Chicago Cubs Legend Ron Santo Dies at 70: Long Live Ron Santo

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Chicago Cubs Legend Ron Santo Dies at 70: Long Live Ron Santo
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I know that we will all spend the next several days remembering Ron Santo the way we want to. Many will remember the Hall of Fame's repeated snubs; many will talk about his pained cries from the booth every time the Cubs squandered a lead or a chance at the pennant. We all want to remember Santo, the sabermetric dream player who was merely ahead of his time. We all loved Ron Santo for our own reasons.

For just a minute or two, though, as you go through your grieving of a man who gave the full measure of himself to the game of baseball generally and to the Cubs specifically, remember him the way he would want to be remembered: remember Ron Santo in full.

Santo, it would be easy to forget, was not any one thing: He was not merely a ballplayer, but an icon. He went about it the right way, and he did so every day even though (in a time when the disease was not nearly as manageable as it is today) he had juvenile diabetes. That disease took his feet later in life. It limited him more than he ever would have admitted during his career. It made every day a fight for Santo.

Luckily, then, Santo was a warrior. He was (tragically, in a sense, but also wonderfully) a remarkably competitive person and a scrappy player. He lacked the grace of Brooks Robinson at third base, but he made up for his physical limits by using his body as well as he could possibly have used it. He drew walks; he ran the bases hard, if not fast. He played excellent defense and won five Gold Gloves. He made nine All-Star teams. He hit 342 home runs.

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After his career, he raised millions of dollars for diabetes research and treatment. He plugged the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at his every chance, and he aggressively advocated for children wherever he found them in need.

Do you like your heroes in the old-fashioned way? Do you need tall tales of fierce loyalty or bravery to label a great player a true icon? Santo fits. He got offers from all 16 big-league teams when he came out of high school in the late 1950s; the Cubs made the lowest offer. Yet Santo, citing a vague mystique surrounding Wrigley Field, chose to come to Chicago. He had never even been to Wrigley; he had just seen it on TV, and in black and white at that. He was from Washington state. There was no reason he ought to have chosen the Cubs. He just did.

Yes, Santo missed the Hall of Fame, and yes, it ate at him as the years wore on. He knew, surely, that he was every bit the player Robinson was, yet Robinson marched into Cooperstown without him. He knew, surely, that he deserved enshrinement before Ryne Sandberg, another Cubs legend who went into the Hall in 2005. But let's not dwell on that. At least not today. Let's remember the words of a hoarse, misty-eyed Santo on the day, near the end of the almost-magical 2003 season, when the Cubs retired his No. 10.

"I thought I had to get into the Hall of Fame...but that flag hanging there down the left-field line means more to me than the Hall of Fame," said Santo. That says everything you need to know about Santo.

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I want to close with two stories about Santo, and to invite anyone who feels drawn to write their own memories of him in the comments section below. This is what Santo was all about: Everyone will remember him differently.

The first story:

I was a young teenager, maybe 14 or 15. My father and I were at the Cubs Convention, the team's annual offseason fan festival, and I hit the veritable jackpot: I won the autograph lottery, entitling me to a Santo autograph. So wildly popular was Santo that, though he would have signed all day if he had the chance, event coordinators always were forced to limit those who would be entitled to that prize.

Well I thought and thought about what I might say to Santo when I walked up to him to get my baseball signed. I considered blabbing something nerdy about his four walks titles, or telling him how I loved his ability to sound like a raving, partial lunatic even when (and he did it a lot, especially during his early years in the booth) he made highly salient and even brilliant points.

Naturally, though, I froze up. I think we all do that when we meet a hero. We all forget our practiced greeting or question. I did manage a rather smooth: "Hi, Ron. Thanks a lot."

But Ron would not let me stop there. He laughed, almost. Or anyway, his smile tilted in the particular way he tilted his smile when he was laughing at someone. But then he said:

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"You play ball, buddy?"

I did not. I have congenital nystagmus, which is not as bad as it sounds but which seriously hampers one's vision and entirely rules out baseball. I used to play a lot at the park opposite my house and in my backyard, but I never made it past tee ball in organized play.

"Nah, I don't think I could," I said.

"Well, I do," Ron said. "You really like to play?"

"I love it," I said, maybe realizing how much I missed being able to play organized ball for the first time in my life. "The feel of..."

I think I was going to say "bat on ball, cleanly," which is of course a marvelous sensation. Maybe I was going to say "the ball hitting the pocket of your glove." That feeling is wonderful, too. It doesn't matter. He cut me off. He had this look in his eyes.

"Yeah," he said. The crooked smile was back, but this time he seemed to be laughing with me. He missed being able to play more than I did, even though he was 65 and had played for half his life. I have never quite been able to feel sorry for myself for not being able to play ball, since then.

 

The other story actually takes place the year before, and I was not even there. Rather, it was my mom who met him at the same event in 2003. She ran into him in the hallway, all alone, just the two of them. She happened to have a binder full of baseball cards I had packed for the weekend-long event, and she pulled out the only one I had been able to find featuring Ronnie. 

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Santo signed everything, for everyone, at all times. I said that already, but it bears repeating. He was as accommodating as any sports personality I have ever known in that regard—and in many others.

To hear my mom tell it, though, he recoiled when she held out the card. It featured him in a Cubs cap, but a big banner across the front read "TRADED." It was the only card ever made of Santo as a Chicago White Sox.

The Cubs traded Santo before his final season, 1974. He was heartbroken. Even though interleague play existed only as an annual exhibition back then, Santo hated the Sox. He hated them until last night, when he passed away. He looked at the card, and he recoiled from it. He ended up signing my mom's weekend pass; never let anyone go away empty-handed.

I will always remember what my mom said Santo said as he refused the card, though, because it tells us (and this is tremendously valuable information, as important as how he would want to be remembered) how he did not want to be remembered.

"Oh, not that," said Santo. "Anything but that."

When I turned on my radio this morning, I had the same thought.

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