The Obit For Champ Champagney

The journey of Champ

By Noah Feit, August 7, 2011

Donald Champagney wasn't from Aiken, but he called it home for more than 30 years before he died Tuesday. For 83 years, Champ, as he was known to family and friends, lived a full and colorful life.

Among many other things, his journeys took him from Canada to Connecticut, from the U.S. Army to the New York Police Department and from the pitching mound at Ebbets Field to the first tee at Houndslake Country Club. Through all of his travels - which allowed him to rub shoulders with the famous, as well as the anonymous - athletics were a constant.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Champ moved to Bridgeport, Conn., with his family when he was a young boy. According to his widow, Jean Champagney, Champ had dual citizenship in both countries. That's fitting since she said he was an avid fan of the national pastime in both Canada and the U.S.

"He was a hockey fan his whole life," said Jean, whom Champ met on a blind date in 1975 and married two years later. "He was a kid who played baseball his entire life."

Baseball was the great passion of his life as a growing boy and young man. Although he also played basketball and football in high school, baseball was his favorite.

"His father encouraged him to play," Jean said of how Champ had his love of baseball fostered. "He and his (younger) brother (Roy) used to ride their bikes to P.T. Barnum's place in Seaside Park to play baseball. They would play all day and ride back home when it got dark."

He developed into a fine pitcher, and the 6-foot-5 righty was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. This coincided with his service in the Army. He was a member of the 82nd Airborne and fought as a paratrooper in World War II.

Not even WWII could diminish Champ's love of baseball. He played for an Army team, the Camp Stoneman Travelers. In one game for the Travelers, Champ was matched up against future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.

The Cleveland Indians ace was known as "Rapid Robert" for his blazing fastball. But Jean said Champ's fastball topped out at 98 mph in those days, which was equally intimidating. Champ was locked in a pitcher's duel with an all-time great, and he ultimately won.

"He was always very proud he beat Bob Feller when he pitched in the Army," Jean said.

His professional career didn't turn out to be as successful. Most of his work came for the Olean Oilers, one of the Dodgers' minor league affiliates in the Pony League. According to the website, Champ logged 100 innings for the Oilers in 1945 and posted a 4-11 record.

Jean said the source of his struggles was an incident where he was hit in the face by a line drive. After that, he was never quite the same pitcher because he became "ball shy."

That injury ultimately ended Champ's professional career, which Jean said included a short stay with the Dodgers' major-league club. Although his professional playing days didn't result in glory, it allowed him to meet and get to know two of the most significant people in the history of the game.

Champ knew Branch Rickey, Brooklyn's Hall of Fame executive. Among Rickey's many accomplishments, he's best known for known for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, the league's first black player.

Champ also knew Robinson, and Jean said he was on hand to witness when Robinson played his history-making first game with the Dodgers.

During his playing days, Champ was a popular teammate because of his gregarious nature and sense of humor. Those traits served him well during his next career, as he worked as a motorcycle police officer in New York City for 20 years.

The work was hard and often dangerous. But it also afforded Champ some amazing opportunities. He served in motorcades protecting the likes of Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and Fidel Castro.

"He had a colorful career as a policeman," said Jean, who took time in recent years to reflect on Champ's experiences and is writing a novel about them.

Champ got another opportunity to show off his athleticism, as well as his skills behind a wheel and handlebars for a short time. That was when he worked as a stunt driver for a traveling show.

Even when his career with the police ended, he remained active after both Champ and Jean moved to Aiken in 1977. His favorite activity became golf, and he joined Houndslake. When Champ wasn't playing golf, he was likely out hunting, another longtime interest.

"He was an avid golfer, an avid hunter and outdoorsman," Jean said. "He really was a renaissance man when it came to athletics. ... He was good at everything, except pool."

More recently, Champ suffered dementia, but that didn't dull his spirit. It didn't diminish him as devoted husband, loving father or friend. He had a personality that was larger than life and that opened the door for great experiences, many coming because of his affinity and skill in sports.

"He was a unique character," said his daughter, Anastasia Eubanks. "He was a special man, and he will be missed."

Noah Feit is a reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a decade.