The toughest man ever to play for the Chicago Cubs is gone. After a 50 year fight with diabetes, a Hall of Fame worthy playing career, and an interesting and mostly entertaining two decade stint in the Cubs’ radio booth, Ron Santo is dead at the age of 70.
I only met him on a handful of occasions, I never saw him play and I spent countless hours in cars either laughing with or laughing at him on the radio, but I loved Ron Santo in that very manly way that we love our sports heroes. To say he led an incredible life is an understatement.
He broke into the big leagues at 19 (and by now we’ve all heard him tell that story about playing in that doubleheader in Pissburgh 1,000 times) and played his ass off for 15 seasons. That he did almost all of it after learning he had diabetes at a time when managing the disease was infinitely tougher than it still is, is beyond impressive. He was either the first or second best third baseman of his era (depending on whether or not you think Brooks Robinson was better, and he wasn’t, so you’re just wrong, so how about you just shut your stupid face) and his numbers merit his induction into the Hall of Fame. When you factor in how his disease affected him on the field, and how it shortened his career by several years, his induction should have been a no-brainer.
And yet he’s still not in. Why? Because baseball writers as a whole are dopes, and baseball players are a lot dumber than that, and they’re the ones who to this point have had the say in whether or not he got in.
He’ll get in at some point, and it will still be deserved, but it won’t be the same. Nobody would have enjoyed being a Hall of Famer more than Ron Santo. That he should have been in 15 or 20 years ago is the real shame. They missed out on 15 or 20 chances to hang out with him in their crummy little snobatorium in Cooperstown.
I, like most of you, remember Ron exclusively as a broadcaster. And let’s not fool ourselves, he wasn’t very good at it. He started out as a horrible analyst, got a little better, and went right back to being horrible at it. He mangled names, he answered faxes at the most ill-opportune times, he forgot the score, the forgot who was pitching, he’d lose track and spend five minutes asking Pat Hughes for help catching his scorebook up. He spent more time trying to guess the attendance at the ballpark than he did studying up on the opposing pitcher. And we loved him for all of it anyway. Why? Because he was genuine, and we liked him. At times, mostly when you were in the car and couldn’t see what was going on and Ron was derailing Pat from describing what really happened, you’d get irritated with him, but it never lasted very long. He wanted the same thing we did, for the Cubs to win, and like us he had no filter on showing his disgust or his excitement.
For 20 years, nearly every big moment in any Cubs game has a soundtrack of Ron either happily yelling, “All right!” or him dejectedly moaning.
For most of that time he had the perfect foil in Pat Hughes. If Ron was one of the toughest men we’ve ever met, Pat is certainly one of the most patient. That he and Ron were great friends was no secret. Pat had the amazing ability to correct Ron without showing him up. For most of those years when Ron went off on a tangent, Pat was there to reel him back in. And when there was downtime (and with this team there’s always a lot of it) the two could go straight into what WGN Radio called “The Pat and Ron Show.” Ron would make fun of Pat’s sweater. Pat would tell stories about Ron sneaking down to the pressroom before a game to get frozen yogurt only to have the machine stick open and for Ron to literally run out of the room and just leave yogurt pouring down onto the floor. Pat got a lot of great radio out of Ron which made the whole thing worth it.
We liked Ron because he had good taste in people. He genuinely liked Pat (of course) and Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, and he wasn’t really all that fond of Steve Stone or Chip Caray. Can’t say the man doesn’t have good taste.
That he may or may not have punched tHom Brenneman and broke his jaw only adds to the legend.
Making fun of himself, at first, didn’t come easy for Ron, but when he embraced it, he found some great material there. He loved to tell the story about the night at Shea Stadium when he stood up during a cold, early season game, and had an unfortunate run in with a space heater. He liked to explain that the prosthetics he wore actually made him taller than he was before. Apparently they made him a little too tall, because as he stood there, Pat started to smell something burning. He looked up, there was Ron, toupee ablaze looking back at him. The space heater hanging from the ceiling had melted the top of Ron’s hairpiece.
He once sent a WGN Radio producer to his hotel room to find a missing hairpiece and the producer found it all right. Stuck to a FedEx box in the garbage can.
With all of the fun we had with Ron, it’s easy to take for granted just how much he really went through, and how amazing his ability to handle it all was.
Diabetes ravaged his body and like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” the doctors had to start lopping off limbs and Ron treated them like they were “just a flesh wound.”
He had a couple of heart attacks, he survived a car accident at spring training a few years ago, and he had two bouts of bladder cancer, the second is the one that finally claimed his life. And he plowed right through most of it.
He lost a foot and then a leg to the disease and he got a prosthetic and got right back to walking.
Then when his other leg started to deteriorate he voluntarily had it amputated and added a second prosthetic and got right back to walking again.
The man was nothing short of amazing.
We all think that if we’re faced with obstacles that we’re tough enough to fight through them. We all hope we don’t have to find out. Ron found out, and was always up to the task.
We’re going to miss him, maybe most of all for being the host of the most awesomely terrible five minutes of sports radio every day in the summer, the manager’s show on WGN. Only Ron could say things like, “We’re here with the fine manager of the Chicago Cubs, Bruce Kimm…” and get away with it. We’ll also miss how he used “Big Boy” to express both his fondness for someone, and to cover when he didn’t actually know who they were.
So long, Big Boy. We’re going to miss you.