John “Champ” Summers had his best success in the big leagues as a platoong player for Sparky Anderson’s Detroit Tigers. In 1979 he hit 20 homers for the Tigers in only 90 games after being acquired from the Cincinnati Reds. After Game Five of the 1984 World Series, when Sparky’s Tigers defeated the Padres, it was Summers, now a member of the San Diego club, who emerged from the team bus outside Tiger Stadium to calm the raucous Detroit mob who were blocking their path and threatening the vehicle. When a few fans recognized that it was Champ, they backed off.
It wasn’t the first time Summers had faced an imposing enemy, he was a soldier on the U.S. Army in Vietnam and was in uniform during the Tet Offensive in 1968. It wasn’t until he was finished with his duty in Vietnam in 1971 that he played professional baseball after a scout for the Oakland A’s spotted Summers in a men’s softball league where he was hitting over .800 and clubbing 2-3 home runs per game. A very strong man, Summers learned to play the outfield and took to it rather well. Within three years he was in the major leagues, making his debut at the age of 28 for Oakland. After Champ was sold to Cincinnati, Anderson saw him while he was manager of the Reds and remembered his power from the left side of the plate. When Sparky took over the Detroit job in 1979 he was more than happy to pencil Summers’ name into his lineup. Summers was a monster that year: batting .313 with 20 homers, 51 RBI, a .614 slugging percentage and a .414 on-base percentage in just 246 at-bats. He had another fine year in 1980, batting mostly against righties, as he hit 17 more home runs for Detroit. He struggled in 1981 and was dealt to the San Francisco Giants in spring training in 1982 for Enos Cabell.
He had one at-bat in the 1984 World Series as a member of the Padres, returning to Tiger Stadium where he’d enjoyed his best seasons. Entering as a pinch-hitter in Game Four, Summers struck out against former teammate Jack Morris. It was his final big league appearance.