Former Chicago Cub third baseman Ron Santo speaks to the fans during a retirement ceremony for Santo's uniform number 10 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Bleed Cubbie Blue.
That's the name of this site, as you all well know, and as you can see on the logo to the left every single day.
Ernie Banks may be "Mr. Cub", but perhaps no player in Cubs history epitomizes the phrase "bleed Cubbie blue" better than Ron Santo.
For fourteen seasons he was the ballclub's third baseman. You've no doubt read about the more than 100 other players who have started at least one game there since Santo was traded away at the end of the 1973 season; it has taken thirty-four years, but perhaps at last the Cubs have now found a suitable successor to Santo in Aramis Ramirez.
If you never saw Santo play, you can't get a real sense of his accomplishments and what he means to the Cub franchise just by looking at his statistical line -- and that line is, in fact, outstanding. It is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that he fought, and is still fighting to this day, juvenile diabetes. Santo was the first high-profile professional athlete to reveal that he played sports at the major league level with this disease, which can debilitate and kill. In retrospect, knowing this makes his considerable accomplishments even more impressive. Even without that, his passion for playing the game could be seen every time he set foot on a baseball field.
Ronald Edward Santo was born in Seattle on February 5, 1940, and signed by the Cubs after graduation from high school in 1958. In that era, after a long period of fallowness, the Cub franchise was beginning to produce solid and star-quality major league players (among them Billy Williams, Dick Ellsworth, Lou Brock, and George Altman), and Santo's talent rocketed him through the farm system. Not long after he turned twenty years old, on June 26, 1960, he made his major league debut, playing both ends of a doubleheader at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The Cubs swept the eventual 1960 World Champions with Santo having a big day -- 3-for-7 with a double and five RBI. He started nearly every game for the rest of the 1960 season, and had fine numbers for a twenty-year-old: .251/.311/.409, with nine home runs. Santo's first major league home run (341 more were to come) was hit on July 3, 1960, at Wrigley Field off the Cincinnati Reds' Jim O'Toole.
Despite his diabetes -- which he concealed even from his teammates for many years -- Santo became one of the most durable players in baseball. He played in every game in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965 (playing in a club-record 164 games in '65, tied with Billy Williams, including two tie games -- that's the second-most games played in a season in major league history. Only Maury Wills, in the Dodgers' playoff season of 1962, played in more), and 1968. By 1964 he had established himself as the best third baseman in the National League, had the first of his six All-Star selections, and finished eighth in MVP voting with a 30 HR, 114 RBI season and .312/.398/.564 with 86 walks. The patient Santo walked 86 or more times for seven consecutive seasons, from 1964 through 1970, leading the league four times in that period. For those of you who key on OPS as a Hall of Fame indicator, Santo was in the top six in NL OPS four consecutive seasons, from 1964 through 1967.
1964 was the first of four straight 30-homer seasons for Santo, and though he had "only" four 100-RBI seasons, he came oh-so-close to having eight straight; from 1963 through 1970 his RBI totals were 99, 114, 101, 94, 98, 98, 123 and 114, averaging 105 RBI over the eight seasons.
His best overall season, and also his most eventful season, was likely the 1966 season (though some might choose 1964 or 1969). He had career highs in BA, OBA and SLG (.312/.412/.538), leading the league in on-base percentage. He also set a club record (since broken) by hitting in 28 consecutive games.
Yet that performance got him only a twelfth-place finish in that year's MVP balloting, and part of the reason for that might have been an incident that occurred on June 26 when, in the first game of a doubleheader, Santo's cheek was broken by a pitch thrown by the Mets' Jack Fisher. That game featured a beanball war -- the Mets' Ron Swoboda and the Cubs' Adolfo Phillips had both been hit earlier in the day. Santo had to have surgery, breaking a consecutive-game streak at 390, but he was back in the lineup a week later.
The popular Santo -- he was so popular at one point that he began a suburban-based pizza operation, "Ron Santo's Pizza", and the pizza was for a couple of years sold at Wrigley Field -- and the Cubs broke through into pennant contention the following year, and despite a setback in 1968, were considered pennant favorites in 1969. Santo got off to a terrible start -- at the end of April, he was hitting only .205 -- but the Cubs won eleven of their first twelve, and it appeared they were well on their way to breaking a twenty-four year postseason drought.
Santo, never a man to shy away from showing his feelings, began clicking his heels as he would run off the field to the Cubs' clubhouse after home victories; at the time the clubhouse was located underneath the left-field stands (that door, still in the left-field corner, now leads to an area used by vendors), and so the players would all walk from the dugout across the field after the game, that year (at least till September) to the cheers of pennant-starved fans. Santo's heel-clicking became a popular sight, though some thought it a bit arrogant.
Meanwhile, the Cubs continued to win and Santo got hot. In June, July and August, he hit .320/.382/.529 with 18 HR and 75 RBI in 87 games. But dark shadows had begun to appear. On July 8 in New York, the Cubs took a 3-1 lead into the last of the ninth, but CF Don Young misplayed two fly balls (neither of which resulted in an error being charged), and the Mets scored three runs and won 4-3. Santo ripped Young in front of his teammates, and the incident made the papers (can you imagine what doing such a thing would cause now, with ESPN and blogs like BCB around?). He later apologized, but for the first time in his career was booed when the Cubs next played at Wrigley Field.
Without belaboring the 1969 collapse, it reached its crescendo when the Cubs returned to New York in September. The famous September 8 game in which Tommie Agee was called safe at a close play at the plate (and on which Randy Hundley jumped about ten feet in the air arguing, and to this day swears Agee was out) was also the game in which a black cat walked in front of Santo while he was in the Cub on-deck circle. Believe in superstition or not, as you choose, but it's no wonder that to this day in his broadcasting job, Santo hates taking road trips to Shea Stadium.
At age 30, and starting to feel the effects of a long career played with his disease, Santo's numbers began to decline in 1970. He had another 100-RBI season, but his average dropped to .267, and the following season his power also began to decline; he drove in only 88 runs, fewer than 94 for the first time in nine years.
It was in that year -- 1971, on August 28, as the Cubs were honoring him with Ron Santo Day at Wrigley Field -- that Santo at last revealed publicly his battle with juvenile diabetes. This began a lifelong association with JD foundations, including the local Chicago-area JDRF chapter, which has hosted the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes every year since 1974.
The rest of the 1970's weren't happy years, either in baseball or personally, for Santo. His production continued to decline, and in 1973, his mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident while driving to Arizona to see him play in spring training. At the end of that season, the team that shoulda, coulda, won it all for all of us was broken up, and Santo was among those to be traded away.
Before leaving the Cubs, though, he became the first player to invoke the ten-and-five rule under the collective bargaining agreement signed after the 1972 strike. The Cubs had agreed upon a deal to send Santo to the California Angels; the ballclub would have received in return two young pitchers: Andy Hassler, who went on to have a middling career as a reliever/spot starter, and Bruce Heinbechner, a very highly-regarded lefthanded pitching prospect. Santo didn't want to play on the West Coast and vetoed the deal. In a spooky coincidence, Heinbechner was killed in a car accident the following March, driving to Angels spring training in Palm Springs.
The Cubs still wanted to deal Santo, and since his preference was to stay in Chicago, they worked out a deal with the White Sox, acquiring catcher Steve Swisher, and three young pitchers: Jim Kremmel, Ken Frailing, and ... one of Santo's future co-broadcasters, Steve Stone.
Santo's stay on the South Side was miserable, and for him, mercifully brief. The White Sox already had a third baseman, Bill Melton, so Santo was relegated mostly to DH duty, which he hated. He wanted to play in the field, but Sox manager Chuck Tanner wouldn't bench Melton (who, to be fair, had had a couple of 30-HR seasons for them), so he tried Santo at second base, where, with no experience, he only embarrassed himself. Worn down by his disease, away from his familiar home at Wrigley Field, and finishing 1974 with a .221/.293/.299 mark, Santo retired from baseball at the age of 34.
And that's where this story might have ended. Santo spent fifteen years away from the game, though he continued to reside in the Chicago area. And year after year, he thought he might be elected to the Hall of Fame. And wasn't.
And so, in 1990, when Bob Brenly (see how all these people seem to come and go to the same places?) and DeWayne Staats both left WGN radio, Santo applied for the analyst position. He made no secret of the fact that one of his primary motivations for doing so was to get back into the game and perhaps get more "noticed" so he could get into the Hall.
WGN sent Santo and Thom Brennaman, who had applied for the play-by-play slot, to Florida to tape some sample games of the Senior Professional Baseball League, then a league for former players over 40, playing during the winter. Something about those broadcasts impressed WGN management, and they were hired.
My feelings about Brennaman as a broadcaster are well known, and Santo, with no previous on-air experience, was often baited into saying odd things by the also-then-inexperienced Brennaman (his hiring occurred after his father, Marty, turned the job down; at the time Thom's only broadcast experience was as a weekend TV sports anchor in Cincinnati). Only when Pat Hughes was hired to replace Brennaman in 1996 did Santo begin to really show off his likeable on-air personality. Hughes' gentle manner with Santo, who doesn't do real in-depth game analysis, makes for an entertaining partnership. Personally, I would prefer someone with more baseball analysis as my "color" guy on the radio. But I do know that Santo lives and dies with the Cubs and their fortunes, as do the rest of us, and that's in clear evidence in every single broadcast. Turn on the radio in the middle of the game not knowing the score, and within a few minutes Ron's demeanor will tell you whether the Cubs are winning or losing. His anguished scream, "Oh, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!", when Brant Brown dropped a catchable fly ball, costing the Cubs a key pennant-race game in Milwaukee on September 23, 1998, has become Cubs and broadcasting legend.
I believe absolutely, positively, that Ron Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame. When his number was retired by the Cubs on September 28, 2003, the day after the Cubs clinched the NL Central title, it was a cloudy, chilly day -- but the sun peeked through just long enough for Ron's speech, in which he thanked everyone and said, "THIS is my Hall of Fame." But, in my opinion, that should not be all -- Santo was the best third baseman of his generation, bar none, no, not even Brooks Robinson was better (Robinson's offensive numbers pale in comparison to Santo's, and though Robinson won 13 Gold Gloves to Santo's five, at least some of that can be attributed, again, to the diabetes that more or less ended Santo's career in his early 30's). He made nine All-Star teams, finished in the top eight on MVP ballots four times, and, arguably, there was a brief time in the mid-1960's when he could have been considered the best player in baseball. (Remember, I did say arguably!)
He has been denied Hall entry many times, most recently in 2005, and also two years earlier, when his son Jeff's documentary on Ron's life, "This Old Cub", was being filmed. In the film, the disappointment in Ron's eyes when he got Sharon Pannozzo's phone call saying he hadn't made it is heartbreakingly obvious. But "This Old Cub", which also details Ron's battle with diabetes, including the amputations of both his legs, shows him approaching that, and indeed all of life, with unfailing good humor. That truly shows the measure of him as a human being, a quality to admire in anyone.
There are presently at least two online petitions promoting Santo for the Hall, and the Cub Reporter recently posted a detailed three-part series on Santo's Hall merits, to which I commend all of you.
This year's Veterans Committee Hall voting is going on right now for possible inductions this summer. It would be wonderful to see Ron Santo on the dais with Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, given his rightful place with baseball's immortals. I daresay it might draw the largest crowd in Hall induction history. Results will be announced on February 27.
Ron Santo's admission to the Hall of Fame would be a fitting climax to a life given to baseball, as a player for fifteen years (14 as a Cub), and now entering his seventeenth year as a baseball broadcaster. And part of the reason he's so beloved by Cub fans, whether you like his broadcasting style or not, is that he's one of us -- having transformed himself from a Cubs player into a Cubs fan, "bleeding Cubbie blue" every single day.