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Ron Santo: Honky Tonk Hero

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So here comes the first snow of the season and there goes Ron Santo.
The beloved Cubs third baseman and announcer died Thursday night in his Arizona home of complications from bladder cancer. He was 70.
He stood tall against life's bitter winds.

Santo was heartbroken to not have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor he richly deserved (as did his former coach Buck O'Neil). He suffered at the wicked altar of Cubs near misses: 1969, '84, '89, '98, 2003, 2008. Have I missed anything?
Santo didn't miss much. I last sat down with him at Spring Training 2004. The previous fall he had tumors removed from his bladder. Between 1999-2004 he suffered two heart attacks.
His heart even stopped once, the heart he wore on his sleeve......


.....Before our visit he had just played 18 holes of golf despite having lost both legs to diabetes. He walked the course without aid.
In a sport defined by absolutes, Santo was the game's perfect spirit.

He was the Cub in all of us: the lifers who work hard, perform with passion, show up every day and still never quite make it to the top.
That's why he made such a connection with Chicago. Our city is shaped by that blue-collar culture.

My friend, original Bleacher Bum and sports announcer Mike Murphy was along for the 2004 Arizona trip. "Santo WAS Chicago," Murph wrote in a Friday e-mail. "1966. I'm at a cold Chicago Bears game in November at Wrigley Field. Before the game I'm in line for a hot dog, who is in front of me? Ron Santo. 'Ronnie,' I say, 'what are you doing here?' He looks at me and says, 'Murph, I love the Bears. I come all the time.' Think about that. He lived in Chicago year round."
Santo lived year round in north suburban Glenview.
He was part of family--our family.
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Ronnie, circa 1961. When I showed him this photo he was most proud of the way he creased his cap. [Sun-Times files.]


Santo was the first and only major league position player to play with Type 1 juvenile diabetes.
He ended his career after playing in 2,243 games and hitting 342 home runs. He faced some of the toughest pitchers of the 20th Century. In the years 1964-68 he was a Gold Glove winner for his impeccable fielding.

When Santo was diagnosed in 1958, the life expectancy of someone with Type 1 juvenlie diabetes was 25 years.

I first had my heart broken with Santo's '69 Cubs. At the age of 14 Santo and the team of "Cub Power" taught me things would not always shake down my way. I really believe I'm more empathetic because of that experience, at least more empathetic than a Yankees fan.
In 1969 Santo's unbridled enthusiasm became a national story when he ran down the left field line, jumped up and clicked his heels after Jim Hickman it a two run home run in the ninth inning to beat the Montreal Expos 7-6. The Cubs went into first place over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Even though Santo cut one of his ankles on a cleat while clicking, manager Leo Durocher asked him to continue the tradition after a Cubs win.
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But one of my most vivid Santo memories came in June, 1974, the one year he wore the then red-and-white of the Chicago White Sox. Santo was the White Sox second baseman and designated hitter at Old Comiskey. Santo hit a long fly to left field against Bill Lee of the Boston Red Sox. Tommy Harper was the left fielder. Harper chased the ball, crashed in the wall, hit his head and collapsed.
Santo was never a fast runner. I can stil see him chugging around the bases like a 30-car freight train. Huff, puff, hustle and muscle. It was pure Santo. It was the only inside-the-park home run of his career.

Murphy recalled, "I was at Wrigley in late September, 1966. The Cubs were in 9th place with less than 1,000 fans at the game. I notice that when the visitors were at bat, just before each pitch, an ear splitting whistle echoed through the empty ball park. I kept looking around trying to figure out where the piercing whistler was sitting. After a while, I finally saw where it was coming from. The Cubs third baseman--Ron Santo--before each pitch was let out with his shrill whistle to pump up his teammates with his pure passion and enthusiasm."

In March, 1974 Michael Miner profiled Santo for the Sun-Times "Midwest Magazine." Santo got emotional talking about his emotions.
"I don't like to have to change my ways...," Santo said. "Why don't you try laying your bat down? Why don't you try laying your helmet down? I wish I could be an Ernie Banks. I wish every day was beautiful. I mean, sure, you're going to love Ernie Banks because that's the way people love to see people.
"But there are very few Ernie Banks left in the world, if there's any."
Now, that's a Chicagoan talking.

When I saw Santo in 2004 our conversation drifted from his son's Jeff's documentary "This Old Cub" to the cowboy that rode in Santo's soul.
Few people know that Santo's mother Vivian and stepfather John were killed in a 1973 automobile accident as they were driving from Palm Springs, Calif. to spring training in Arizona. It was supposed to have been Vivian's first spring training. She and John did not like to fly. Santo never brought this up. His son drew it out of him.
"That was the toughest thing in my life," Santo told me. "Do you know I didn't cry for six months? I was in shock. I talked to her every day."
Jeff took his father to the Pinnacle Peak steakhouse in north Scottsdale, Az. The steakhouse is a cowboy hangout. "I love cowboys," Ron Santo said. "But there I was sitting on this bench and I felt I was in this cowboy town. He knew where to go to bring that out of me."
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Jeff Santo used the Waylon Jennings hit "Honky Tonk Heroes" as a musical motif for his documentary. Santo befriended Jennings during spring training of his 1960 rookie year. Jennings--who died of diabetes--lived large in Southern Arizona. "Waylon would come to the ballpark and visit my dad," Jeff Santo once told me.

"My dad is a honky-tonk hero. My dad is not this polished guy. He's a hero for not getting into the Hall of Fame, he's a hero for losing his legs. He's a hero for what he represents. You can't get any more honky-tonk than that."

Thanks for the rodeo, Ron Santo. It will be impossible to forget your unbridled enthusiasm.


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2 Comments

thanx for the great article.............like the song sez he is playing with the angels now

Ron Santo was also a great, down to earth, accessible guy to anyone who came across him. Total class. There goes a great Chicagoan, and now my dimmed view of the Baseball Hall of Fame is permanent.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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