I write this through tear-filled eyes.
This morning, Friday, December 3, 2010, I lost one of my baseball heroes. Ron Santo has died at age 70 of complications from bladder cancer.
From 1960 to 1971, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo were teammates on the Chicago Cubs-an amazing stretch of three Superstars playing together on one team that will likely never be matched. A number of years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Holy Trinity” as a tribute to the three men who starred for the Cubs back when I was a youngster full of hope, certain that one day I’d see my Cubbies win a championship. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but despite that disappointment, those of us who grew up as Cub fans during ’60s were lucky enough to have Banks, Williams, and Santo as our baseball heroes.
I include here the Ron Santo portion of that article.
If Ernie Banks was the talkative, out-going, happy-go-lucky Cub and Billy Williams was the quiet, dependable Cub, Ron Santo was the emotional Cub. In fact, it was because of this that a small contingent of Cub fans did not like Santo. To those people, Ron was too emotional.
Santo always wore his heart on his sleeve-if he was happy, he would jump for joy and even click his heels. If he was unhappy, he would sometimes explode, arguing with umpires and players on the other team. As team captain, Santo would also take it upon himself to let his own teammates have it if he thought they deserved it. Ron Santo always left little doubt as to how he felt.
Banks and Williams never argued-never questioned close calls by the umpires. They also rarely outwardly displayed much joy on the field. When a Cub hitter belted a game-winning home run, it was Santo who would be pounding his teammate on the back and jumping up and down like a little kid on Christmas morning. Banks and Williams would happily, but quietly celebrate.
Cub fans never booed Banks and Williams-as far as the fans were concerned, those two could do no wrong. When Santo’s name would be announced on the PA at Wrigley Field, there would always be a loud roar of cheers, but in the background, you could hear a soft rumble of boos. For some reason, some fans just could never warm up to him. Not so, my family. We loved Ron Santo, and whenever we were at the game, we always cheered extra loud for him. My mom in particular was a big Ron Santo fan. She loved Ron because he was an emotional player who wouldn’t back down from anyone…and of course she also loved him because he was Italian.
What the fans did not know until late in Santo’s career was that he was a severe diabetic, and had been since he was a teen. Ron had to give himself daily injections of insulin just to go out and play each day. In spite of this, Santo was a tough, dependable player who went all out every minute he was on the field.
His toughness and determination was never more evident than in 1966 when, in the midst of a hitting streak, Santo was hit in the face by a pitch that fractured his cheekbone and put him in the hospital for surgery. This would have put most players on the disabled list, but not Santo who was back in the lineup a week later. If you don’t think that is tough, imagine getting hit in the face by a baseball, then coming back a week later and stepping back into the batter’s box. Think you would be a little gun shy? I certainly would! In fact, I’d be ducking out of the way of every pitch whether it was near me or not. Santo not only stepped back in, but got hits in his first couple of games back to extend his hitting streak to 28 games.
Of course, any doubt about Santo’s toughness should be completely washed away when one considers that, due to his diabetes, he has endured numerous surgeries including the amputations of both legs over the past few years. Plus, you can add quadruple heart-bypass and throw in another surgery to remove a tumor from his bladder. Yet, the man continues to travel with the Cubs as an analyst on their radio broadcasts. Now that’s tough!
And that brings me to Ron Santo, the broadcaster. For those of us who have loved Santo for so many years, it is particularly gratifying to see how he has become such a popular and adored figure among today’s Cub fans. This popularity is due not only to his courage, but also his unbridled love for the Cubs. Ron Santo, former Cub player, is now Ron Santo, ultimate Cub fan.
Santo is also wildly popular because he is so much fun to listen to. As great baseball analysts go, Ron would rank somewhere near the bottom, but when it comes to funny, no one can top Santo. It’s not necessarily that Ron is trying to be funny-he just is. Often times, he is unaware of what is going on. “What just happened there?” he will ask play-by-play man Pat Hughes. “I just looked down at my scorecard and missed it.” And who can forget his screaming the words “Oh nooooo!” after Brant Brown dropped a fly ball to lose a key game in 1998. You could hear the pain in Ron’s voice-the same pain you were feeling-and you could identify. And unintentionally, he made you laugh at a time you most wanted to cry.
But for all the enjoyment Santo brings from the broadcast booth, it doesn’t come close to matching the fun Cub fans had watching him play. Baseball scouts talk about five-tool players. Only the greatest players (Henry Aaron and Willie Mays are two that come to mind) have all five tools, which are the ability to hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. Santo had four of those tools. He could hit (four .300 plus seasons), hit with power (342 career home runs), field and throw (five Gold Gloves). The one tool Ron did not possess was the ability to run-in fact Santo was barely faster as a player than he is now as a broadcaster. That didn’t stop him from trying to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples-often resulting in Ron being out by a mile. But it was just because he was aggressive and wanted to win so badly.
So why is Santo, who was clearly the best National League third baseman of his era, the only member of The Holy Trinity not in the Baseball Hall of Fame? What are voters looking for? It seems that perhaps Ron’s emotional approach to the game turned off some of his peers-many of whom are now members of the Veteran’s Committee that votes on players who have been out of the game as long as Santo has. I could give you numbers and do statistical comparisons and all that crap, but the fact is, those of us who saw him play day in and day out know that Santo was and is a Hall of Famer. Hopefully these knuckleheads on the Veteran’s Committee will come to their senses and vote him in while Ron is still alive.
Unfortunately, those knuckleheads never did come to their senses and now Ron is gone. If indeed Santo is ever given his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, he won’t be around to enjoy it.
And that may be the saddest thing of all.