Friday, June 29, 2012

#391 - Billy Champion

Still in the AL, we get recent transferee Billy Champion looking wary in Oakland. After a few years of posting some horrible records in Philly, Billy – or Bill – came over to the Brewers in a big trade following the ’72 season (he was airbushed on his ’73 card). He put in by far his best season to date moving between the rotation and the pen, earning a save with his posted stats. He attributed his relative success to work he did with Bob Shaw, the Milwaukee pitching coach who quit mid-season. In this photo Billy looks like he’s ready for the photographer to throw something at him. Who knows? But he did get an awfully nice ’74 thrown his way.

Billy Champion hailed from Shelby, North Carolina, where he played high school ball on a pretty good team. In his junior year of ’64 they were state champs and in his senior year – one in which Billy went 10-3 and once struck out 22 batters in a seven-inning game – were the regional champs. That year he was drafted by the Phillies in the third round and threw very well in A ball posting a 7-3 record with a 1.20 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 75 innings. But he would stay at that level the next three seasons, generating pretty good records and improving ERA’s and throwing just under a strikeout an inning. He peaked in ’68 when he was 15-5 with a 2.03 ERA Those numbers finally got him pushed up to Triple A in '69 and after going 7-1 with a 1.66 ERA in nine starts at that level he moved up to Philly that June.

Champion’s debut up top didn’t go exactly as planned. His pitching repertoire back then consisted of a slider and a fastball, both thrown with a three-quarter motion. But pitching coach Al Widmar – ironically the guy who would replace Shaw with the Brewers in ’73 – wanted to see more movement on the fastball and had Billy drop his arm to full sidearm delivery, pretty much like staff ace Jim Bunning’s. It did give the fastball more movement but killed the slider, leaving Billy with one pitch and resulting in the 5-10 record and 5.01 ERA. The next year he would spend most of his time in the minors but the damage was done as he went 10-12 with a 4.90 ERA split between Double and Triple A, along with the nasty numbers up top. In ’71 he dropped the sidearm delivery and put up his best season in Philly as he tentatively returned as a swingman, starting a few games and pitching middle relief. Then in ’72 he got back in the rotation but the Phillies were terrible that year – outside of Steve Carlton, the guys in the rotation went 10-47 – and after the season he, along with Don Money and John Vukovich went to the Brewers for Ken Brett, Jim Lonborg, Ken Sanders, and Earl Stephenson.

After Champion’s ’73 season, which mirrored his ’71 but with better numbers, he put together by far his best season in the majors in ’74 when he got twice as many starts and responded with an 11-4 record and a 3.62 ERA. As a reward he was given the opening day start in ’75, which he won, but that would prove to be the highlight of that season as a nagging elbow injury forced him to undergo surgery before the season was over. That injury would be a career-killer as he only got into a couple games up top in ’76 and was released mid-year. He then spent the rest of that year and all of ’77 back in the minors where he went a combined 5-9 with a 6.36 ERA for Atlanta and Philadelphia. He finished with a 59-44 record and 3.69 ERA in the minors and went 34-50 with a 4.69 ERA with 13 complete games, three shutouts, and two saves up top.

Champion, who had been a lineman for a local cable company back in North Carolina a bunch of off-seasons returned to NC after he was done playing. He worked for a trucking company through ’81 when he became a local scout for the Cubs. When Chicago restored an old franchise in nearby Pikeville, Kentucky in ’83 Billy also was the team’s first pitching coach. Around ’92 he moved to the Rockies to become a pitching coach full-time in their system which seemed to last until around ’97. In 2000 he moved to the Braves system as coach of its Greenville franchise through spring training of 2003. He then jumped to the High Desert Mavericks of the Brewers for that season until he retired mid-season to take care of family issues after his mom died. Nothing on him until he is mentioned as the pitching coach for the Uni-President 7-11 Lions, a baseball team located in Taiwan, which he did for at least the 2010 season.

So Topps tries to help Billy out with that last star bullet with one of its qualitative statements. I guess so, but at this point in his career his walk and strikeout totals were nearly even and that wouldn’t change. He also had a drag racing cartoon on his ’70 card. And I love that first name. I think it would have been a much better one for the announcers up top than Billy.

This hook-up employs one of my favorite Phillies:

1. Champion and Bill Robinson ’72 Phillies;
2. Robinson and Roy White ’67 to ’69 Yankees;
3. White and Lou Piniella ’74 to ’79 Yankees.


  1. When the Phillies traded for Carlton before the 1972 season, I can recall predicting that Champion would finish 2nd in wins. Good thing I wasn't a scout!

    The Phillies had lots of stiffs on their staff in those days (Champion, Lowell Palmer, Billy Wilson, Barry Lersch, John Boozer). Wait, maybe it WAS the pitching coach, as you alluded to. Surely ALL those players couldn't stink?

    Nah, they were stiffs.

  2. That is a great pose, isn't it? I've got Billy and some other weirdly posed dudes right here: