In 11 big-league seasons, Champ Summers hit only one home run against the Cardinals. Like many of the events involving Champ Summers, it was bigger than life.
The last home run of Summers’ major-league career was a pinch-hit grand slam off the Cardinals’ Bob Forsch, lifting the Padres to a 7-3 victory on April 10, 1984, at San Diego.
It was fitting that Summers’ final home run was struck as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded. His first big-league homer _ hit for the Cubs against the Astros’ Jim York on Aug. 23, 1975, at Chicago _ also was a pinch-hit grand slam. Boxscore
From his colorful nickname to his unusual path to the major leagues, Summers, who died Oct. 11, 2012, at 66 in Ocala, Fla., is remembered as one of the game’s endearing characters.
In 1984, Summers, 38, was in his last big-league season, primarily employed as a left-handed pinch-hitter for San Diego. In their sixth game of a three-city West Coast trip to open the season, the Cardinals were leading the Padres, 3-1, in the fifth inning when Summers batted for pitcher Andy Hawkins with the bases loaded. He lined Forsch’s second pitch into the right-field seats. Boxscore
Summers rounded the bases so slowly his home run trot “made a wedding march look like a 40-yard dash,” wrote Bud Shaw of the San Diego Evening Tribune.
“I did take some time to watch that one,” Summers said with a smile. “I felt like I won the lottery.”
Summers told Phil Collier of the San Diego Union, “Hitting is like dancing. If you can’t hear the music, you can’t dance. I feel like I could dance all night.”
Under the headline “Performance of Padres’ Champ Worth an Oscar,” Shaw wrote:
For just one day, it would be nice to live the charmed life of Champ Summers. Preferably on a day when the rent is overdue, the unemployment check is lost in transit and your mother-in-law isn’t.
Asked about his at-bat against Forsch, Summers said, “I don’t know what the pitch was and I don’t know where it was. I never know.”
John Junior Summers was born June 15, 1946, in Bremerton, Wash. He was nicknamed “Champ” at birth.
“My father was a prizefighter in the Navy,” Summers told the Belleville (Ill.) newspaper. “He said when I was born I looked like I went 10 rounds with Joe Louis. It’s a sad story, but true.”
Champ Summers moved with his family to the St. Louis metropolitan area. He was a natural athlete. At 17, while attending Madison (Ill.) High School, Summers was challenged to a tennis match by a local 13-year-old looking to test himself against worthy competition. The phenom was Jimmy Connors.
Summers entered the Army, became a paratrooper and served in Vietnam. When he came back to the U.S., he enrolled at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and played basketball and baseball. He was playing in a men’s softball league when a scout for the Oakland Athletics discovered him and signed him to a free-agent contract in 1971.
When Summers reached the major leagues with Oakland in 1974, the year he turned 28, he was known as John Summers, the name he had used throughout his minor-league career as well.
One day, Summers said to Bud Shaw, he was signing autographs before a game at Oakland during that rookie season. Teammate Reggie Jackson watched as Summers slowly signed “John J. Summers Jr.” on each item handed him. Reggie asked Summers whether he had a nickname. When Summers replied “Champ,” Jackson told him he’d be a fool not to use it.
When Summers was traded to the Cubs in 1975, he introduced himself as Champ Summers _ and it remained his big-league moniker.
Summers played in the majors, primarily as an outfielder, for six teams (Athletics, Cubs, Reds, Tigers, Giants and Padres) from 1974 through 1984.
A career .255 hitter, he batted .271 (13-for-48) against the Cardinals. He was tough versus St. Louis with the Cubs in 1975 (.313, 5-for-16) and with the Giants in 1982 (.364, 4-for-11).
In 2001, Summers returned to the St. Louis region as the first manager of the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League in Sauget, Ill.