So long, Champ

The reason I write this blog is to take some of the bits and pieces that float around inside my brain and extrude them for the outside world to see. It’s an an endeavor that I enjoy, and has the added benefit of one day being of interest, possibly, to somebody that I don’t know and will never meet. Consider it an exercise in addressing the unknown world of the future.

Champ Summers is a name that I’ll forever associate with a particular time and place. His name was actually John Junior Summers (Junior was somehow his middle name), and he was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He was discovered as an athlete playing in a softball league after he came back from the war. Think about that for a moment. A major leaguer who came from a softball league. It could never happen in today’s game, where malnourished kids in the Dominican Republic are fighting everyday for roster spots that a guy like Champ Summers once occupied. The fact that I’m even ruminating about Champ Summers in the first place is an improbable mystery.

Summers was traded by the world champion Oakland A’s to the Chicago Cubs before the 1975 baseball season started. I’ve written about 1975 several times in this space, because it was the year that I first got into baseball as a young kid of seven. I went to my first live game with my dad in the summer of that year, discovered the Cubs on television in the fall, and was transfixed by the drama of the World Series in October of that year. My life hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve written of Rennie Stennett and the historic 7-for-7 day that he had at Wrigley Field back in 1975. When Stennett stepped to the plate in Wrigley Field on that September afternoon, he was sitting on a 6-for-6 day, and trying to do something nobody else ever had. At that same moment, I was a young kid with a broken leg in Springfield, Illinois. Stennett slashed the ball into right field, in the general direction of one Champ Summers.

As Summers was flagging down the ball out in the right field corner of Wrigley field, I was changing the channels on my parents television set, wishing I could be outside instead. Summers corralled the ball and threw it back in to the infield, while Stennett pulled into third with a standing triple. At that moment, as Stennett was standing on third and WGN in Chicago flashed a crude 1970s graphic informing the game’s viewers that Stennett was the first batter to ever go 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game, I was just tuning into the game.

I had literally never seen or heard of the Chicago Cubs before, but I started to watch the game. By the time that game came to its merciful conclusion, I was hooked in a way that I didn’t fully understand, at least not yet. I get it now, though. Baseball and the Cubs have followed me around through life ever since.

Had I remained true to my Central Illinois and Cardinals-based upbringing, I’m not sure if I would love the game the way that I do now. Certainly, I would know the kind of success that the Cardinals have enjoyed and I’ve always missed out on as a Cubs fan. It’s a bargain that I once made, without fully understanding its ramifications. Baseball is one of the touchstones of my life, and I’m grateful for this, but only because I follow a team that has disappointed me time and again over the years. And that is particularly evident on a day like today, as the Cardinals are basking in the afterglow of the most improbable comeback that most of us will ever see.

So the Cardinals have victory and the prospect of continuing on in the playoffs, while I have an old memory of Champ Summers and being on the wrong side of a historic event. And it gets even worse. Since this is the only time I expect to ever write about Champ Summers, I may as well tell that tale, too.

Champ Summers was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1984, where he was involved in what could be the craziest baseball game ever, at least where fights are involved. I learned of the game from a tweet from my baseball compadre Josh Wilker at CardboardGods, where I also learned that Summers had passed away. Again, corporate baseball in 2012 would never have allowed such a brawl to take place, and I watched the footage as if I was looking back into another time, which is exactly what it was.

But no Cubs fan of my age or older can think of 1984 and the Padres without a sharp twinge of regret. It was the year that the Cubs were 2-0 in the playoffs, and just needed one win on the road to seal the deal and get to the World Series. Champ Summers had pinch hit in the ninth inning of Game one, which the Cubs won in a 13-0 laugher, and again in Game four, the infamous Steve Garvey Game. He also pinch-hit in Game four of the World Series that year, and stuck out in what would be his final big league appearance.

It must have been quite a ride from the softball league to the World Series for Champ Summers. It also ran through one of the greater disappointments I’ve known as a Cubs fan, but I feel that it’s a part of who I am today. So I salute you, Champ Summers, and honor you here in the best way that I know how.

His place in history

A week ago, when the baseball season hadn’t yet started, and the Cubs weren’t off to their “This will be a long year, won’t it?” start of 1-4 after five games, I scanned a card highlighting long-ago Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. Today, in the interest of equal time–and to keep me from going off on this year’s team too much–I’m going to spend some time recounting the career of Rick’s brother, Paul Reuschel.

Paul Reuschel, like Bill Plummer, just turned 65 this year. He’s two years older than his brother Rick, but made his big league debut in the 1975 season, fully three years after Rick had made his. There’s always a sibling rivalry going on, especially when one brother is in the majors and the other (older) one isn’t, but they appear to have gotten along reasonably well, if this photo is any indication.

I came across this card when I was digging through a box of baseball cards the other day. The pose that Reuschel is in, as with Bruce Sutter’s card from that year, is something that was common for Topps cards in that era. Sutter was about to have the breakout season that launched a Hall of Fame career, while Paul Reuschel’s pitching career wouldn’t survive into the 1980s. Same team, same pose, different career arcs. Such is life.

But the thing I wanted to say about Paul Reuschel is that his place in Major League history is secure. In the long history of professional baseball, he can say something that no other pitcher can. And it stems from a relief appearance at the end of a game during his rookie season of 1975.

On September 16, 1975, history was made at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And not the type of history a team might want to make, in their own ballpark and in front of fewer than 5,000 fans in the stands, with a few thousand more watching on cable TV. Baseball’s Game of the Week was on back then, but beyond that ballgames generally weren’t shown on TV. It was a different time.

Rick Reuschel was the starter against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, but he was pounded in the first inning. In fact, by the time three Pirates had been retired, Rick Reuchel was done for the day, having allowed 8 runs (all of them earned) on 6 hits and a walk. Reuschel was followed by a series of Cubs pitchers, who proved to be unable to stop the Pirate juggernaut. By the end of the seventh inning, the score stood at 22-0, which was to be the most lopsided shutout of the entire 20th century. And this was being done to the home team, no less.

The outcome of the game had long been decided, but there were still two innings left to be played. How many of the 4,900 fans who attended the game remained in the ballpark at this point is anyone’s guess, but a number somewhere in the three digits wouldn’t surprise me too much. Who would stay to watch such a beatdown? Not me.

Rookie pitcher Paul Reuschel was sent in to absorb his share of abuse from Pirate hitters in the eighth. He retired the first two hitters in order, when up came Rennie Stennett, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter. Stennett had already racked up six hits on the day, and he proceeded to put the exclamation point on his day by driving the ball into right field.

As Stennett was  pulling into third base, standing up, I turned on a Cubs game for the first time in my life. I had a broken leg at the time, and would have rather been outside running around with the other neighborhood kids, but my cast and crutches made that all but impossible. A graphic was put up on the screen –a rare thing in those days–informing the viewer that Rennie Stennett had gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game, and was the first player in big league history to accomplish this feat. The seven-year old that I was found this factoid most intriguing.

Reuschel retired the next hitter, to end the inning. He also finished the ninth without giving up a run, and became the only Cubs pitcher that day who wasn’t scored upon. You could say he had a decent outing that day, certainly a much better one than his little brother had to start the game. But Reuschel also carved his name into the history books by becoming the first, and so far the only, pitcher to give up a seventh hit to a batter in one game.

Just as Rennie Stennett made history by getting that hit, so too did Paul Reuschel make history by surrendering it. This was an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the regular season, and it’s an admittedly obscure baseball record, so nobody’s going to remember the name Rennie Stennett, much less Paul Reuschel. But, at the same time, this at-bat and its historic result was enough to reel me in as a Cubs fan, and set me on a path that has stretched out for 37 years since then.

If Paul Reuschel had retired Sennett, and made that TV graphic unnecessary, perhaps I’m not so intrigued by a baseball game on TV that afternoon. Maybe then I stay true to my Cardinals upbringing, complete with the World Series titles and an overall level of success that I can’t relate to as a Cubs fan.  Who knows for certain? But I can say that Paul Reuschel and Rennie Stennett essentially set my baseball course in motion, all those many years ago.