Ron Santo passed away yesterday at age 70. He was an excellent ballplayer and an inspirational man.
My memories of Santo are anchored in the magical yet ultimately painful 1969 season. I was at opening day at Wrigley in ’69, and followed the team to the bitter–very bitter–end. The opening day game seemed an omen. Ernie Banks hit two homers for the Cubs, only to be answered by two from the Phillies’ Don Money. The game went into extra innings (the 12th, if memory serves): in the bottom of the last frame, pinch hitter Willie Smith drove a ball to the opposite field–left field. I was sitting with my mom in the box seats near the Cubs’ bullpen, and watched Smith’s ball sail right past me into the left field bleachers. This was a feat, because Smith never, ever, hit the ball the other way. That seemed to portend something special.
Many of my other vivid visual memories of 1969 revolve around Santo. As the Cubs won in May, June, and July, Santo was ecstatic. He would click his heels while returning to the clubhouse after every Cubs win. He was in the on deck circle when the Mets’ fan loosed the black cat onto the field at Shea Stadium. I remember clearly him screaming in the dugout at hapless Cub centerfielder (there was no other kind in that era) Don Young after Young dropped a routine fly ball in a crucial game–again at Shea Stadium.
Santo should have made the Hall of Fame, but he was denied, year after year. He was a perennial All Star. He was a four tool player. He hit for decent average, he hit for power (averaging 26 homers and 100 RBIs in an eight season stretch during which pitching was dominant), and he was a sparkling fielder with good range and an excellent arm: he won five Gold Gloves. He lacked speed, to be sure: whenever any two of Cub players Santo, Banks, or Hickman were on base together, my dad would say, ironically: “Thunder and lightning on the basepaths.” But third base is a power position, not a speed position.
Yeah, I know the rap against Santo: he didn’t perform at a high level for long enough. But please, the reason that he didn’t is all the more cause to admit him to the Hall. Santo suffered from diabetes, diagnosed in 1959. This at a time when the treatment of diabetes was not highly advanced. For a guy to perform at such a high level for a decade with such a serious disease–a disease that cost him both his legs later in life–is admirable, and should have been taken into account by Hall voters.
This was also a time when physical conditioning was not nearly as advanced as today. Now players making huge dollars have their own trainers and nutritionists; and a few years back, in the cases of sleazes like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and all the rest, their own performance enhancing chemists.
That wasn’t the case in Santo’s day. Not by a long shot. When I was a kid I saw Santo during the offseason working out in an exercise class with ordinary hoi polloi at the Leaning Tower YMCA on Touhy Avenue in Chicago. There was Santo, in a white t-shirt and baggy gray gym shorts, doing jumping jacks and leg lifts with the usual assortment of Y members. Yeah, like you’d see that today.
Despite his chronic and devastating physical problems (he had bladder cancer, which eventually killed him, in addition to his diabetes), Santo was an incurable optimist. If you ever feel sorry for yourself, think of Ron Santo and how he dealt with his adversity and you’ll be a better person.
He also suffered insults with grace. I remember watching a Fox baseball broadcast of a Cubs-Cards game a few years back. Santo did a brief appearance with the appalling and annoying Joe Buck, who needled and insulted Santo and the Cubs repeatedly. Classy performance there, putz. (Did I mention I despise Joe Buck? Can you tell?) But Santo graciously overlooked Buck’s barbs, and focused on the positives of his career and the Cubs’ history. (Yes, Santo had a temper: he once choked Leo Durocher in an argument in the Cubs’ clubhouse. Knowing Leo, he probably asked for it. Buck certainly did, but a mellower Santo restrained himself.)
Santo also endured the annual disappointment of failing election to the Hall of Fame with class.
It’s always sad to see the passing of someone who evokes such vivid memories from one’s youth. It’s especially sad when that person is a true mensch, which Santo was. Not to sound all old and curmudgeonly and like one of the Four Yorkshiremen, but there were few of his like in professional sports in his day, and even fewer today. Santo gave all he had to baseball; would that Major League Baseball had done the same in return.
* After finishing this post, I came across this Chicago Tribune article listing the top 10 Santo memories–which include all of the ones I related above; the heel clicking, the black cat, Don Young, and the Leo choking incident.