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.