Happy Birthday, Champ Summers!

John (Champ) Summers was an outfielder with the Cubs when I was a kid watching baseball games on WGN from my home in Buffalo Grove, IL.  The Cubs got Summers when Charlie Finley wanted a real baseball player to be the 25th man on the roster and grew tired of Herb Washington, the designated runner.  So, he sent the Cubs Summers for a speedy outfielder named Matt Alexander.

Anyway – I remember a few things about Summers.  I can remember a pinch-hit grand slam he hit against Houston in 1974, and I remember him getting to play once because Jose Cardenal got in a fight with a cop at O’Hare Airport – the officer was giving Cardenal’s wife a hard time because she was parked illegally waiting to pick up Cardenal when the Cubs returned from some road trip…  I digress.

The Cubs couldn’t use him – he was packaged to Cincinnati, which had more great outfielders than Chicago.  He was traded to Detroit where he had two pretty good years as a DH and part time outfielder or first baseman.  Then, he stopped getting at bats.  Traded again to San Francisco, he was a pinch hitter until his shoulder gave out.  He finished his career in 1984 with the Padres – he struck out in the 1984 World Series against his old team, Detroit.

After several years selling cars and as a batting instructor, Summers retired to Ocala, FL to play golf.  Cancer in his kidneys took Summers from us in 2012, but one assumes he’s playing in a better league now.

What follows is an article about Champ written when he was lying about his age and trying to make the Cubs that appeared in The Sporting News in 1976.

Cubs Have a Champ Who Hopes To Prove He’s Special

Nobody was more anxious for spring training to begin than John (Champ) Summers, a Cubs’ utility outfielder who had a least three things to prove before the first week of April:

(1) That a lefthanded hitter can tear up lefthanded pitching, (2) that a guy who never played baseball until he was 22 can make it in the big leagues, and (3) that there’s as much money to be made in the majors as Summers made in Mexico this winter.

Summers is a “kid” of 27.  Something he’s never lost is enthusiasm because, as he puts it, “baseball is still new to me.”

Less than five years ago, he was undertaking this brand new sport at Southern Illinois (Edwardsville), determined to make ends meet by getting some scholarship money for a free ride he’d run to its limit in basketball.

A few years earlier, as a senior high school tennis star in Madison, Ill., the Champ had worked out with a fledgling named Jimmy Connors from nearby Belleville.  Connors, then 13, “hit everything back to me,” Summers recalled.

At Edwardsville, fresh from two years in the paratroopers, including duty in Vietnam, Summers took a shot at college baseball.  One of those who watched him was George Bradley, who then scouted for the A’s and now serves the Phils.

“I don’t think Charlie Finley wanted to sign me too badly, but George told him I had the rough edges of a pro,” Summers recalled while waiting for the owners to flash the green light for spring training.

“Now I’d like to prove that George Bradley was right.”

Summers, late start and all, has five years of pro ball behind him.  They’ve been good eyars, including .308 at Burlington (Midwest) in 1972 and .333 at Tuscon (Pacific Coast) in ’73.

Obtained by the Cubs last April, Champ had 21 hits in 91 times up, most of them as a pinch hitter, his first full campaign in the majors.  But, he hardly saw a southpaw pitcher, so in Mexico this winter he tried to destroy the theory that he couldn’t hit lefties.

Summers played for Culiacan, and at the halfway point in the season was hitting .352, good enough to lead the Mexican Pacific League and also to make the all-star team.

“Three out of four starters were lefthanded,” he pointed out.  Are you listening, Jim Marshall?

Culiacan, which was going nowhere, finished fifth, and Summers said “they stopped giving me anything to hit because they didn’t have to.” He wound up hitting over .280 but in the midst of a late slump was offered a $1,000 bonus by the club if he’d forget his desire to go home and finish the season.

The Champ agreed, but was released anyway to make way for another player who was supposed to help Culiacan make the playoffs.

Then Mazatlan, managed by Russ Nixon, snapped him up, offering him $2,000 to finish the season there.  Mazatlan, which as the rights to Summers next winter, got only five games out of him but Champ’s wife Barbara already is making plans for next winter.

“That’s a resort area, and I’m not staying in Arizona next year; I’m going, too,” she said, adding that their daughter would be enrolled in a private school there.

The brief Mazatlan episode didn’t end Champ’s four months of winter ball.  Navajoa drafted him for the playoffs and he hit over .500 in seven games against six southpaw starters before Obregon finally won and also took the Caribbean Series, a fact which Summers says should improve the reputation of Mexican baseball. “They just haven’t respected Mexican baseball as they should,” he insisted.

He might have added that neither the Cubs nor the A’s have respected Champ Summers to the degree that he hopes to achieve.  One top major league scout whom he chose not to identify told Summers’ wife at a game in the Mexican playoffs.

“Your husband hits lefthanded pitching better than any lefthanded hitter I’ve seen.  If the Cubs can’t use him, we can.”

The Cubs can use him, but not very much, apparently.  He played only 18 games in their outfield last year, pinch hit the rest of the time.  And the road will be tough once more again because Jose Cardenal, Jerry Morales, and Rick Monday form an outfield that can be upset only by trade.  Furthermore, Joe Wallis is the fair-haired newcomer who will get the biggest play.

But the Champ is champing at the bit.  He says he wants to play in half the exhibitions.  Winter ball has left him in great shape.  He can’t afford a spring delay.

As Barbara put it, “I hope they start playing ball pretty soon.  Ball player’s wives aren’t used to being cooped up with husbands morning, noon and night.”

Dozier, Richard. “Cubs Have a Champ Who Hopes To Prove He’s Special”, The Sporting News, 13 March 1976, Page 34.

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