Ron Santo a player unlike any other
BY TONI GINNETTI Staff Reporter
Cubs legend Ron Santo will be remembered for both his play on the field and the obstacles he overcame.
To his legions of fans, Ron Santo was more than a Hall of Fame baseball player--even though their beloved Chicago Cubs third baseman was always denied entry.
Even objective baseball observers acknowledged Santo to be ``the best player not in the Hall,'' his career statistics and accomplishments on par with some of the eight third basemen who were enshrined at the time he played--but who had the World Series credentials Santo's Cubs were denied.
But what Santo had that set him apart from every other position player in the game's history was a Hall of Fame-type career achieved despite the life-threatening disease of diabetes. No one had ever played the game on a daily basis as an insulin-dependent diabetic.
And almost no one knew he did it.
At a time when living with the disease was far more risky to control for even a layman, Santo managed to not only doctor his life daily but hide the truth from all around him through a 15-year career in which he almost never missed a game.
``I lockered right beside him for years, and I never knew he had this disease,'' teammate, friend and Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks wrote in the forward to ``Few And Chosen,'' one of several books Santo co-authored. ``I remember once after I found out about Ronnie's diabetes, I mentioned to him that I had a friend who had recently found out she was a diabetic. He told me to call her, and he got on the phone and talked to her and told her what she had to do.
``This was someone he didn't even know, but he took the time to counsel her, and his talk encouraged her and lifted her spirits.''
It was something Santo did countless times for countless unknown faces whose only bond with him was the disease. But he treated each as a kindred spirit, and for children afflicted, as a hero to look up to in more ways than one.
``Even before the public disclosure [in 1973-check] that I was a diabetic, I made private visits to local hospitals to visit people with diabetes,'' Santo wrote in his 1993 biography ``For Love of Ivy.'' ``Whenever possible, I try to make a personal call to the children, and I try to relate my experiences. I try to alleviate their fears associated with diabetes.
``Unless you have been young and ill with such a disease, you can't appreciate the apprehension that can exists in the mind of a youngster in this condition. The stories of courage of the young people I've met could fill a book in itself. The children who have juvenile diabetes have a special place in my heart.''
Though baseball's Hall of Fame eluded him, Santo's greater legacy would come from that love and his personal quest to find the cure for them he would never have in his own lifetime.
His annual Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes has raised more than $40 million alone since its inception 1979, though Santo was constantly raising more through golf outings, appearances, donated royalties and appearances.
In 2004, his son Jeff, an independent film maker, aided his father's charity by donating a major portion of the proceeds from a movie about his father's life, ``This Old Cub,'' to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. But in making the film, he also gave a gift to his dad, to countless fans who had never seen him play.
The film focused not only on memories of his career, but on the rigors of going through daily life with seeming normalcy despite the extraordinary debility of having both legs amputated caused by diabetes.
It showed, too, the heartbreak Santo felt when he was first rejected by the Hall of Fame veterans committee for induction into Cooperstown, a snub that would come twice more.
But that same season, Santo was embraced in a different way that he later would say meant as much--his No. 10 retired by the Cubs to fly daily at Wrigley Field beside the numbers of his former teammates, Banks (14) and Billy Williams (26), both members of the Hall.
``This is my Hall of Fame,'' Santo said on Sept. 28, 2003, during Wrigley Field ceremonies that equaled those the team would put on for its later inductee, Ryne Sandberg.
Pure emotion may have been part of the reason for the Cubs' decision to retire Santo's number the first time the veterans committee denied him entry, but the facts of his career trumped sentimentality.
On Thursday, the franchise icon died at the age of 70, according to multiple reports.
The best-known number about the Cubs is the team's near-100 years without a World Series championship.
The other near-100 number the team's faithful know well is this: 99 different players tried to take over third base in the 30 years after he left the team in 1973.
It was Santo's position for 15 seasons, 14 of them on the North Side before he accepted a trade to the South Side White Sox in 1974. That move was historic for all of baseball as well as the city, because it instituted what became known as ``the Santo rule'' allowing any player with 10 years experience and five years with the same team to have a say in a trade.
When he left the Cubs, Santo had established historic numbers for the franchise:
--he hit 337 of his career 342 home runs, ranking fourth all-time behind Sammy Sosa, Banks and Williams;
--he drove in 1,290 runs as a Cub and 1,331 in his career and had more than 2,243 career hits;
--he won five consecutive Gold Gloves at his position from 1964-1969 and was selected to nine National League All-Star teams;
--he led the National League in triples in 1964 with 13 and hit .277 overall in his career;
--in 2,130 games as a third baseman he handled 4,581 chances and committed only 317 errors, a .954 fielding average;
--he established major league records for most years leading the league in assists by a third baseman (7) and the most consecutive years of leading the league in assists by a third baseman, later broken by Brooks Robinson, and for most years leading the league in chances (9);
--he set National League records for assists in a season by a third baseman, later broken by Mike Schmidt; most double plays by a third baseman in a career and most chances accepted;
--in 1966, he set a then franchise record by hitting in 28 consecutive games. The streak was threatened at 26 when Santo was hit in the face with a pitch from New York Mets righthander Jack Fisher. He suffered a broken cheekbone and missed almost two weeks. When he returned, he added two more games to the streak and a new piece of equipment to baseball's arsenal--a helmet ear flap that became standard ever since.
It also marked one of the few times Santo missed playing time on the disabled list for any reason.
In 14 seasons with the Cubs, Santo played in every game or all but one or two seven times, another record.
His durability would have been laudable under normal circumstances, but playing as an insulin-dependent diabetic at a time when monitoring the disease was far more unpredictable, Santo's career was as remarkable as it was miraculous.
Santo was born Feb. 25, 1940 in Seattle, one of two children whose father left the family when Santo was six. His parents divorced a year later.
``I'm sure the lack of paternal guidance had an impact on my behavior, which wasn't always great,'' Santo wrote in his biography. ``I got into a lot of trouble.
``My mother wasn't a big woman, but she could really deck me. Which she did. She had become both mother and father to us, which couldn't have been easy. Determined to straighten me out, she sent me to a parochial school, even though the high cost made things tight at home.
``Sports saved me,'' he wrote. ``The nuns at the school were pretty good athletes--no Babe Ruths but good enough--and we had a coach named Vito. Between school and the Little League, I was spending a lot of time learning about competitive athletics.''
Santo's mother, Vivian, remarried several years later while her son blossomed as a multi-sport athlete. Baseball remained his favorite sport, though. ``Just to be near it, I got a job at the stadium where the Class AAA Rainiers played, and I did it all--grounds crew, mowing the lawn, ushering in the bleachers,'' Santo wrote.
As a high school senior, Santo was chosen to play in the Hearst All-Star game in New York's Polo Grounds in 1958. He was a catcher then, and despite a less than stellar game, scouts sought him out. A Yankees scout asked him to stay several days to work out in Yankee Stadium while a Cleveland Indians scout asked him to stop in Ohio to work out before returning home.
Santo instead went home to find his mother and stepfather, John Constantino, already swamped with calls from scouts for all 16 major league teams. He had offers of a $50,000 bonus to sign with the Indians, and $80,000 to sign with the Cincinnati Reds. ``It was tempting,'' Santo wrote. ``I had grown up watching those Class AAA Rainiers, the farm club for the Reds. I knew the team. I had shined their shoes. I even had a tryout with the team when the big league Reds came to town to play their minor league counterparts in an exhibition game.''
For some reason, Santo held off, waiting for a call from the last major league club to make an offer--the Cubs.
``I had become pretty friendly with the Cubs scout, Dave Kosher, and I was confident he was going to come through,'' Santo wrote.
But when Kosher did call, it was with bad news. ``I know what you've been offered. We can't even come close to your lowest offer,'' he told Santo. ``Bring [head scout Hard Rock Johnson] over anyway,'' Santo answered.
The negotiations were blunt. ``We know what you've been offered and we're offering $20,000,'' Johnson told Santo and his stepfather. ``There's no way you're every going to be a third baseman in the major leagues, son,'' he said. ``Maybe you can make it as a catcher.''
Santo drove an apologetic Kosher home, having already secretly made up his mind. ``Even though I grew up watching the Reds system, I had an affinity for the Cubs. I loved to watch Ernie Banks, and I was intrigued by the incredibly long dry spell they had had since their last championship,'' Santo wrote. ``And I believed I had a better chance of making it to the majors with the Cubs since they weren't as rich in the talent department.''
Santo's stepfather left the decision to him. ``My mind was made up. I was signing with the Cubs. To me, $20,000 was the same as $50,000 or $80,000. It was all a lot of money,'' he wrote.
All the money in the world couldn't buy a reprieve from the life sentence Santo learned of soon after he signed.
During his annual physical before leaving for his first minor league camp, doctors found sugar in Santo's urine.
At 18, Santo was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, the most serious and insulin-dependent form of the disease.
``It was unbelievable,'' he wrote. ``I work up that morning a happy, healthy teenager, and suddenly I had a disease I had never heard of. I didn't have the common symptoms--fatigue, frequent urination, weight loss, constant thirst--but I was a diabetic. And no one could tell me whether I could play baseball again.''
What medicine could predict was more dire.
Santo took it upon himself to learn all he could about the disease, ``yet what I was reading wasn't making me any less afraid,'' he wrote.
`` `The life expectancy of a juvenile diabetic is 25 years,' I read. I was 18. `It is the number one cause of blindness, the number two cause of kidney failure, and number three cause of hardened arteries.' I stopped reading. I couldn't absorb the horror.''
Santo found a clinic in Seattle offering a two-week course on the disease and individual assessments for patient treatment. The young Santo tried to convince himself he could control his condition through exercise. But during a class, a woman sitting next to Santo suddenly collapsed into a coma.
Santo thought she needed only insulin--then learned the woman already was on insulin.
``Are you telling me I could be playing third base at Wrigley Field and just pass out- '' he asked the doctors.
``You'll have symptoms first, and you have to learn what they are,'' he was told.
Santo kept his secret from the Cubs, but his personal vow to avoid insulin through diet and exercise lasted only a few years. In 1961, his second year in the majors, Santo's condition reached the life-or-death point of needing insulin. He worked with a doctor in the off season to learn the danger signs and symptoms of impending collapse from low blood sugar, how to take daily insulin injections and to keep candy with him at all times.
He told only team physician, Dr. Jacob Suker, swearing him to secrecy.
Santo's fear was that the disease might be used against him should he go into slumps--or even an excuse to release him.
Not until 1971 when the Cubs held a day in his honor on Aug. 28 did Santo make public his secret. By then he was firmly entrenched as a star--though his Cub teams kept having stardom slip from their grasp.
Diabetes was his burden, but his greater pain was was the season of 1969.
The Cubs, under third-year manager Leo Durocher, were riding high from opening day when Willie Smith's pinch hit home run in the 10th inning won a game over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The first-place Cubs featured three future Hall of Famers in Banks, Williams and pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, a ``million dollar infield'' of All-Stars including shortstop Don Kessinger, second baseman Glen Beckert and Santo, a hard-nosed catcher in Randy Hundley and a towel-waving cheerleader of a closer in Dick Selma.
``People weren't talking politics, war or economics the summer of 1969 in Chicago,'' wrote Santo, whose joy in winning led to a heel-clicking frolic after victories. ``They were talking about the Chicago Cubs.
``We were treated like rock stars. We would have to fight through the crowds just to get to our cars--three hours after the game. Some athletes will tell you they don't care for that kind of adulation. We ate it up. We loved the fans. They loved us.''
The fans' love affair with Santo never receded since then--even in the heartbreaking end to that season when the New York Mets overtook the Cubs in September and went on to win the World Series.
But despite the adulation, team captain Santo also was a lightning rod for all emotions Cub. At mid-season, when the team lost a crucial series to the Mets in New York, a young rookie outfielder, Don Young, took the brunt of criticism from Durocher for two dropped fly balls.
But Santo was the one reporters went to for comment when Young quickly left afterward. ``It's like anybody as a rookie,'' Santo said. ``Sometimes you put your head between your legs. I've done it as a player. Those things happen.''
The ensuing stories said Santo blamed Young for the loss, and some columnists vilified him. He was booed at Wrigley when the team returned home--but the worst came privately in letters threatening him and his family.
One threat kept coming regularly, and it led to Santo and his family getting 24-hour police protection for a time.
At the end of the 1970 season, a series of threatening calls said Santo would be the target of a sniper in Shea Stadium. The threats were deemed serious enough that the FBI assigned Santo protection on the trip. When security wires to Shea were found to be cut the day of the alleged assault, Santo was sent home with the security detail.
The threats eventually stopped, but not before the Santo family had spent a year in police protection.
The Cubs finished with 92 victories in 1969--eight games behind the Mets.
``How did they win- How did they come from eight back and beat us and then beat the Orioles [in the World Series]- That's a good question. I wish I knew,'' Santo wrote.
Santo spent 14 years in a Cubs uniform--but he retired from baseball as a White Sox.
``The thought that I would end my career with any team other than the Cubs was foreign to me,'' he wrote. But it happened after the 1973 season as the Cubs dismantled the last remnants of the 1969 club.
Cubs general manager John Holland actually wanted to trade Santo to the California Angels as part of a five-player deal. But Santo qualified for a new reserve clause right to reject the move. He didn't want to leave Chicago, where he had established his personal life and outside businesses.
With the team set on trading him, Santo went to the South Side on Dec. 11, 1973 in exchange for pitchers Ken Frailing, Jim Kremmel, Steve Stone and catcher Steve Swisher.
Santo spent one season with the Sox, playing some second base and designated hitter. His unhappiness was reflected in a .221 average, five home runs and 41 RBI in 117 games. Despite a two-year guaranteed contract, Santo told Sox GM John Allyn he would retire at season's end, foregoing the $130,000 left on his contract.
He spent the next 15 years as a businessman in Chicago, his only baseball ties as a fan.
In 1989, the Cubs reached the playoffs, and Santo was invited to throw out the first pitch before one of the games. It was the first time he had been back to the field since his trade, and it led to his return.
The next season, Santo auditioned for and was accepted to fill a spot in the team's revamped WGN-AM radio booth. He joined Bob Brenly and Thom Brennaman and worked with both until 1991 when Brenly went back to coaching. Santo and Brennaman were partners until 1996, Brennaman leaving for Arizona and Santo getting a new partner in Pat Hughes.
Santo's broadcast career rekindled his bond with the Cubs and fans, his analysis often colored with the rooting interests he couldn't always temper.
It was characterized most in a September, 1998 game when Cubs outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, leading to a ninth inning Brewers come from behind victory,
``Oh, no!!'' Santo yelled into the microphone, the sentiment of most who were listening.
But Santo's broadcast career, like his playing career, was good enough to earn him nomination as one of ten finalists for the 2005 Ford C. Frick Award, the Hall of Fame's highest broadcast honor.
As he did through his career, Santo continued dealing with the effects of diabetes. His health issues included laser eye surgeries, cardiac bypass surgery in 1999 and a series of right foot operations in 2001 trying to avoid amputation. But Santo eventually lost his right leg below the knee in December, 2001. A year later, his left leg also was amputated.
Despite his handicaps, he continued his broadcasting duties almost without interruption. But Santo did miss the Cubs' post-season of 2003 when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer requiring another surgery.
His medical woes never dampened his spirits, and never sidetracked his on-going fundraising work to find a cure for diabetes.
Ryne Sandberg, whose No. 23 was retired by the Cubs after his Hall of Fame induction in 2005, considered Santo a Cubs teammate though they played decades apart.
``My one regret is that I never got to play alongside Ron, and I never got to see him play,'' Sandberg wrote in an introduction to ``Few And Chosen.'' ``But I have looked at the back of his baseball card and his numbers were tremendous--and to think he did all that, playing 15 years in the major leagues while battling diabetes throughout his career.''
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, who became a close friend, marveled at Santo's achievements in the face of his disease.
``Many might not have been up to the task. Ron was,'' Bench wrote in a foreword to Santo's autobiography. ``The Big Red Machine of the 1970s would have had a very nice spot in their lineup for Ron Santo. We tried out many different people at third base, and we were always seemingly looking for `a Ron Santo type.' If we had been lucky enough to obtain Ron Santo from the Cubs, I don't know how many more games we would have won.''
But there was only one team for Santo, his year with the Sox aside.
``Ronnie had all the qualities you look for in someone you would want to carry the name `Mr. Cub,' ' Banks once wrote. ``As a player, he was a great competitor, a hard worker and a leader. He had intensity. He was determined and ambitious. He wanted to win more than anybody I've ever known.
``Ronnie has handled his own ailment like the true champion he is,'' Banks continued. ``He is the most courageous person I've ever been around. I'm inspired by him and by his spirit. He is one of my idols, one of my heroes. I love Ron Santo.''