May 31, 2004
An Interview with Ron Santo—The Cubs' No. 1 Fan
This is the first interview I ever had the privilege of doing, and it happened to be with a childhood hero. I can't tell you the thrill I had sitting in the radio booth with Chicago Cub great Ron Santo overlooking Wrigley Field. I thought with his passing, that fans of his and the Cubs would enjoy getting into his head a little bit.
He talks about his thoughts on why his Cub teams never made it to the World Series, and compares today's ballplayers to when he played. He reveals how his radio style came about for those who think in his broadcasts that he comes across as too much of a fan.
He also answered the one question that everyone wants to know the answer to. What was more important to him: Getting elected to the Hall of Fame, or his beloved Cubs winning the World Series.
This is my original interview in its entirety on the date listed above. Enjoy.
The Heckler: You played on some great Cub’s teams during your career including the ’69 team. Is there any reason why you think that team failed to make the playoffs?
Ron Santo: I don’t have an answer to that and everybody has a different opinion of what happened to us. I thought that we were the best team in the National League and I thought the Orioles were the best team in baseball. I don’t think there was one particular thing. We didn’t hit in September and the Mets played over .800 percentage baseball. God lived in New York that year. I felt very strongly that if we had won that year and that’s a big word, if…I think we would have continued to win. I don’t think anybody can answer that question.
TH: Do you think Leo Durocher was the right manager for that team?
RS: Absolutely. We were in the second division for quite a few years. When Leo came, you could see the change. Everybody was in awe in 1966 that Leo Durocher was managing the Cubs. We knew what a winner he was and so did everybody else. If it wasn’t for Leo, we would have never built a ball club like we did and had been there from ’67 on.
TH: The Cubs traded Lou Brock in 1964. Do you think that if they had kept him, with his speed and ability to create runs, the team might have won a few pennants?
RS: There’s no doubt about that. That we traded him was a surprise to every player on the team. I was at a golf tournament with Bob Kennedy, who was the head coach at the time. We were playing golf, and he was called off of the golf course and we didn’t know what was going on. He came back later for the dinner and told us we traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. I remember I said - How could you trade Lou Brock? Billy (Williams) and Ernie (Banks) felt the same way. We all knew how good he was going to be. You don’t just look at the talent. You look at what kind of makeup this guy has. He had all of the right things going for him.
TH: You played your whole career with diabetes. How prolific do you think your career could have been if you were not afflicted with that illness?
RS: I played both ways. I had five gold gloves and I put up Hall of Fame numbers in fifteen years. There is no doubt in my mind I would have put up bigger numbers. First of all, the reason I would have put up bigger numbers is because I would have played longer. Because of diabetes, I had to shorten my career. I felt fine physically, but mentally the diabetes was getting to me.
TH: You mentioned that you had a Hall of Fame career. Brooks Robinson was a first ballot Hall of Famer, and I think you were close to him as a fielder and definitely a better hitter. Do you think the fact that the Cubs never made the World Series hurt your chances while he had the opportunity to shine in the national spotlight?
RS: You’re right about a couple of things, but when it comes to Brooks Robinson, he really was the best. At that position, I’ve never seen anybody better. I was good, but he was the best. He deserved to be in the Hall of Fame and on the first ballot, because I would have voted for him. I played in a lot of All Star games against him and he robbed me of so many hits. There is no doubt I feel if we would have won, yes. I think ’69 had a lot to do with it. In those days, WGN wasn’t a super station. The game of the week was on weekends only. Now you can turn your TV on any channel everyday and get a ball game. That gives writers or whoever is voting a better idea of who should be in. What was sad to me was that when I became eligible, I didn’t get five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot. Then five years later, how do you think I felt when I saw guys on that ballot that were nowhere near my numbers? And I don’t think this is just a numbers game. You have to look at how big of an impact that player had. I hit between Ernie and Billy. I still drove in a hundred runs and Billy didn’t leave too many guys on base. All I can say is that when I crossed the white lines, I played the game the way it should be played and why they have overlooked me, I really can’t answer that. I do believe that winning has a lot to do with it as far as the writers go, but now I’m on the veterans’ ballot, so my peers are voting. I feel whether I get in or not, I have a better chance.
TH: Well, the first time you went up in front of the veterans committee, you didn’t make it in nor did anybody else. Do you feel that perhaps they are trying to keep it more exclusive, and that by voting in other players, it diminishes their accomplishments? Mike Schmidt was quoted as saying that if the writers didn’t vote them in, why should we?
RS: I know Mike Schmidt came out and said he didn’t vote for anybody. Nobody got in with the veterans committee and that bothered me more than me not getting in. You say, what’s going on here? That was the first year and I never understood – Why do we have to wait every two years? I don’t want to get in posthumously. When the Cubs retired my number, that in itself is my Hall of Fame because I thought I had to get in to have it retired. When people come to Wrigley Field after I’m gone and they look up there, they’re going to ask, who is number 10? It’s almost like you’re a part of Wrigley Field and part of the Cubs. I can’t tell you how I feel about that. I’m not what you would call bitter, but like you said, I did get very high with my first ballot because all of the writers were over at my house in Arizona and the TV crews and I said to myself, they must know something. I started to feel like, oh, this is it…but I really got crushed. I look at it that my timing for the Hall of Fame has never been good.
TH: I know you were excited about getting your number retired, but if you had to choose between making the Hall of Fame or the Cubs winning the World Series, what would it be?
RS: No doubt about it, the World Series. It always has been. I’ve been through a quadruple by-pass, two legs, bladder cancer, and twenty-two operations in general, and with a diseased heart and I’m still here. I know the lord is saying, you’ve got one final thing and that’s a World Series.
TH: People have criticized you for being a fan during your radio broadcasts rather than being more professional and you’re probably the biggest Cub fan out there. As an example, your famous comment when Brant Brown dropped the ball during the pennant race in 1998 that has been played over and over again. How do you react to that criticism?
RS: First of all, I never look at myself as a broadcaster. I tell people, and you can tell in the booth, I don’t even know half the time what I say. I’m just so involved. And I’m like those fans out there, I believe in next year. I know we may not be that good but I’m like them, wait till next year. With this ball club, it’s no longer wait till next year, it’s can’t wait till next year. My first year, I was so bad. And do you know why I was bad? Because I was so nervous I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t. I’ll never forget Dan Fabian, who was the General Manager at that time brought me in because I had said, Dan, this isn’t for me. I’m embarrassing myself. He said Ron, you’re wrong. I listened to a tape, and it was about something I said, and then I started to laugh and he said, Ron, that’s you. We want you to be you. And that was it from that moment on. When Pat (Hughes) came along, we sat down and I said Pat, you know how excited I get. You’re the play- by- play man; I’m the color guy. You be you and I’ll be me and it’ll be like two guys talking baseball in the stands. You get good baseball when there’s good baseball, and you get a lot of other things when it isn’t good baseball but you never hear us criticize and we’re not going to. I played this game, and this game is not as easy as it looks. All of these guys are human, and they are going out there and they are doing their best. I could never understand when somebody would call somebody a homer. I want to be a homer. I’m getting paid for something that I love to do. I would do it for nothing. I love the Cubs, so who am I going to be rooting for. I do know the majority of the fans love it because I’m part of them, and that’s why a fan that doesn’t like it doesn’t bother me.
TH: You and Pat seem to have such a good relationship on the air. Do you socialize outside of the ballpark?
RS: Absolutely. We live about five minutes away from each other. Pat and I talk a lot, and there’s never been a guy that I have ever seen more prepared for a game than Pat Hughes. He’s got a dry sense of humor and he’s a beautiful person. We talk about a lot of things and we’ve never had an argument. And if we had a disagreement, we talked about it because there’s nothing worse than being in the booth with someone you don’t like. Fortunately, I’ve never had that happen to me but I’ve had somebody tell me that’s the worst thing in the world.
TH: How would you compare the players in today’s game to the players in your era?
RS: First of all, the way I judge that is it’s always like back in the forties, we were better, in the fifties, we were better, in the sixties, we were better. You know how that goes. If you look at who I played with; I played with most of the Hall of Famers today, the great ones, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron. I also played with the greatest pitchers in that era so if you put the greatest pitchers with the greatest hitters…that’s what I feel I was in. When I came up there was only sixteen teams, eight in the American League and eight in the National so there was no delusion of talent. Guys that had a job everyday had to worry about a minor leaguer. You did not want to leave that lineup and I don’t care how good you were because every organization had twenty minor league teams. Now they have only four minor league teams, so there’s a lot of pitchers playing in the big leagues that are under .500. Overall, I would say from the sixties until the late seventies, were probably the best years that I could see. I will say that there’s more pressure on the players of today than there ever was on us. We played for the love of the game, and today, it’s more of a business. There’s more fraternizing today than there’s ever been because that’s the way the game is. Everything changes, money rules. In my era, if you were successful, you were going to make money, but you never worried about it.
TH: If you played in today’s game, what kind of numbers do you think you would have put up?
RS: My numbers were what they were. I was given that God given ability, but I was also given a crutch in a sense with diabetes. I think the lord was good to me because he gave me a disease that I could play with and I proved that I could play with diabetes. That’s why I never told the organization until I made my first all-star game. The last thing in the world was if I couldn’t do it because of diabetes, I didn’t want to let them know that was why. I’d rather that they know I didn’t make it because I wasn’t good enough rather than diabetes.
TH: If there were one thing you could change during your career as a player, what would it be?
RS: I would change the month of September in ’69. That’s the only thing that I would say because when I got traded to the Sox, I only went to the Sox because I was a five and ten year player and because I wanted to stay in Chicago. I didn’t want to move my family and I was in business here. I was only going to play two more years, but I could have been traded to anybody I wanted to go to, but I didn’t want to win with anybody else other than the Cubs.