Friday, December 03, 2010

Remebering Ron Santo (1940-2010)

I was saddened when I awoke this morning and learned that Ron Santo had died. Appropriately for a man who spent many years as a star player for the Cubs and many more as a beloved broadcaster, Santo's passing has been the top news story in Chicago today and several friends have posted remembrances and tributes on Facebook.

Although I admired Santo for many of the same reasons others have mentioned, this tribute won't be quite as gushing as others you can read.

Certainly, Ron Santo's statistics attest that he had a tremendous career, but I am bit too young to ever have seen him play. And while I wouldn't vehemently argue with those that say he deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame--particularly those advocates who actually saw him play year in and year out--I don't consider it an egregious mistake that he isn't. Though the steroid era has regrettably warped my concept of requisite Hall of Fame stats, Santo's career marks of 342 homers, 1,331 RBI and a .277 batting average (with just 4 of 15 seasons over .300) seem borderline at best. And although I have heard that Santo was the best third basemen of his era (primarily the 1960's, although he ultimately retired in 1974 after one year with the White Sox) behind only Brooks Robinson, three other Cubs from their underachieving teams of that era--Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins--are already in the Hall of Fame.

While I have absolutely no problem with Santo having had great pride in his accomplishments--all the more remarkable given that he had played with Type I Diabetes--and his holding out hope of being selected to the Hall, the repeated ritual of watching him wait on vote tallies only to wind up deeply and quite emotionally disappointed was sad; not only distressing but a bit pitiful as well. I never quite understood why, especially after year-upon-year, vote-upon-vote of being rejected, Ron so desperately needed that acclimation.

Also, while there were many times Santo's effusiveness as a diehard Cubs fan were endearing, the truth was it often made him a terrible baseball announcer. Especially after the disappointment of 2003, the concept of the Cubs as "lovable losers"--and the fans mirthful acceptance of such--should have been done away with once and for all. But Santo, whose guttural exhortations--and lack of much insightful commentary--made him little more than a cheerleader on the radio, propagated the notion. Or at least the fans' unbridled love for his on-air persona did.

I didn't know Ron Santo, but in meeting him at a couple of autograph signings, I could tell that he was the fun, friendly, Cubs-loving fan he played on the radio. So I don't mean to be too harsh, especially on a day like this, for if his worst crime was just being who he was, so be it. But I am not among those Cubs fans who absolutely loved him on the air.

So I am not all that sad today due to the passing of a Cubs legend or a revered radio announcer. Rather, I am more Cubbie blue over the death of what seemed to be a very good, and extremely courageous, man.

As I mentioned above, Santo played his entire career with Type I Diabetes and the disease led to him having to have both his legs amputated below his knees. Yet he continued to announce and was an avid fundraiser for JDRF, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In recent years, he had many other health struggles but from nearly all accounts never complained. And that he passed from complications from Bladder Cancer is shocking given that it never made news that he even had it and just last week he had given an interview to WGN Radio in which he sounded great (you can hear Ron Santo's final interview here).

Although it doesn't seem to be cited in many of the obituaries I've read today, Santo suffered a terrible tragedy in 1973--when he was just 33--when both his parents died in a car accident en route to see him in Spring Training.

Given that his own son, Jeff, made a loving documentary about him--2004's "This Old Cub"--Ron Santo was seemingly a wonderful father and most listeners to his WGN broadcasts with Pat Hughes were well aware of how much Santo loved spending time in Arizona with his grandson.

So as many others pay their respects to someone they adored for what he did on-the-field and on-the-air, I prefer to remember and admire what he accomplished and overcame outside the game of baseball.

From that perspective, Ron Santo is undeniably and indelibly a Hall of Famer. And no vote will ever be needed for affirmation.

(This fine piece by's Gene Wojciechowski details a bit more of what Santo battled and overcame.)

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