Monday, July 23, 2012

What the Hell Took So Long—Trying Not to be Bitter About a Posthumous Honor

Note—It took two days to finish this.  I hope you will find it worth it.
Reports are that the largest fan contingent in memory swamped hard-to-get-to Cooperstown, New York yesterday for the induction of Ron Santo into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Little wonder, really.  The old third baseman may rival his former team mate Ernie Banks as the most beloved player ever to don Chicago Cub blue pinstripes.
It was a joyous event.  Ron’s wife and family are officially thrilled and upbeat.  But it is hard not to wonder, just what the hell took so long and why was Santo only elected to the Holy of Holies—the greatest admission of his life—until nearly a year after his death.
Santo first became eligible for election to the hall 31 years ago in 1980.  That was five years after his retirements at the age of 31.  It was a crowed class that year and Santo only got 4 % of the votes which under the rules of the time removed him from further consideration.  His apparent crime was that he played the oft-snubbed position at third base—only 3 of more 120 inductees at the time had patrolled the hot corner.  Hall voters were always more enamored of pitchers and power hitting outfielders.  He also played on a club that despite being one of the most talented in baseball in 1969 had failed to make it into the World Series.  Three members of that team were already in the Hall—Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and evidently some baseball writers, the electors to the Hall, felt that any more would be unseemly for a team that failed to go all the way.
In 1985 considerable grumbling about great players dropped from consideration resulted in a change of the rules.  Santo was one of several players put back on the ballot with 15 more years of eligibility.  Each year his percentage of the vote grew as his accomplishments were put in contexts.  While he never posted the Hall of Fame unofficial standard—500 home runs and/or 3,000 career hits, it began to dawn on voters that he spent the bulk of his career in the most pitcher dominant years in baseball history, the 1960’s and early ‘70’s.  When his bases on balls were added in his on base percentage was among the best in the game and his base path aggression helped manufacture runs.  He was also probably the best defensive third baseman of his era and a club house leader.  In his final year of eligibility he got 43% of the vote and finished third.
Two years later another rules change added the Veteran’s Committee, made up of former ballplayers and Hall members, who re-considered players who were retired for more than 20 years.  Santo tied for first in voting in 2005 and placed first the next three years.  Despite this, he failed to get a set minimum number of votes in those years and no player was elevated by the Veteran’s Committee. 
In 2008 Santo and the whole world was so sure that he would make it that live television cameras were on hand to record his joy at receiving the news.  Instead he was stunned and disappointed to learn that he had been passed over yet again.  The heartbreak was palpable.
The next year the Cubs retired his uniform number 10 and hoisted a flag over Wrigley Field, flying just under Bank’s number 14.  He told the crowd that “This is my Hall of Fame.”
Yet another rule change gave him one more chance.  A new Golden Era Committee composed of 16 of the biggest surviving names among Hall of Famers was created to give another look at players like Santo who had been by-passed.  That committee met in December 2011, a year after Santo died of bladder cancer at his Arizona home.  After an impassioned plea by Committee member Billy Williams, Santo was finally elected posthumously by a vote of 15 to 16,
I’d like to know just who that one hold out was.
All of this would be of little consequence except for died in the wool baseball fanatics if it wasn’t for Ron Santo’s extraordinary life.
Santo was born on February 25, 1940.  His family lived in a hard-scrabble Italian neighborhood in Seattle, Washington nicknamed Garlic Gulch.  Encouraged by his baseball loving father Ron played sandlot ball and then in Little League and other organized leagues as he grew older.  He lived practically within eyeshot of Sick’s Stadium Seattle’s minor league ballpark where he watched the Seattle Rainiers play.
At Franklin High School he became a star, propelling his team into the national spotlight.  He was being scouted by pro teams as early as his freshman year.  When he played in a high school all star game in New York, he attracted even more attention. 
In fact as Santo prepared to graduate every professional team offered him a contract and a signing bonus.  Some teams offered as much as $80,000 to ink a deal.  But Santo chose the team that offered him the least money—$20,000 from the Cubs.  He picked the Cubs because their Northwest scout, Dave Kosher, had followed him all the way through high school and encouraged him.  Also the Cubs were in dire need of a reliable third baseman and Santo’s father thought that they would provide the quickest path to the Big Leagues.
Santo made the right choice.  He made his debut after two seasons in the minors in 1960 at the age of just 19.  He would go on to spend all but the last season of his 14 year Major League career with the Cubs.  A remarkable achievement to those used to modern baseball players nomadic existence.
But when Santo came up, he was harboring a dark secret—he was an insulin dependent diabetic.  He rightfully feared that no club would have signed him if they knew.  These days such a deception would be impossible—players are subjected to every kind of medical examination and their records are practically subpoenaed.  But in those days team docs mostly checked for tell-tale signs of broken bones, a steady heart beat, and clear lungs.  Santo’s kept his secret most of the way through his career, eventually letting his roommate in on the secret. 
Traveling and long games or double headers often made it difficult.  Santo did not want to use a needle in the club house and needed to eat often and regularly to balance his blood sugar.  Occasionally he would suffer the consequences of not being able to maintain himself.  Once in the late innings with the game on the line he came to the plate with men on base and an opportunity to put the Cubs ahead.  “I saw three of everything,  I picked out the middle ball and slammed it out of the park.”  The Cubs won that day.
Plucky was the best adjective for Santo’s boyish enthusiasm for the game in face of adversity.  He never lost either the pluck or the enthusiasm.  In the famous Pennant race of 1969, Santo ran down the third base line and clicked his heels after a come-from-behind home win against the Montreal Expos in June.  Manager Leo Durocher asked him to continue doing it after every home win to motivate his teammates.  It did so, but it infuriated opponents.  After the Cub’s famous late fade due exhaustion among the regular position players, who Durocher would not rest, Santo never again clicked his heels after a game.
Some people believe that lingering bitterness by rival players about “showing them up” contributed to Santo’s failure to get enough votes from the Veterans Committee for earlier admittance to the Hall.
In his pro career Santo hit for a .277 batting average, but with over 1000 base on balls had an on base percentage of .365.  He collected 2,254 hits including 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in.  Despite doubts that his production was good enough for the Hall, Santo ranks in the top half of the 10 third basement now in the hall and was elected to the All Star Team every year from 1963 to 1973.
His defense contributed mightily to the Cubs and was a five time Gold Glove Winner.  After he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for his last season, the Cubs did not have a quality, reliable third baseman until Aramis Ramirez decades later.
After the 1973 season with his numbers slipping and his salary high, the Cubs tried to trade Santo to the Angels, but he became the first veteran player to veto a trade under contract changes made after the 1972 strike. He wanted to stay in Chicago, so the team dealt him in a multi player deal that also brought ace pitcher Steve Stone to Wrigley Field, to the White Sox.  The South Side team mostly used him as a designated hitter, then played him out of position at second base.  It was an unhappy year for Santo, and both Sox and Cub fans.  At the end of the season he retired.
Thirty four years old is mighty young to retire from what has been your whole life and while you are still brimming with energy.  Santo was at loose ends.  He pursued business interests, mostly investing in restaurants.  He stayed in close contact with former teammates and haunted the golf links with them. 
Santo turned his attention to seeking a cure for diabetes, which he had finally publicly acknowledged the he suffered from on Ron Santo Day at Wrigley Field in 1971.  In 1971 he launched the annual Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s (JDRF) Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes in Chicago.  Over the years this and other efforts raised $60 million dollars for research.  He was also widely credited for becoming the human face of Type 2 diabetes and was named the JDRF  Person of the Year in 2002.
Despite these accomplishments, Santo yearned to be back in baseball, particularly with his beloved Cubs.   He got the chance in 1990 when WGN Radio hired him as a color commentator.  He was not a likely choice—his voice was raspy and his grammar sometimes left something to be desired.  He was uncomfortable reading the required commercials at first and out of sync with his broadcast partners.  But he got better.
Fans appreciated his heart-on-the-sleave, live-and-die with the Cubs attitude in the booth, although it drew sometimes harsh criticism from advocates of a more dispassionate approach.  He would scream with delight at some feat on the field, groan with palpable pain at bonehead moves, and loudly disdain bad calls from umpires.
He really hit his stride in 1996 when he was teamed up with veteran play-by-play man Pat Hughes.  The two had instant rapport and were soon exchanging hilarious banter on all manner of topics, some of it having to do with events on the field.  It came to be known as the Pat and Ron Show.  Out takes were regularly played on other WGN shows and on TV sportscasts.  People who didn’t care much about baseball tuned in for the entertainment.  And it became widely popular for those watching the games on TV to “turn down the sound, and turn on WGN radio,” which irked TV broadcasting legend Harry Caray and his successors.  Some people began to say that Santo would make it into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster before he did as a player.
Even with the success and the obvious joy it brought him, Santo had to battle recurring health crises that sometimes kept him away from the microphone.  He suffered two heart attacks and had an earlier scrape with cancer.  But it was the ravages of diabetes that caused him the most suffering.  In 2001 his right leg was amputated below the knee, the left a little more than a year later.  He was fitted with prosthetic limbs and was back to climbing the precarious stairs to the broadcast booth as soon as he was able.
In 2004 his son Jeff documented his struggles in an award winning documentary This Old Cub with unflinching footage of him strapping on his legs and struggling to walk.  It also documented his hopeful wait to be notified of his Hall of Fame election and his disappointment at being passed over once again.
In 2010 Santo was stricken with bladder cancer, although he kept his condition a fairly closely guarded secret.  He hoped to recover and make Spring training with the Cubs in 2011.  Most of all, he wanted to live to hear that the new Golden Age Committee would finally put him in the Hall.  It was not to be.  He died in his sleep in his Scottsdale on December 2.
Santo’s standing-room-only funeral was held at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral and was broadcast live by WGN radio and television.  He was eulogized by his old team mates and his broadcast partner Pat Hughes.  A funeral cartage left the Cathedral, passed the Tribune Tower, home of WGN, and made its way to Wrigley Field, where it circled the bases starting at Third.  Later his remains were cremated and his ashes scattered at the ball park.
Last year the Cubs unveiled a new statue of Santo as a young player balancing on one foot and stretching to make a throw to peg a runner out.
It you didn’t know Ron Santo before, now you know why there were so few dry  eyes yesterday in Cooperstown.

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