I don’t know why, but when the word of Ron Santo’s death began filtering across the nation last week, the words of a song began running through my head:
I heard my mama cry
I heard her pray the night Chicago died
Brother what a night it really was
Brother what a fight it really was
And right after that there was this flashback: Chicago, a summer night in 1970, the day’s work at the ballpark done. This was the year Johnny Bench had burst on the scene as a celebrity ballplayer and a club in Chicago was letting him sing.
A bunch of us had crowded into a Chicago cab; I remember it was myself, Bobby Tolan, a couple of other players and Bucky Albers, a baseball writer from the Dayton Daily News. We went and saw the performance, had a few drinks, one of us carrying his drink with him as we got into a cab.
We drove around a block before a couple of plain-clothes Chicago policemen pulled us over. Carrying an open container with alcohol in it was illegal, and one officer was giving the cab driver a tough time while the other was checking identifications.
He started with Albers, whose Budweiser did the talking.
“Let me see yours,” said Albers.
The police offer gladly obliged, taking his badge and shoving squarely between Albers’ eyes, shoving him backward.
Seeing the situation deteriorating rapidly, I pulled aside the other officer, explained to him that he had some ballplayers from Cincinnati here and that the man who mouthed off was drunk. The situation was defused and the conversation turned to baseball and to the Cubs, who just a year earlier had gone into their late-season tailspin and blown the division title to the Mets.
One of the players offered to leave the policemen tickets for a game while the team was in town but they said no, that they could always get tickets.
“We’re right behind third base, right there where we can boo Santo all game,” they said.
I thought about that incident then because Ron Santo had died a Cubs legend, a beloved character who had played the game hard, played it well, and then turned into a broadcaster who won over the hearts of the Cubs’ faithful again by being simply one of them.
Santo, a player who had borderline Hall of Fame credentials and who had been elected the Cubs captain rather than Hall of Famers Ernie Banks or Billy Williams, had become the symbol of the collapse with his over-exuberance.
It began when Jim Hickman hit a walk-off home run in Wrigley Field. Santo was so taken by it that he ran down the third-base line leaping into the air and clicking his heels together. The press picked up immediately on that and Santo took to doing it with each victory.
There is a certain irony about the gesture becoming the symbol of Ron Santo, considering the nasty twist of fate that would in the end cost him those very legs.
Santo had played his career with a secret all of his own, one that would endear him to baseball fans everywhere once it came out: he had played with diabetes and never mentioned it. Yet it affected his career, no doubt.
He once related this story of a day he was in the batter's box facing the Dodgers hard-throwing right-hander Bill Singer. As Santo told the story, the Dodgers were leading in the ninth inning. Santo was taking medicine to control his diabetes, and around 3:20 in the afternoon, as he was getting ready to bat, a symptom that usually didn’t come until a half hour later overcame him.
“I look at the scoreboard and I see three scoreboards. I don’t have time to go get the medicine. I see Leo Durocher, look out and there are runners at first and second with two out and Billy Williams is hitting. I’m thinking ‘Billy, get a hit or a home run or strike out.’”
Williams walks to load the bases, bringing Santo to the plate to face Singer, Singer, and Singer, as he saw them standing there.
“I made mind up going to swing at every pitch," Santo said. "I picked the middle Singer. I hit that middle ball for a grand slam.”
Santo slipped quickly as a player, fighting not to leave the Cubs but eventually agreeing to go to the White Sox for a brief stay.
After baseball, he became a broadcaster, teamed with Harry Caray on Cubs games, growing into a Chicago icon. All the while, the diabetes was eating away at him. He lost his legs below the knees, had heart trouble then bladder cancer. He kept going, walking on his own, traveling as much as he could.
One of his broadcast partners, Dave Kaplan, told this story on the air about Santo: Following his first amputation, Kaplan gave him a ride home after a Cubs victory. The prosthetic was causing him some problems, enough so that he removed it and propped it up in the car as Kaplan drove.
The two were talking, Kaplan telling Santo about how he’d worn No. 10 as a Little Leaguer and, looking at the prosthetic, how sorry he was about all Santo was going through.
"What are you complaining about?" Santo said. "We won the game, didn't we?"