Today’s Tiger: Champ Summers
Posted on June 17, 2015
- Born: June 15, 1946 in Bremerton, Wash.
- Died: Oct. 11, 2012
- Acquired: Traded by the Reds to the Tigers for a player to be named later on May 25, 1979. The Tigers sent Sheldon Burnside to the Reds to complete the trade October 25, 1979.
- Seasons in Detroit: 3 (1979-81)
- Bats: Left Throws: Right
- Height: 6′ 2″, Weight: 205 lb.
- Uniform Number: 24
- Stats: .293 avg., 40 HR, 132 RBI, .896 OPS
Champ Summers was a fan favorite in Detroit and for good reason. He came to the Tigers as a career underachiever — at least at the major-league level — in an under-the-radar trade roughly a week before they hired Sparky Anderson in 1979.
The year before, John Junior Summers was the Minor League Player of the Year for the Reds’ top farm club, Indianapolis of the American Association. He led the AA with a .368 average, 34 homers and 124 RBI. It was in the majors, though, where Summers struggled to out together a career — and it wasn’t from a lack of opportunities. After debuting with the A’s in 1974 — a team with a loaded outfield featuring Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Rick Monday and Bill North, among others — he spent two seasons with the Cubs (hitting only .217 with four home runs.) Next up was parts of three seasons with the Reds … and a .199 average.
In 1979, Summers was hitting .200 with a single home run after 27 early-season games with the Reds. But on May 25, the Reds sent him to the Tigers and, at the age of 30, he began the best three seasons of his career.
That season he batted .313 with 20 home runs (14 solo) in 90 games and posted a .614 slugging percentage along with a 1.028 OPS. Anderson played Summers primarily in rightfield with a few DH assignments sprinkled in.
The Tigers rewarded him with a three-year contract near the end of the ’79 season. He told the UPI:
“I really enjoy it here. I really feel at home,” Summers said. “Sparky likes me and I like him.”
Summers approached the club recently the possibility of signing a contract for next season.”I wanted to know so I could make plans for this winter,” he said. “After I signed, it was like a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I never felt wanted before.”
Tigers fans loved Summers and he continued to provide punch to a young lineup. In 1980, his numbers slipped ever-so slightly but they were solid: .297/17/60 with an OPS of .897. His production dropped further in the strike-shortened season of 1981 when, at age 35, his average fell to .255 and his power numbers plummeted, too. Summers hit only three home runs and eight doubles in 64 games in what would be his final season in Detroit.
In March 1982 the Tigers dealt him to the Giants for first baseman Enos Cabell. Summers would struggle in his two seasons in San Francisco, posting a .231 average and four home runs. In ’83 he hit .136 in 29 games.He was on the move again in December 1983 when the Giants traded him to division rival San Diego. Summers appeared in just 47 games for Dick Williams’ Padres and hit .185 with no home runs.
Summers’ career would end in the ballpark where he had his greatest success, albeit on the losing end of the 1984 World Series. His lone career World Series at bat came as a pinch hitter in game four at Tiger Stadium. Pinch hitting for Alan Wiggins with two out in the top of the eighth, Summers struck out swinging against Jack Morris.
The next day NBC showed him as he sat on the top step of the visitors dugout watching the Tigers celebrate their championship. I still wonder if they showed him because he was a former Tiger or because he looked so forlorn. Perhaps both.
At the age of 38, Champ Summers’ career had come to and end — just as he predicted in the 1979 UPI story announcing his Tigers contract:
“If think I can play five more years,” he said. “If Yaz can play ’til he’s 40, I can play ’til I’m 38. I take good care of myself.”
Summers passed away from kidney cancer on Oct. 11, 2012. That day the Tigers defeated the A’s 6-0 in Game 5 of the American League Division series.