Former major league outfielder Champ Summers, a Madison High School graduate who played one season of college baseball at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, died Thursday in Ocala, Fla.
Summers was 66. His wife, Joy, told the Associated Press he died after a 2 1/2-year battle with kidney cancer.
Summers played 10 major-league seasons with six teams and his final at-bat came with the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series.
"I'd go out on a limb and say Champ might have been the best athlete that ever played at SIUE," said former SIUE baseball coach Gary "Bo" Collins. "I think that probably says it all. I think he could have played any sport; he was a tremendous athlete."
Summer played for Oakland, the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Detroit, San Francisco and San Diego during an 11-year major-league career.
In 698 career games, Summers hit .255 with 54 home runs and 218 RBIs. He turned to coaching after his playing career ended and he had several coaching spots in the Yankees' organization, including hitting coach.
Summers' best major-league season was 1979, when he hit .291 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs in 117 games with Cincinnati and Detroit. The left-handed hitting outfielder and first baseman had 20 homers and 51 RBIs that year with the Tigers and became a favorite of manager Sparky Anderson.
He had another solid season with the Tigers in 1980, hitting .297 with 19 doubles, 17 home runs and 60 RBIs.
His wife told the AP on Thursday "his favorite team was Detroit. He stayed there the longest, and he loved the fans."
Summers returned to the metro-east in 2001 after being hired as manager of the Gateway Grizzlies minor-league baseball team.
He guided the Grizzlies to a 37-44 record and they finished fifth in the West Division.
"He was a guy that really knew the ins and outs of hitting," said former Grizzlies manager Rich Sauget, Jr. "He knew how to talk the game and had a lot of respect from his players for his knowledge of the game.
"Some of the foundations he laid really helped us get to where we needed to go."
Born in Bremerton, Wash., Summers moved to Madison with his family and attended high school there. He was a 1967 graduate of Madison High and 1971 graduate of SIUE, also spending two years playing basketball at Nicholls College in Louisiana.
Summers also served time in the Army during the Vietnam War an underwent a physical transformation that aided his athletic career.
"He was not a very big person in high school, he was under 6-foot tall," said Babe Champion, a Granite City resident and former major league scout. "When he went away to the service, he came back a man."
The athletically gifted Summers played two seasons of basketball for SIUE, averaging just under 19 points. In his lone season of college baseball, 1971, Summers led the Cougars in hitting (.340) and homers (seven).
The impressive display helped him get signed to a free-agent contract by the Oakland A's and veteran scout George Bradley.
Several sources claimed that Summers signed for $500 or less.
Collins, a former SIUE standout who was playing minor-league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization at the time, vividly remembered Summers' baseball tryout with the Cougars and former coach Roy Lee.
"(Champ) came riding down to the field on a Harley without a shirt on, had his hat on backwards and Roy watched him pull into the field," Collins said. "(Coach Lee) said 'There's that darned Champ Summers, he thinks he can make our team."'
After watching him hit, field and throw, Lee's attitude changed quickly.
"Guess what?" Collins said. "He made the team."
Longtime metro-east coach and athletic director Rich Essington was am SIUE basketball teammate of Summers. Essington, a Venice High graduate, had also been a high school basketball rival of Summers, who played for nearby Madison.
When Summers returned to the metro-east after his military stint, Essington knew he could help SIUE's basketball team.
"Coach (Harry) Gallatin recruited him, but me and my dad worked on Champ pretty hard to get him to go up there," said Essington, whose luck wasn't as good when it came to keeping Summers on a basketball court instead of sharing him with baseball. "Champ would just knock the cover off the ball. The sucker could do anything... he was a great diver, he was a great tennis player when he was at Madison.
"He was really a great competitor and played as hard as anybody I've ever played with."
Summers, whose first name is John, told people he got the nickname Champ from his father.
"My father was a prizefighter in the Navy," Summers said in a previous News-Democrat interview. "He said when I was born I looked like I went 10 rounds with Joe Louis. It's a sad story, but true."
Collins visited Summers in recent years and loved listening to his stories.
"He always talked about how lucky he'd been," Collins said. "He said he happened to be in the right place in the right time right before something bad was supposed to happen --and usually came out smelling like a rose."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.