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.


Of all the many seasons I’ve been a Cubs fan, 1984 ranks as my favorite one. The year 1984, all by itself, was an important year in my life. It was the year that I learned how to drive a car and, when my birthday came around, I got my license to drive. And whoever you are, life changes in a big way once that happens.

1984 was also when I got my first “real” job, as a grocery bagger in a local supermarket. I kept the job throughout high school, mostly because I was only scheduled to work on the weekends, so as not to interfere with my studies. I settled into a “study during the week, work and go carousing on the weekend, and then start all over again on Monday” cycle that I wouldn’t break out of for many years afterward.

And 1984 also had some great music. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s Purple Rain were probably the best 1-2 album punch of my lifetime. The phrase “I want my MTV” had relevance because it hadn’t yet come to the local cable provider, but music videos like “What’s Love Got to Do with it” and “Missing You” were showing that the genre had lots of possibilities. Give me any song from 1984 on the radio over any of the junk that gets played on “hit radio” today.

And against this backdrop of change and possibility, the Cubs decided to start winning. There was the “Daily Double” of Bob Dernier and Ryne Sandberg at the top of the batting order, along with Harry Caray, who gave them their name and gushed about baseball in a way that I han’t seen before. There was Gary ‘Sarge” Matthews in left field, Ron “Penguin” Cey at third Base, and Leon “Bull” Durham at first base. There were no lights anywhere to be seen at Wrigley Field, Rick Sutcliffe was unbeatable on the mound, and the Cubs had a leggy “ballgirl” named Marla Collins. The 1984 Cubs were a rocking good time, all summer long. It was as good a summer as I’ve ever had in my life.

The Cubs wrapped up their first division title in Pittsburgh, with Rick Sutcliffe going the distance. So one itch had been scratched, but a bigger prize lay over the horizon. And it seemed inevitable after the Cubs won the first two playoff games at Wrigley Field. Sutcliffe–the pitcher!–even went deep in the Cubs’ first playoff win. He was nearly superhuman by that point.

And then the team went out west. And Steve Garvey, who is the easily most reviled player I can think of for Cubs fans my age, hit a home run off of Lee Smith. He circled the bases with his fist raised in the air, and burned his way into my baseball memories. I wish I could evict him from the place that he occupies, but I can’t do it. Nothing better has come along in the deades since then.

But Garvey’s home run only sent the series to Game five. And that’s where Rick Sutcliffe ran out of gas. That’s where Leon Durham turned into Bill Buckner, two years before Bill Buckner did. and that’s where the good times came to a crashing halt. I said it was too good to be true, and it turned out that it was.

Steve Garvey, having been unsuccessful in his bid to buy the Dodgers franchise, now wants to buy the Padres instead. I’m hopeful he doesn’t succeed in this, but I think that he might just do it. Either way, the image of him running the bases, with a fist raised in triumph, will linger until further notice. I want to believe that this can be exorcised by making it to the World Series some day, but until then it looks like I’m stuck with it. I can certainly tell you that it’s no way to live.

NOTE:   The styling of the title for this post is an hommage to Prince’s D/M/S/R from his 1999 album.

Breaking up the band

Some people still consider Yoko Ono as the reason that the Beatles broke up. And as recently as yesterday, she has denied that she was responsible for it. She can say that all she wants to, but it won’t make a difference to Beatles fans who want somebody to wear the shirt–metaphorically speaking–for what happened more than forty years ago. It’s unfair to her, but life surely isn’t fair.

If Yoko played guitar, and was put into the band’s lineup by their record label, it might be another story. Let’s say Geoge Harrison was put out of the band, and Yoko took his place on lead guitar. Then the fans would have a legitimate beef about Yoko. The Beatles wouldn’t be the same as they had been before, and there wouldn’t be anything Yoko could do, short of turning herself into George Harrison.

Enter Steve Sax. By the time he came up to the major leagues in late 1981, the Los Angeles Dodgers already had their own version of the Fab Four. The infield of Ron Cey at third base, Bill Russell at shortstop, Davey Lopes at second base, and Steve Garvey at first base, had been playing together since 1973.

When free agency came to baseball in the mid-1970s, any of them could have gone off to play somewhere else. But they all stayed in LA, and led the team to the World Series in 1977, 1978, and 1981, when they finally broke through and won the championship.

At the start of the 1982 season, the defending world champions made their move by trading Davey Lopes to Oakland. Lopes was nearly 37 years old, and the team had a 22 year-old Steve Sax waiting in the wings to take over second base. As you can imagine, Dodger fans didn’t like the move. They got used to seeing their infield together, and now this young kid was coming in to break it up. The disintegration happened quickly once Lopes left, with Cey leaving for the Chicago Cubs in 1983, and Steve Garvey (it’s still painful for this Cubs fan to type his name) going to San Diego that same year. Only Bill Russell remained, and the breakup had to be hardest of all on him, watching his three infield mates each go their separate ways.

Time marches on, and we’ll never again see as durable an infield as the Dodgers had back then. And I’m certain that Steve Sax, or someone like him, had to come in and break it up. But it couldn’t have been easy for him. At least Yoko Ono can probably relate.

The curse of Terry Kennedy

It’s an off day in the World Series, and no matter what happens on the field, this will be the last weekend of baseball for 2011. And the NBA isn’t going to be taking up any of the slack after baseball goes away, either. Not that it ever really could.

I usually give deference to the big league players who passed through the Cardinals’ organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, my hometown of Springfield, Illinois was the home of the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in those years. It wasn’t major league ball, but it was literally the next best thing. By the time a player gets to that level, they’re either on the verge of making it in the big leagues, or if they don’t, they’re still pretty damn good.

Terry Kennedy was a catcher who spent only a couple years in AAA. His dad was a big leaguer before him, and was also the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs at the time.  I remember seeing a picture of the two Kennedys talking together before a game in the local paper, but I had no idea what a General Manager did back in those days. Now I know that his job is to assemble World Series-winning teams. Isn’t that right, Theo?

Terry Kennedy played for the Springfield Redbirds in 1978 and 1979. At the end of those two seasons, he went to the major league club  and backed up Ted Simmons, who was entrenched back then as the Cardinals everyday catcher. Kennedy was in the majors for good next season, even if he was there to give Simmons a day off more than anything else.

So what exactly is the “curse” of Terry Kennedy? I suppose that, until I looked at the back of one of his cards, I had blocked out what Terry Kennedy did over the course of his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres, where he was their everyday catcher for the 1984 team that snatched the pennant way from the Cubs. The Cubs had replaced Bob Kennedy as GM after the Tribune company bought the team, and so sticking it to the team that fired your dad must have felt pretty good, I would imagine.

Kennedy only hit .222 for the series, with no extra-base hits, so it’s hard to hold the Cubs’ collapse against him personally. Besides, hating on Steve Garvey is where the real action’s at for Cubs fans, anyway.

After a couple more seasons with the Padres, Kennedy went to Baltimore for a couple of seasons, before being traded to the Giants in early 1989. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, after winning their second division title. But once again, they ran into a team with Terry Kennedy behind the dish. Kennedy was a non-factor offensively, hitting a lowly .188 for the series. But again, he and his teammates successfully kept the Cubs out of the World Series.

Kennedy retired after the 1991 season, and began managing in the minors. He managed the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres this season, and he’ll probably get a shot to manage at the big league level in the next few years. As when he was a player, he probably won’t be at the AAA level for long. And I’d like to see the Cubs beat his team, when he does get that chance. It appears that he’s due a couple of beatings.

Solving an old mystery

A friend of my wife’s has a young son who just began collecting baseball cards.  I brought a big box of cards, mostly doubles of Cubs cards I already had, along on a weekend outing last fall, and told him could take whatever he wanted to add to his collection. But he insisted on trading cards with me, which is how I would have done it when I was a kid. Most of his cards were from the 2011 Topps base set, and I paged through his binder full of cards, looking for something that caught my eye.

The binder was a tipoff to how card collecting has changed since I was a kid in the late 1970s. My cards were kept in a blue plastic box, with a flap that folded down to close it up. I’m not sure how I got it, but it somehow became the home of my baseball card collection.

These things didn’t have any monetary value back then, they were just fun to have. The All-Star cards were the ones I wanted most, like every kid did, because we all wanted to be Mike Schmidt or Jim Palmer or Reggie Jackson. There were lots of role players, and they all had cards too, but getting one of those cards was never any big deal. Superstars and utility infielders all shared space inside my blue box, though.

Keeping my cards inside of a binder, with plastic sheets specifically designed to protect their condition, is something I wouldn’t have ever considered. Likewise, the idea of keeping cards all jumbled together, willy-nilly, inside of a plastic box wouldn’t occur to him, either. One storage system isn’t any better than the other, of course, but they do reflect differing views about these cards.

The card I found, which is shown above, isn’t an original 1977 card, but a reprint of that card for an “insert”  for the Topps base set. There were special cards (Father and Son Big Leaguers, Record Breakers from the previous season, etc.) when I was a kid, but these were all integrated into the larger set of cards. Somewhere along the way, some special cards were pulled out from the larger set, numbered differently from the base set, and are now thought to be more desireable than a base card of a player. Another new wrinkle since I was a kid.

The insert card I found was of Don Sutton, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1970s. I saw Sutton pitch in a game in Busch Stadium when I was ten years old, but I never really knew what happened in that game. I remember that he left the game in the middle of an inning, without any explanation being offered to the fans, and that was it. The game just carried on, with another Dodger pitcher in his place. It just felt very weird at the time.

I wanted the Sutton card, though, and the trade was made. Trading baseball cards with a nine-year old felt a little strange, but many kids his age don’t seem to have an interest in baseball today, unless they’re playing a video game version of it.  So maybe I was just perpetuating the real thing, on some level.

I took the Sutton card home with me, and took to the internet for some research. It turns out that Sutton was ejected from the game for scuffing a baseball, and was suspended for ten games as a result. When Sutton threatened litigation against the League (this was back when the National and American Leagues were separate entities, unlike today), they backed off and Sutton was reinstated. The nickname “Black and Decker” followed him around throughout his career, as players assumed he had his toolbelt on whenever he took the mound.

I realized that this had happened in the pre-ESPN era, when the only way to get information like this was through reading a newspaper or perhaps Sports Illustrated. Sutton’s transgression was thus easier to bury than it would be today, and he was then able to have a Hall of Fame career without any real damage to his reputation, as least as far as I knew about.

In doing this research, I learned something else on the internet about Don Sutton that I didn’t know before. Sutton was apparently bothered by Steve Garvey’s All-American image, and made some comments to a newspaper along these lines. Garvey then confronted Sutton about it, and the two began wrestling around in the clubhouse. From a Cubs fan who hates what Steve Garvey did to us in the 1984 playoffs, I offer you a hearty bravo, Don Sutton.

One game, two historic acts

In the final games of every major league season, batting titles are won and lost. Playoff berths can be decided. And, as Doug Glanville has pointed out, many playing careers will come to an end. And, every so often, history is made. Such was the case on the final day of the 1977 season.

On Sunday, October 2, 1977, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a home game against the Houston Astros. After two straight seasons of playing second fiddle to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the Dodgers had broken through and captured the National League West title. They had already clinched the division title, and knew their playoff opponent would be the Philadelphia Phillies. They had very little to play for on that day.

The Astros, however, were at the other end of the baseball spectrum. A win that day would get them to .500, but they had long since been eliminated from the postseason. Still, they sent the ace of their staff, J.R. Richard, out to face the division champions. The Astros would win the NL West title three years later, but their time had not yet come.

Tommy Lasorda, in his first year of managing the Dodgers, gave most of his starters the day off. Reggie Smith, Ron Cey, and Davey Lopes did not play, and others, such as Steve Yeager and Bill Russell, made only token appearances. But one of the Dodger regulars, leftfielder Dusty Baker, did have something to play for.

Baker was sitting at 29 homers for the year, which was good enough for a top ten finish in the National League. Three of his teammates—Smith, Cey and Steve Garvey—had already hit 30 home runs, and if Baker could also get there, it would be the first time that four teammates had accomplished this feat in the same season. 46,000 fans were waiting to see if the Dodgers could make history on that day.

In order to give him an extra at bat if needed, Lasorda put Baker third in the lineup that day. Reggie Smith was the Dodgers’ usual number 3 hitter, and Baker typically hit sixth or seventh in the order. But Smith was out, and history was on the line, so Baker got moved up in the batting order.

Baker’s first at bat against Richard resulted in a base hit. It was better than an out, but not what the fans were waiting to see.  Baker came up again in the fourth inning and struck out. He still had at least one chance, and possibly two, to take Richard deep, but it wasn’t looking good so far.

When the bottom of the sixth inning came around, Manny Mota led off with a pinch hit home run. That ensured Baker would get another chance that inning. Two outs later, history was made when Baker homered to center. It was the first and only time in his career that Dusty Baker hit 30 homers in a single season.

As he was heading toward home, basking in the Dodger fans’ applause, Baker came upon the on-deck hitter, a young outfielder named Glenn Burke. Burke had gone in for Rick Monday the inning before, and was hitting in the cleanup spot in the order. Burke had a hand raised up over his head. Baker crossed home plate, raised his hand to meet Burke’s, and went back into the dugout. His day was over, as he was taken out of the game the next inning. But he had put his team in the record books, in his last at bat of the regular season.

Inspired by Baker’s feat, Burke then proceeded to hit a homer of his own. It was his first in the majors, and one of only two that he would ever hit. But at the time, it had lifted the Dodgers into the lead and gave the fans who had stayed around something else to cheer about. The Dodgers had taken the lead, and three home runs in the same inning against J.R. Richard didn’t happen very often.

The Astros came back to score 4 runs in the top of the seventh, and Richard went the distance, striking out 14 along the way. The Dodgers won the National League pennant, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games, capped off by Reggie Jackson’s dramatic three home run game in Yankee Stadium.

While Baker’s home run that day will be recorded in the annals of the game for all time, Burke’s response to it lives on, as well. Two and a half years later, when the Louisville Cardinals basketball team made their run to the NCAA championship, the act of “high-fiving” someone entered into the sporting and cultural mainstream. And yet Glenn Burke–whose name you likely had not heard before you read this–was the one who pioneered this gesture of affirmation thirty-four years ago.

Here’s hoping for an exciting and memorable playoff season in the weeks ahead.