Streetwise Professor

December 4, 2010

So Long From Wrigley Field, Ron

Filed under: Sports — The Professor @ 5:10 pm

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.

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  1. Craig, Santo’s exclusion from the HOF is a reflection of that institution’s lack of coherent standards. There are dozens of HOF members who were not nearly as productive as Santo, who was one of the most productive hitters in MLB during the 1960’s. That he was an excellent defensive third baseman should have clinched his HOF membership. What a shame!

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — December 4, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

  2. Know nothing about baseball, but what spirit this man had!

    Comment by So? — December 4, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

  3. Ron Santo was great as was Graig Nettles:

    George Brett made the Hall unlike Santo and Nettles:

    The key differences are Brett’s lifetime 305 BA and 3,154 hits, to go along with his World Series ring and Gold Glove.

    Too bad about Bill Melton’s back.

    The 1973 season was another kick in the tush for the Cubs. They were looking real good before collapsing, with the Mets winning the NL Crown. That was the last good Cubs year with Beckert, Kessinger, Jenkins, Hundley and Santo.

    Comment by Hawk — December 6, 2010 @ 6:47 am

  4. From around that era, Darrell Evans was a bopper, who had the advantage of playing in a launching pad:

    Evans wasn’t as good a fielder as Santo, Nettles and Brett.

    Mike Schmidt and Wade Boggs arrived a bit later and are Hall worthy third basemen.

    Eddie Matthews (in Santo’s time and before)is Hall worthy. Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson gets raves as a defensive wiz and a not so bad bat in his prime. Didn’t get to see Matthews play and caught Robinson at the end of his career. Matthews’ stats are impressive.

    Comment by Hawk — December 6, 2010 @ 7:09 am

  5. This is a really nice piece of writing, and I’m sure he’d be proud to be remembered so.

    Comment by Mark — December 7, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

  6. @Mark–thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.

    Re the other comments–very interesting. Third base has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball positions. It always seems to get slighted.

    @Hawk–re kick in the tush. It would take us a lot less time to list the Cubs seasons that weren’t. In fact, no time at all in my lifetime.

    True story. When my grandfather (who actually saw the Cubs win a WS in 1908) was dying in the late-1960s, my dad said: “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before dad dies.” Then, in the 1980s, my dad said: “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before I die.” Then, skipping over me altogether, in the early-2000s, he told my young daughters: “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before you die.”

    A true Cubs fan. And note the modest desire: not a World Series, mind you, but just a pennant.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 8, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  7. Some day, some way.

    Second base is the arguably most slighted position. Cubs great Ryne Sandberg ruled that position.

    Comment by Hawk — December 8, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

  8. @Hawk–hopefully. The main difference between 2d and 3d is that the latter is a power position, and the HOF is definitely slanted in favor of power hitters (understandably). Sandberg definitely was a 5 tool player. The only recent HOF inductee at 2d base, Joe Morgan, was also 5 tool.

    Interestingly, Sandberg played his first season at 3d base. After a horrible start (1 for 20, or somesuch) he had a decent season. I remember him absolutely crushing a homer in Riverfront Stadium that year. One of the most impressive homers I’ve seen. He also hit 40+ in 1989, if memory serves.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 9, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  9. Great post on Santo. I’ll never forget how my father would mute the games on TV and bring out the radio to hear Ron and Pat call the game. When I found myself in Ohio of all places for the 2003 NLCS run only listening to 720 over the web satisfied my need for someone else to echo the raw emotion I was wraped up in during the games.

    He was a heck of a ball player and a better man. I don’t think those attributes get placed in that order as often as they should.

    I’ll leave Joe Buck alone for the moment. Only because I think being forever dwarfed by you long-passed father is punishment enough for that mental midget.

    Comment by ORD-LIH — December 9, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  10. One last aside: As my father (who was born in 1942) gave way to cancer two years ago, in one of his last days he did say to me “so much for seeing the Cubs win one, let’s hope they manage one for you”. Much as for a CBOT or CBOE trader, a morbid sense of humor is essential for survival as a Cubs fan.

    Comment by ORD-LIH — December 9, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  11. Professor, are the Cubs that unwealthy to not do anything on the free agent market? Kerry Wood (who seems to have found himself again) is available.

    Second basemen have the rap of not having the range and arm of a shortstop – in addition to not having the arm and power of a third basemen. At present, the Yankees and Red Sox have two of the best second basemen.

    Of recent (last fifty years) note, Rod Carew was another HOF second basemen. As I recall, he wasn’t known for being a particularly good fielder. Tito Fuentes’ batting stance was an eyesore. From Fuentes’ 1960s-1970s era, Dick McAuliffe was another second basemen with a quirky stance.

    Comment by Hawk — December 10, 2010 @ 7:38 am

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