Friday, December 03, 2010

Ron Santo: The Story of a Great Man Who Deserved Better

The passing of former Chicago Cubs third basemen Ron Santo is felt deeply by Cubs supporters around the world today. Santo was a man beloved by fans for his passion for the game, his commitment to the Cubs, his general decency and spirit, and his adversities and struggles to overcome them.

The year was 1969. The Chicago Cubs had, by far, the best team in baseball. Imagine this: the entire Cubs infield was on the 1969 National League All-Star team. Ernie Banks -- 1st base; Glenn Beckert -- 2nd base; Don Kessinger -- shortstop; Ron Santo -- 3rd base; Randy Hundley -- catcher. And that didn't even include Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.

Chicago Cubs fans know all the stories all too well. A Willie Smith home run wins the opener in extra innings. Black cats in New York. Fly ball caught and dropped by Don Young. Jimmy Qualls breaking up Tom Seaver's perfect game in the 9th inning. Kenny Holtzman's no hitter. Leo Durocher's trip to Wisconsin. A tired team fades at the end.

And in the middle of all that was Ron Santo, the best third baseman in the National League. Santo was a great home run hitter, but he also seemed to strike out and hit into double plays his fair share of times. Santo wore his heart on his sleeve. He was always pissed off when he failed at bat. His routine of jumping in the air and clicking his heels after victories came from genuine passion and joy. He epitomized the working class ethic of Chicago.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Santo was that he played at the highest level of professional baseball for so long despite having diabetes. He retired at the relatively young age of 34. Unfortunately, his numbers, especially compared with hitters who came after the so-called pitchers' decade of the 1960's (not to even mention the steroid era), seem to fall short of baseball Hall of Fame standards.

But are they really? There are only 14 third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Three were from the Negro Leagues and four were put in by an ancient veterans committee. Only seven have been voted in in the modern era. Seven. Had Santo not struggled with diabetes -- especially with the lack of knowledge we had of diabetes back then -- how much longer could he have played, how much better could he have been?

For many years Santo had been part of the Cubs radio broadcast team. Despite many health problems, including two leg amputations and bladder cancer, Santo continued to fight back, serving as an inspiration to many. He was always the friendliest guy at the ball park and was loved by the Wrigley crowd. Yeah -- he was an unabashed homer as an announcer and was not the most articulate guy in the world, but he lived and died with the Cubs's success and failure like any other fan.

It is so unfortunate that Santo came agonizingly close to seeing the two things that would have made his life complete -- getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and seeing the Cubs go to the World Series. He was five veterans committee votes short of making the Hall, and the Cubs were within five out of going to the World Series (do I hear Bartman?). There is a lingering bitterness among Cub fans because Santo could never get those votes he needed to be in the Hall.

However, although sadness rules today, what Ron Santo brought to baseball, to those living with diabetes, and to Cubs fans, will always be cherished and never forgotten.

The world lost a great man today. But we are so thankful that Ron Santo shared himself with us.

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Blogger Shrike said...

Santo clearly deserved election to the Hall of Fame on the merits. It's a real shame he will end up being elected posthumously.


12:28 PM  
Blogger crafty said...

I'm happy to tell you that admiration of Ron Santo is not reserved to Cubbies fans. He was a class act who deserved better, but never complained.

Here's to you, Pizza.

11:53 AM  
Blogger kurokitty said...

Definitely nice post.

10:36 PM  

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