he received criticism for his work ethic while working for Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill.

Summers’ work with the Yankees left a bad taste with me, but that was before I began to research his career and life. I learned of his heroic efforts in Vietnam, where he served during the Tet Offensive. I learned about how he nearly signed a pro basketball contract with the old ABA, a testament to his all-round athletic ability. I also learned how he became a popular minor league coach and manager in his later years.

When Summers died from kidney cancer at the age of 66, I learned that there was much more to him than two mediocre seasons as a Yankee coach. A baseball lifer to the end, Champ Summers was a vibrant character and an accomplished man who is worth remembering.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.