Offensive Dominance Made 1978 the Summer of Champ
With a 4-1 loss in Game 5 of the 1978 American Association Championship, the Indians packed their bags and returned to Indianapolis with questions of what could have been. Owning home field advantage in the series, the league-leading 78-57 Indians mustered just one win in the best-of-seven set to the sub-.500 Omaha Royals. It was an unpleasant end, to say the least.
The Tribe's parent team in Cincinnati was weeks away from experiencing the similar fate of a hard-fought year ending abruptly. The major league season still had a handful of games on deck for September and the Reds were in a heated race in the National League West. With the season over for the Indians, Cincinnati dipped into its farmhands and selected Indianapolis' MVP to help push the team across the finish line.
The summer of 1978 belonged to John 'Champ' Summers, a 32-year-old with four years of major league experience who rightfully took home the team's top award after having the best offensive year in Indianapolis history.
He led the American Association with 170 hits, 34 home runs, 124 runs batted in and 307 total bases. The triple crown was almost his, but his .368 batting average was just three points behind the top spot. Summers had little to no weaknesses at the plate and was recognized for it.
"It was the best thing that happened to him," Voice of the Indians Howard Kellman said. "He was the Minor League Player of the Year and had six years in the majors after that. He didn't compare to another player. That was a remarkable season."
Physically, Summers stood out from the rest. His strength came from serving a tour in Vietnam before his baseball career. Even years after the army, he still lifted weights to keep his physique at peak performance. Weightlifting wasn't a favored workout by ballplayers back then, unlike in today's era of baseball. It was hard to find a player who looked anything like him.
His strength and discipline from the service translated to power and consistency at the plate. His strikeout numbers were low and his batting average was high for a power hitter. He was the Indians' perfect hitter.
"It wasn't like he got off to a bad start in the season and picked it up down the road," Kellman said. "He was great the entire season. You can hit 34 home runs and have slumps, but to have his batting average, you have to be consistent all season long."
Summers narrowly missed opening the major league season with Cincinnati. He was the final player to be cut from the Reds spring training camp. Major League Baseball reduced rosters from 25 to 24 players that season, and he found himself on the corner of 16th Street and Harding Street at Bush Stadium in mid-April. The smaller roster resulted in being the best thing to happen for everyone involved.
His ability to drive the ball made him one of the most feared hitters in the league. Summers was only five long balls away from breaking Rocky Colavito's 1954 record of 38 home runs in a season, despite playing in 17 fewer games.
His knowledge of the strike zone, coupled with his plate discipline, made him a tough out for opposing teams. If he wasn't making contact, he was taking walks to first base because he knew how to work the count in his favor.
A three-game series against Wichita in early June showed just how dominant Summers could be at the plate. He went 7-for-12 while driving in eight runs with three home runs and a triple as the Tribe swept the series. The Indians were 11.5 games behind Evansville in the Eastern Division heading into the first game and had only chipped away at the deficit by half a game after the series sweep.
But after that early June series, the Indians started to close in on Evansville. Eventually that 11-game lead dwindled to 5.5 games in late June. Keeping them in the playoff hunt was the eventual MVP.
What made Summers the best player in Minor League Baseball was his presence in the game. When his bat connected with the ball, it was usually when the Indians had their backs against the wall.
Much of the '78 season was controlled by the Evansville Triplets in the Eastern Division. The Tribe were holding on to mathematical hope that would keep their playoff chances alive.
On Aug. 30 vs. Springfield, a must-win game for the Tribe went back and forth. Springfield tied it in the ninth after Indy had held a 2-1 first-inning lead. The Indians then found themselves staring down the culmination of their season when, facing a 4-2 deficit in the 10th, the first two Tribe batters resulted in outs. Summers' hopes of coming to bat in the inning were dwindling. He retreated to the home clubhouse, removed his jersey and cracked open a beer.
But the Indians weren't done just yet. A single and two walks kept the inning alive for Summers to have an at-bat with the bases loaded. The possibilities were endless for the most important moment of the season. A single could tie it while a double potentially would win the game - it just depended on how hard Summers hit the ball and where. He was known for power at the plate, as well as having a lack of speed on the base paths.
He hit a triple off the right-field wall. All three runners scored to walk off the night with a 5-4 win. In the most important moment of the season, Summers came through.
The stakes of the game didn't faze him. His offensive numbers were game changers for the Indians. Their appearance in the American Association Championship doesn't happen without Summers having the best offensive year in Indians history.
In "Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball," a collection of stories covering the history of the Indianapolis Indians written by Chairman Emeritus Max Schumacher and author Mark Montieth, Summers had a positive outlook on his year in Indianapolis.
"It turned my whole life around."
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