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December 3, 2010

BP Unfiltered

Remembering Santo

by Colin Wyers

Aww, geez.

Ron Santo’s passing is an unbearably sad moment for Cubs fans, and for baseball. But it’s a chance for us to remember a life very well lived – it’s just incredible to look back and see how he followed up an incredible career on the field with an equally incredible career off the field.

Simply viewing Santo’s career on its own terms, and it’s impressive – nine All-Star games, five Gold Gloves, a smattering of MVP votes here and there (ironically the year he placed highest in the MVP voting was the one year from ’63 to  ’69 he missed the All-Star Game). In ’65 he played every inning at third base in an incredible 164 game season, and he did it while ranked eighth among qualified batters in True Average.

Those achievements don’t need to be put into any sort of a context to make them any more impressive – but of course in context, they are more impressive. Fans of course knew nothing of it at the time (he would eventually reveal his secret to fans in ’71), but Santo had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes when he was 18. Diabetes is not as serious now as it was then, because of advances in treatment (and Santo, a dedicated fundraiser for juvenile diabetes, deserves at least a little credit for this). At the time, Santo was told he had but seven years to live. He went on to play fifteen seasons in the majors.

I don’t know if any of us can truly understand how hard it was for him – not only to be that good but to do it under those conditions. He once told a story of coming up to the plate at the bottom of the ninth, and was having a diabetic episode so bad he saw the famous Wrigley scoreboard in triplicate. So he resolved just to swing at everything and guess at the dead center of the strikezone. And he hit a grand slam to win the game.

And that… that’s enough, isn’t it? Enough of us to expect of any one man. But he followed his career up with an equally impressive second act.

When Santo retired, he was already one of the greatest Cubs players of all time. What we came to learn was that he was also one of the greatest Cubs fans. Listening to him call games on WGN radio, you could hear him live and die with each pitch, each crack of the bat, each close play on the basepaths.  If you’re a Cubs fan, Santo would always find the right way to say what you were feeling about any moment. If there was a reason for joy, it was really like being a kid again for that wonderful moment. If there was a reason for sadness, Santo responded with such agony.

And as I’m sure will be pointed out, Cubs fans have had plenty of cause for sadness in the time Santo was calling games. But there was also a lot of cause for joy. And it’s so, so humbling to have shared all those moments with Ron. And so hard to think about not having him to share those with any more.

And of course, there are two things Cubs fans never got to celebrate with Ron – a Hall of Fame induction and a World Series victory. A lot of people feel a great injustice has been done by depriving Santo of the former. The ones with a lick of sense in their heads, at least. But Santo knew full well what he had accomplished, and if the Hall wasn’t going to celebrate him, Cubs fans showed no such restraint. A lack of recognition from the voters doesn’t cheapen Santo’s achievements. It does cheapen those voters and the Hall, though. So let’s not be sad for Ronnie there, but for those who couldn’t appreciate a damn fine ballplayer. They’re the ones who truly missed something.

And in the years to come, the Hall and its voters may come around to finally include Ron. It won’t mean much, though, at least to me (and I suspect a lot of other Cubs fans). We’ve always known Ron was deserving, and didn’t need the V.C. to tell us. And it won’t be the same, to celebrate without Ron being there to celebrate as well.

As for the other – nobody deserves a World Series, although Santo probably comes as close to anyone. So it’s hard to feel a sense of injustice there. But it’s probably the greater loss. Many Cubs fans have been born and passed on without seeing the Cubs win the World Series. Someday, though, someday it’ll happen. And it will be a moment of great joy for Cubs fans.

But not as great as if Ron was able to share it with us.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Fans,  Ron Santo

11 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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dpbuckle
(867)

"And in the years to come, the Hall and its voters may come around to finally include Ron. It won’t mean much, though, at least to me (and I suspect a lot of other Cubs fans). We’ve always known Ron was deserving, and didn’t need the V.C. to tell us. And it won’t be the same, to celebrate without Ron being there to celebrate as well."

My thoughts exactly upon hearing the news.

Dec 03, 2010 10:05 AM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman

Everyone should think this way about every player in or out of the Hall of Fame, which for a long while now has rendered itself an embarrassing joke.

Man, I'll miss Ron Santo. Got to meet him once, and he was just so kind, so affable. Sad day.



Dec 03, 2010 11:14 AM
rating: 0
 
cubfan131

I'm not old enough to remember Santo the player but I loved listening to him on the radio. He was a fan sitting in the announcer's booth who wore his heart on his sleeve. I'll never forget his call in '98 when the Cubs were trying to clinch a playoff spot and Brant Brown dropped a flay ball to cost the Cubs the game. Listening to games just won't be the same without Ron.

Dec 03, 2010 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Yeah, there are a lot of Cubs fans (I'm certainly included) who are always going to think of him as a broadcaster first. Looking through his stats and watching clips is a way to get a sense of who he was as a player, at least. And I'm thankful to have that much.

Dec 03, 2010 10:12 AM
 
Scott
(296)

I'm not a Cubs fan. But I was a Ron Santo fan. Every organization wishes they had guys like him, whose service to and love for the organization added to the team's reputation for die-hard fans.

I liked to listen to Ron on the radio. While I don't particularly like "homers", I never minded Ron as much as others I have heard [cough,cough, Hawk] It's true that he wore his heart on his sleeve as a fan, but it's also true that he called it way he saw it - he was never afraid to criticize when he thought that something or someone deserved it.

His fundraising work with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation was simply outstanding. If Ron Santo had never done another thing in his life, that work alone would be remarkable.

They just don't make 'em like Ron Santo anymore. What a shame.

Dec 03, 2010 10:51 AM
rating: 2
 
JoshT

I am barely old enough to remember Ron Santo as a player--mostly I remember Jack Brickhouse announcing the lineups and WGN showing Santo, Kessinger, Beckert and Joe Pepitone as they went around the horn. But I do remember liking him because, in my six year old mind at least, he was always smiling and looking like he was having a good time, as opposed his more sober teammates.

As an announcer, Santo was one of us. Most announcers are fans of the team that pays their salary. Santo was just there in the booth because they asked him to and he would have been at the game or watching at home anyway. He was a great Cub player, but he wasn't the greatest Cub player of all time. Wasn't even the greatest player on his team as long as Billy Williams was around. However, he was probably the greatest Cub fan of all time. And for that, Cub fans loved him.

Dec 03, 2010 13:03 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Well said, Colin. I’m just old enough to remember Santo the player, though only near the end of his career – probably 1972 is the first season I can recall as more than just a short collection of fleeting images – yet it really is as a fan and broadcaster that I’ll remember him most. To be honest, there are people who would hear him on the radio and cringe. And there are likely some today who are a little amazed at the depth of emotion that so many have felt at his passing – and I have to admit, I’m personally a little amazed at my own depth of emotion about it. Some of it has to do, of course, with the story of his ever-present optimism in the face of diabetes, the loss of his legs, and his inexplicable exclusion from the Hall of Fame. Some of it has to do with his likeability, a fact that made fans overlook his shortcomings as a broadcaster because, as so many have said, he was one of us. Criticizing his game-calling skills would have been akin to criticizing the guy on your local small-town radio station calling a high school football game – he’s your neighbor, after all, and he never claimed to be a professional, so what’s the point?

Mostly, though, I’ll personally miss him because he gave vent to the same frustrations that I felt, and as he grew older he became ever the more an emotional surrogate for my own father, and my grandfather, and the generations of Cubs fans that have never been able to celebrate a championship. His passing makes us sad for him, and for his family and friends, but also for our own relatives and friends who have struggled through the same enduring frustrations (though on a lesser scale), and have left this world with their hopes similarly unfulfilled. I think that, in many ways, is what saddens so many Cubs fans today – the fact that they won’t be able to hear Ronnie call a World Series victory, and explain to the world exactly what we’re feeling. I’m not sure whether anyone else can.

Dec 03, 2010 13:45 PM
 
BillJohnson

As a Cardinals fan, and at that, one plenty old enough to remember Santo the player as well as Santo the announcer (I threw batting practice to a high-school/college friend everyone knew as "Santo" because of his passion for the guy), my perspective is quite different from that of most others in this thread, yet my feelings are very much the same. I had a mild resentment for Santo the player, because he became excellent at just the time when the Cardinals had cast adrift their own excellent third baseman (Ken Boyer), and had nothing Santo-ish to replace him with. This matured into grudging respect for a guy who was really very good, and later, into recognition that he'd been greatly undervalued in his own time. I'm not sure to this day that he fully deserved election to the HoF, but he sure wouldn't have been the worst player there, and if I was on the Veterans Committee, I'd probably vote for him.

As for Santo the announcer, "homers" generally sit poorly with me (including Cardinals homers ... no, really, I'm serious...), but one of the things about Ron was that he made absolutely no bones about the fact that he _was_ a homer, and one can respect that. Furthermore, he communicated his love for his own team without any hatred for the others. That, for me, captures much that is right and good and beautiful and worthy about baseball.

We'll miss you greatly, Ron, and I say that from the other side of the best "friendly enemies" rivalry in the game ... but don't hold your heavenly breath waiting for the Cubs to beat the Cardinals to the next World Series win. :-)

Dec 03, 2010 14:16 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I think Bill hit on exactly the element that made Ron Santo entertaining as an announcer: the man never tore down the other team, he just communicated his obvious love for the team he'll always be associated with. That sort of generosity of spirit wasn't an act, or restricted to baseball commentary--he was reliably genial and friendly knocking around in the press box as well.

Dec 03, 2010 20:17 PM
 
kddean

I'll never forget the first time I heard Santo on the radio when I moved to Chicago. I think they were playing the Cardinals, but it doesn't matter. Santo went on for 15 minutes about when he was a player on a road trip, this same pigeon followed them from Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. Somehow this pigeon was the reason for his slump. Meanwhile, Pat keeps calling the game and commenting enough to keep Santo going.
It had no relation to the game and of course there was no way that there was really one pigeon that followed them on this road trip. It was the most confusing 15 minutes of a baseball game I've ever heard. The next day I switched to WGN and Santo still mentioned the pigeon.
If he wasn't such a genuinely nice person, I would have hated everything about his story as some insincere story to waste time. But it was just Santo being Santo.

Dec 04, 2010 05:31 AM
rating: 0
 
Aristocrat

Amen from a Cubs fan who gave his two sons the middle names of Addison and Sheffield.

Dec 05, 2010 22:04 PM
rating: 0
 
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