Friday, December 3, 2010

Ron Santo Never Let Us Down



Watch the old Cubs highlight films of the late 1960s Cubs and you will see one player, who screams louder, throws his hands up higher, smiles wider and pummels his teammates harder at every win—that was Ron Santo. Santo was the racing heart and the wounded soul of baseball. Today, Ron’s heart beats no longer, but his soul lives on.

Major League Baseball is a lot of things, but in Chicago during the late 1960s, it was epic—a spectacular drama. In a four-year crescendo from 1966-1969, the city of big shoulders thought that destiny had finally smiled on the north side where a finely talented and spirited club had world championship written all over its jerseys. The Cubs had several players who would be today’s ESPN pin-ups: Banks, Jenkins, Williams, Santo, et al. But as Chicago’s reign as “hog butcher of the world” was winding down, the storied Chicago Cubs of 1969 were overtaken by the Miracle Mets. The city of broad shoulders was stooped with sorrow and disappointment.

Life went on—most of the players and fans came to grips with the sad poetry that continues to sing out on the north side of Chicago. But one player was always haunted by the season. While he said the right things about appreciating the fact that he played for a great franchise and one of the best teams ever assembled, there was longing is in his eyes and his heart. And what was in Ron Santos heart was not often masked by the man’s face. Santo knew that he could not win the games that were lost in 1969, but there is one last win that is ever looming at arm’s length even in death—induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Is it indeed how you play the game not whether your team wins or loses that counts? Is it all about fighting the good fight and finishing the race? Or is it about being on the right team at the right time? Often questioned about both the 1969 Cubs and the Hall of Fame, Santo would often say something positive about his love of the game and then in the same breath reassure listeners and readers that he was one of the best—that he owed no one an apology for how he played the game.

Many baseball fans may have been surprised by how Santo’s statistics stack up so well with other Hall of Fame inductees at third base. As a steady ever-present player with the Cubs, it was easy to take his play for granted. Winner of five golden gloves, eight-time all-star, and winner of the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, Santo was always contributing.

Santo loved the Cubs and stepped over many larger offers from other teams on his way to Chicago. But it took a while for him to feel secure. In 1963, a young Ron Santo was concerned about trade rumors that turned out to baseless. At the time, Stan Hochman wrote, “Owner, P. K. Wrigley would sooner part with his formula for Juicy Fruit Gum than Ron Santo. (“Pull Isn’t Always Needed for a Raise, Cubs Santo Finds,” Stan Hoch, Baseball Digest, December 1963.)

Bookend to his 1963 crisis was Santo’s introspection late in his career in 1973. In his last season in a Cubs’ uniform Santo lamented to Chicago Tribune columnist, David Condon, “the longer you are around, the more the fans expect you to do the exceptional all the time.” While Santo’s comment on fans expectations is interesting, his comments about himself were always telling.

Santo was living in the shadow of grief in the 1973 season after having lost his parents to a car crash in January. But on the diamond, he was still looking to improve his game. That year he was not going to focus on the negative. Santo had gone through a period where he dreaded coming to the ballpark because he was not doing as well at the plate as he knew he was capable. Santo was especially frustrated by his 1971 marks that included a .267 average and 88 RBIs. In 1970, Santo had an identical average, but drove in 114 runs. In 1972, Santo’s average swung up to .302, with 74 RBIs. The Cubs third baseman seemed to dwell on the runners he left on and he seemed no less remorseful for plays in the field that he thought he should have made. Not that he had made many errors, Santo was thinking about plays he could have made had he been in better position or anticipated better.

Perhaps amazed at Santo’s modesty in looking at his career, Condon asked, “Would Santo rather be recognized as a hitter or the gold glove fielder that he is?” The reply came as one might expect, “A man could and should be known for both.” Condon sang the praises of the Cubs’ great third baseman at the time suggesting that he himself would never take Santo for granted. The Trib’s ace reporter was probably trying to prepare fans for the approaching time when the great third baseman would no longer be a Cub.

Like teammates Billy Williams and Ernie Banks, Santo’s career was punctuated by the fact that his Cub teams never won a pennant. Santo never received the national recognition that would have come had he played in a World Series. Bill Dray echoed the thoughts of thousands of fans and baseball aficionados when he said, “While he never played on a pennant-winning team, Santo was a winner. And it was his intense style of play that helped make him one of the top third baseman in baseball history.” (“Ron Santo, a Hall of Fame Plaque in His Future?” Bill Dray, Baseball Digest, July 1992.)

Seattle Start

Santo was hired by the Seattle Raniers of the Pacific Coast League in his freshman year in high school. He started as a bat boy at the Raniers park a few blocks from his house and eventually graduated to clubhouse attendant. He saw major league talent every day and he was not short on ambition as a young man who played baseball, football and basketball very well. He caught the eye of scouts at an all star game and had many offers. He was a catcher and could be erratic so when the Cubs liked his bat, they thought they would sign him and use him at third base, which was deemed to be an easier position to manage and one that fit his fiery temperament. Santo had an affinity for the Cubs and knew they could use his talent. He was also a big fan of Ernie Banks. (Brosnan, Jim, Ron Santo 3B, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1974.-- Editor's note: This is an old kids book, but I highly recommend it for Santo fans if you can get a hold a used one--I got one from Bill's Books)

His pro career began with Cubs farm club, San Antonio of the Texas League in 1959. He was lucky to be working under the tutelage of manager Grady Hatton who happened to be an old hand at third base. San Antonio had also signed Billy Williams.
Santo routinely threw balls over the first baseman’s head into the stands. His .327 average however assured that he would get plenty of patient coaching. In 1960, Santo was once again in a San Antonio uniform, but when Lou Boudreau took over the Cubs in May, he brought the talented Santo up. Santo had vastly improved his fielding, but he was still very rough around the edges.

Boudreau was one of the greatest students of baseball to manage a team and Santo became one of his pet projects. Boudreau helped Santo in all aspects of the game and was especially challenged by Santo’s reckless base running. But Santo would become a complete player with help from Boudreau and others when combined with Santo’s endless supply of guts and determination. Santo was a guy who gave 110% when everyone else claimed they were giving 100.

Santo’s Character Shines Through the Seasons

The beacon that was 1969 still shines bright for Cub fans although it did not last the entire season. But it was not the 1969 season that best defined Santo’s character— it was the 1966 season. The official end of the College of Coaches experiment ended in 1966 when Leo Durocher signed on to manage the Cubs. The Cubs were a very young ball club with poor pitching and awful fielding. On top of that, Banks was having a bad year at the plate; Williams was hitting way below his potential. However, the lineup was starting to shape up with Glenn Beckert fitting in at second and Don Kessinger improving his skills at short. It did not come easy for Kessinger because his early play for the Cubs had not been good and he was on the bubble with Durocher in spring training. “Kessinger can’t hit, field or throw,” scowled Durocher to the press. Kessinger who had none of Santo’s bravado responded, “I am glad he thinks I can run.”(“Don Kessinger Looks Back at His Big League Career,” Norman Macht, Baseball Digest, November 1977.)

Although the young Cubs were miserable in 1966, Santo spiced up the season with a record and some heroics. Beginning on May 31, Santo began a hitting streak that would challenge Hack Wilson’s record of 27. It could not have been a more dramatic streak. At 26 straight, Santo was ready to tie and beat the record in a double header scheduled with the New York Mets. A large crowd was on hand to see the challenge. In the third inning Mets pitcher, Jack Fisher, decided to go inside on Santo who had been trying to punch the previous outside pitch to right. Fisher’s pitch trailed inside and up on Santo, who reacted like a deer in headlights. Whack! Santo took it on the cheek and had to be carried off the field. Surgery was required to mend a broken cheekbone and the Cubs’ star was placed on a liquid diet.

Santo could only take a week of idleness. He had a hot hand and he wanted more than anything to get back into the lineup before his bat had time to cool off. A special batting helmet was provided and Santo suited up for a Fourth of July double header with Pittsburgh. As spunky and confident as George M. Cohen, a swollen faced Ron Santo stepped up to bat in the first inning only to ground out. But he followed that appearance with two singles his next two times up. On his fourth appearance, he clobbered one out of the park onto Waveland Avenue. He had tied Hack Wilson’s record.

Drama continued into game two of the double header. Grounding out the first time at bat, Santo did not get much to hit his second and third plate appearance and walked twice in row. It looked grim as the day was nearing an end. Determined to swing when he was up again, Santo lined the first pitch into center field for a base hit driving in the winning run of the game. And 28 was where the streak ended as Santo went hitless the following day.

Santo had proved his mettle. The streak was short when compared to DiMaggio’s 56 game masterpiece, but it was big deal for the Cubs and a challenge that took guts and determination. Santo was never shy about sacrificing his body to stop balls at third base. He would routinely dive to make plays other infielders would have let pass. But the streak was special because Ron had stepped up after being seriously injured when most players would have been nursing their wounds for at least a couple more weeks.

It is ironic that the sports world would come to look at the Cubs as a polyester kind of team with a seemingly limitless supply of young urban professional fans who would pay most any price to spend a nice afternoon at a ballpark that was just a short cab drive from downtown Chicago. But no one would dispute that Santo was a Frank Chance and a Hack Wilson kind of guy. Every ounce of Santo seemed to go into his play. He was a muscle car in uniform. He would have looked at home in most any Chicago neighborhood park whether playing 16 inch softball, or shooting hoops or craps in a sleeveless T-shirt. Sure, he was the guy with the big mouth, the hotdog, but he was your pal and you knew you could count on him. All of Chicago counted on him, and he never let them down.

Copyright 2010 Sporting Chance Press (www.sportingchancepress.com) This article on Ron Santo comes from a Sporting Chance Press work-in-progress. Ron Santo is one of the subjects in an upcoming Sporting Chance Press book featuring several of the most influential men in the history of the Chicago Cubs franchise.

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