Rest in Peace, Ronnie

By Chris Rewers on Friday, December 3, 2010

Life has thrown me more than a fair share of curveballs, but throughout my many trials and tribulations, I have tried my best to maintain my optimism and to reflect on my many blessings.

And I could not have a better role model in regards to having a sunny disposition in the face of adversity than former Cubs star and longtime radio broadcaster Ron Santo.

It was very sad to learn Friday morning that Santo, the greatest third baseman in Cubs history, had died at age 70 from complications of bladder cancer.

Santo was one of my father's favorite ballplayers and I was very familiar with the nine-time All-Star's playing exploits long before he joined the Cubs broadcast team in 1990. Say what you will about Santo's on-air style ("Who's this guy pitching, Pat?"), but understand that listening to a Cubs game on the radio will never be the same.

santo.jpg

Ron Santo, who hit 342 career home runs, demonstrates his power stroke late in his 14-year Cubs career.

Santo may have often times been ill-informed but what great chemistry he had with Pat Hughes, his partner of 15 years. Pat and Ron's daily banter was usually far better than the action they were describing on the field. What Santo lacked in insight, he more than made up for with passion and his self-deprecating humor.

Santo's resiliency was best illustrated in his son, Jeff's 2004 documentary, This Old Cub. I was amazed while watching Santo, who lost both of his legs to diabetes, get out of bed in the morning and marveled at all the things he had to do each day just to make it out the door.

Throughout his life, Santo never lamented the many challenges that his medical condition presented him. He always did all he could to overcome his ailments and met those challenges without complaint.

Santo learned he was a diabetic in 1958 and since then, had raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

As of 2000 at least 171 million people worldwide suffered from diabetes, or 2.8 percent of the population. It is the leading cause of blindness in the United States and is the most common cause of kidney failure, accounting for nearly 44 percent of new cases.

Thanks to the efforts of Santo and many others, much more is known about diabetes than when Santo played in the major leagues. Santo, therefore, did not publicly reveal his condition until late in his playing career and kept it a secret even from most of his teammates.

"In those days, nobody talked about it," Santo told Rick Talley in The Cubs of '69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). "I wanted to prove to myself that I could stay in the major leagues with diabetes. I didn't want anyone knowing. It was a subconscious thing. The last thing I wanted was any sympathy or special treatment. And believe it or not, major league clubs never took blood tests. You just had your heart and blood pressure checked. So I was always careful not to give myself a shot of insulin in the locker room in front of anybody. I always did in private."

It was part of his daily routine for 52 years.

He even kept his condition secret from his longtime roommate and close friend Glenn Beckert who played alongside Santo in the Cubs infield for nine seasons.

"I forgot to tell Beckert," Santo told Talley. "So we're in Cincinnati in June at the Netherland-Hilton Hotel, one of those older places with full-length mirrors on the inside of the bathroom door. Well, each morning after a night game, I would do my routine, go into the bathroom, come back, drink orange juice, then go back to sleep. So on this morning, Beck just happens to look into the bathroom door mirror and see me giving myself a shot. But he doesn't say a thing. Just goes back to sleep.

"Now, I go 3-for-4 in the game that night, and I'm hitting about .320. Beck went 0-for-4, and he's hitting about .230. So after the game, we go out for drinks and dinner, and after a while he looks across the table and says, 'OK, roomie, I don't care what it is. I want it.'

" 'What are you talking about?'

" 'I saw you this morning. I saw that needle go into your leg. I don't know what it is, and I don't care. I want it.'

" 'I'm a diabetic. That was insulin.'

" 'What's a diabetic? Never mind, I don't care. I want some of it anyway.' "

Oh, how I'll miss those stories. I loved them all - the ones about his rookie season, the ones about his miserable final season with the White Sox. What a sense of humor he had!

Santo has joined many a Cubs fan who was unable to experience the joy of a world championship and it's a shame that he was also denied his rightful place in the Hall of Fame during his lifetime.

An argument I often hear to support Santo's exclusion from the Cooperstown shrine was his lack of longevity. He retired at age 34 after 15 major league seasons.

Was his medical condition responsible for his short career?

"No, but that's one reason I played so hard," Santo told Talley. "I kept thinking my career could end any day. I never really wanted out of the lineup. The diabetes thing was hanging over my head all the time.

"But it didn't make me quit. What affected my longevity was the losing!"

Many of Santo's critics fail to realize how durable he was.

During a span of 11 years (1961-71), Santo averaged 159 games a season. During seven of those seasons, he appeared in more than 160 games.

Santo was the best NL third baseman of his era. He was a formidable power hitter and a tremendous competitor who played with a great deal of heart. But what seems to be forgotten was how great of a defensive player he was. He likely was every bit as good as Brooks Robinson, but never was able to exhibit his skills under a World Series spotlight.

"I played left field behind Santo all those years, and I'm telling you that sucker was quick," longtime Cubs outfielder Billy Williams told Talley. "I saw him make plays nobody else could have made. He was out there every day, hurt or not, he had marvelous instincts, and he could hit. As each year passes, Ron Santo's numbers are going to look better and better."

Santo has been denied entry to the Hall of Fame 19 times by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and the Veterans Committee.

The case for Santo in Cooperstown was best made in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001). James ranked Santo as the sixth-best third baseman of all-time.

"George Kell was the 30th best third baseman of all time; he is in the Hall of Fame," James wrote. "Fred Lindstrom was the 43rd best third baseman of all time; he is in the Hall of Fame.

"George Kell in his career drove in 100 runs once; otherwise his career high in RBI was 93. Ron Santo scored 100 runs once, and drove in more than 93 runs every year, eight straight years. Obviously, Santo was doing a lot more to change the scoreboard than Kell was, even though Santo played in the 1960s, when runs were hard to come by.

"Santo was not only a better hitter than Kell, he was also a better hitter than Jimmy Collins, Pie Traynor, Fred Lindstrom, and Brooks Robinson. He was a good hitter in a relatively long career, as he ranks eighth all-time in games played at third base. Defense? He won five Gold Gloves.

"It's not Ron Santo against Willie Mays. It is Ron Santo against Pete Browning, or Babe Herman, or Bob Meusel, or Jake Daubert, or somebody else whose only real advantage on Ron Santo is that he played so long ago that his flaws have been forgotten."

In The Game Is Never Over (Icarus Press, 1980), Jim Langford quotes longtime manager Gene Mauch: "Santo is the best third baseman I've ever seen over a period of time. Billy Cox and Frank Malzone may have been as good for one season, but they can't match Santo over 10 years."

But the positive-thinking Santo didn't dwell on his exclusion from Cooperstown and he made those feelings clear during the ceremony at Wrigley Field on Sept. 28, 2003 when his number 10 was retired by the Cubs.

"This flag hanging down the left-field line means more to me than the Hall of Fame," Santo said.

Thanks for the memories, Ronnie.

1 Comments

Everyone made a big deal when famed broadcaster Harry Caray passed away. But Caray wasn't a Cubs icon like Ron Santo. Harry already had allegiances to the Cardinals, A's, and White Sox. It just so happened that he died while broadcasting for the Cubs. Santo was a true Cubs icon who bled Cubbie blue. Ron was someone who gave to others. His greatness can be measured not by baseball statistics, but by the number of Cubs and baseball fans who viewed him as a hero and a champion for diabetics. He will truly be missed as part of the fabric of Wrigley Field. May he rest in peace.

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