Ron Santo Bio
One of the very best players yet to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ron Santo was the National League’s premier third baseman for much of the 1960s. A nine-time All-Star, Santo hit more home runs (253) and knocked in more runs (937) during the decade than any other player who manned the hot corner. Also an outstanding fielder, Santo earned five consecutive Gold Gloves, leading all National League third basemen in putouts six straight seasons, while topping all senior circuit third sackers in assists seven straight times. Santo accomplished all he did despite playing his entire career with diabetes – a condition that eventually cost him both his legs.
Born in Seattle, Washington on February 25, 1940, Ronald Edward Santo attended Seattle’s Franklin High School, where he established himself as a top major league prospect. After signing with the Chicago Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1959, Santo spent less than two full years in the team’s farm system before Cubs management became convinced he was ready to play at the major league level. Making his big league debut on June 26, 1960, the 20-year-old third baseman batted .251 over the season’s final three months, while also hitting nine home runs and driving in 44 runs in 95 games.
Santo quickly emerged as one of baseball’s best third basemen the following year, when he hit 23 home runs, knocked in 83 runs, scored 84 others, and batted .284. He also set a Cubs record by starting 41 double plays at third base. Although Santo experienced difficulties at the plate in his second full season, batting just .227 and scoring only 44 runs despite hitting 17 homers and driving in 83 runs, he led all National League third basemen in assists for the first of seven consecutive times, establishing a new Cubs record for assists by a third sacker in the process, with a total of 332. Santo rebounded at the plate in 1963, hitting 25 homers, knocking in 99 runs, and batting .297, while continuing his stellar play at the hot corner by breaking the modern National League record with a total of 374 assists at third base. Santo’s fine all-around performance earned him the first of four straight selections to the All-Star Team and an eighth-place finish in the league MVP balloting.
Rise to stardom
Although the exceptional year turned in at the hot corner by National League MVP Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 somewhat overshadowed Santo’s outstanding season, the Chicago third sacker had perhaps his finest all-around year. Santo scored 94 runs, placed among the league leaders with 30 home runs, 114 runs batted in, 185 hits, a .313 batting average, a .564 slugging percentage, and 334 total bases, and topped the circuit with 13 triples, 86 walks, and a .398 on-base percentage. He also led all league third basemen in both putouts and assists for the third of six consecutive times, earning the first of five straight Gold Gloves and another eighth-place finish in the MVP voting in the process. Santo performed as well as he did despite feeling great sadness over the loss of teammate Ken Hubbs, the outstanding young Cubs second baseman who died in a plane crash just prior to the start of the 1964 campaign.
Santo clearly established himself as the National League's top third baseman in 1965, a year in which he scored 88 runs, batted .285, and finished among the league leaders with 33 home runs, 101 runs batted in, 88 walks, a .378 on-base percentage, and a .510 slugging percentage. He also played in a league-leading 164 games, appearing in every game on Chicago’s schedule for one of six times.
Santo continued to excel for the Cubs in each of the next two seasons, combining for 61 home runs, 192 runs batted in, and 200 runs scored in 1966 and 1967, while batting over .300 and leading the league in bases on balls both years. He also topped the circuit with a .412 on-base percentage in the first of those campaigns, while simultaneously establishing a new all-time league record for third basemen with 391 assists. Santo broke his own record the following year with 393 assists.
Although the American League’s Brooks Robinson continued to gain widespread acclaim as baseball’s finest defensive third baseman, there were those who considered Santo to be his equal. Cubs leftfielder Billy Williams, who spent more than a decade playing behind Santo in the field, discussed his former teammate's defensive skills: "Was Brooks Robinson a better fielder than Ron Santo? I played left field behind Santo in Chicago all those years and I'm telling you that sucker was quick. I saw him make plays that nobody else could have made. He was out there every day, hurt or not, he had marvelous instincts and he could hit."
Santo’s outstanding performance in 1967 helped lead the Cubs to a third-place finish in the National League, thereby elevating them out of the senior circuit’s second division for the first time in two decades. Santo placed fourth in the league MVP voting as a result.
Despite batting just .246 in 1968, Santo had another productive year, hitting 26 homers, driving in 98 runs, and leading the league in walks for the third consecutive time. He then had a sensational 1969 campaign, batting .289, scoring 97 runs, and placing among the league leaders with 29 home runs, a career-high 123 runs batted in, 96 walks, and a .384 on-base percentage. The Cubs maintained sole possession of first place in the National League East for 156 days, before eventually being overtaken by the miracle New York Mets, who went on to win the world championship. Chicago finished second in the division, 10 games behind New York. The Cubs’ strong showing earned their team captain a fifth-place finish in the league MVP balloting.
It was during the 1969 season that Santo became known for performing a ritual at the conclusion of every Cubs home victory. After spontaneously running down the third base line, jumping three times, and clicking his heels on each jump following a particularly emotional Chicago win on June 22, Santo continued the practice after each Wrigley Field victory at the behest of team manager Leo Durocher, who felt it helped motivate the team. However, when the Cubs began their September skid, Santo discontinued the heel click routine. He performed his final "click" on September 2, the last time the Cubs won a home game while still in first place. Santo never again carried out the ritual since Cub critics decried it as being synonymous with the overconfidence that many felt led to the team’s downfall during the season’s final month.
Santo had one more big year for the Cubs, hitting 26 home runs and driving in 114 runs in 1970, before his production gradually began to decline the following season. The third baseman spent three more years with the Cubs before moving across town to join the White Sox for his final season in 1974. He retired at the end of the year with 342 home runs, 1,331 runs batted in, 1,138 runs scored, and a .277 career batting average. Santo was the second player at his position to hit 300 career home runs, joining Eddie Mathews, and he also ended his career second to Mathews among third basemen in slugging average (.464), and third in runs batted in, total bases (3,779), and walks (1,108). Santo hit more than 20 homers 11 times, surpassing the 30-mark on four separate occasions. He also knocked in more than 100 runs four times, batted over .300 four times, and compiled more than 300 total bases five straight times. In addition to leading the league in walks four times, Santo topped the circuit in on-base percentage twice. Although Mike Schmidt later surpassed him in all three categories, Santo held National League records for most career double plays at third base (389), most assists (4,532), and most total chances (6,777) upon his retirement.
Struggles with diabetes
One of the most durable players in the game, Santo missed only 23 of a possible 1,595 starts from 1961 to 1970, taking the field almost every day despite being diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 18. Given a life expectancy of 25 years at the time, Santo begged those who knew about his illness not to reveal his condition to others, fearing that doing so might force him into retirement. Since the methods of regulating diabetes during the 1960s and 1970s were not as advanced as they are today, Santo gauged his blood sugar levels based on his moods. On those occasions he believed his blood sugar to be low, he typically snacked on candy bars in the clubhouse.
Santo later said, "I was always careful not to give myself a shot of insulin in the locker room in front of anybody. I always did it in private." He also revealed that the disease drove him on the field, saying, "It was one reason I played so hard. I kept thinking my career could end any day. I never really wanted out of the lineup. The diabetes thing was hanging over my head."
Former Cubs teammate Randy Hundley said none of Santo’s teammates realized he had diabetes until one night in St. Louis when he made a bad throw to first base and went down on one knee in pain. They later learned he had the disease for six years. Hundley said, “We kidded him about it quite a bit, made his life miserable at times.”
Santo revealed his struggle with diabetes to the general public for the first time during “Ron Santo Day,” held at Wrigley Field on August 28, 1971. The disease later necessitated the amputation of both legs below the knee: the right in 2001, and the left in 2002.
Following his retirement, Santo joined the Cubs’ broadcast booth in 1990, working as the color commentator for WGN radio. He subsequently became known around Chicago for his unabashed broadcast enthusiasm, which often caused him to emit groans and cheers during Cubs’ games. As excitable as Santo became when a member of the home team made a great play, he was equally vocal in expressing his displeasure over Cubs’ miscues.
Santo continued to entertain Cubs’ fans with his emotional style of broadcasting through the 2010 season, before dying of complications from bladder cancer on December 2nd, after lapsing into a coma one day earlier. Santo was 70 years old when he passed away.
Upon learning of his broadcast partner’s passing, Pat Hughes said, “He absolutely loved the Cubs. The Cubs have lost their biggest fan."
Hughes noted that, with all the medical problems Santo had "he never complained. He wanted to have fun. He wanted to talk baseball….He considered going to games therapeutic. He enjoyed himself in the booth right to the end."
Meanwhile, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released a statement saying, “My siblings and I first knew Ron Santo as fans, listening to him in the broadcast booth. We knew him for his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor. It was our great honor to get to know him personally in our first year as owners….Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans."
Hall of Fame
First eligible for election to the Hall of Fame in 1980, Santo never came close to attaining the 75 percent vote required to gain admittance to Cooperstown during his period of eligibility. The lack of support shown Santo has been attributed largely to the disparity in his offensive numbers while playing at home and on the road. Santo hit 216 of his 342 home runs while playing in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, a notoriously good hitter’s ballpark. He hit only 126 homers on the road. Santo also batted .296 at home, while posting just a .257 career average on the road.
Another argument that has been raised against Santo’s induction was revealed by Brooks Robinson, a member of the Veterans Committee with whom Santo’s only hope now lies. Speaking of the former Cubs third baseman, Robinson suggested, “I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. There’s an awful lot of little quirks going into making the Hall of Fame. I really think the fact the Cubbies never won is the bigger reason Ron doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame. A lot of voters think that the ‘69 team is good, but we got three guys on that team inducted already. You got Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks. They’re not going to put anyone else in — they didn’t do anything special (as a team).”
Although disappointed at being bypassed, the ever-optimistic and emotional Santo told a cheering Wrigley Field crowd on the day the Cubs retired his jersey number, "This is my Hall of Fame!"
Meanwhile, former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg announced during his 2005 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, "...for what it’s worth, Ron Santo just gained one more vote from the Veterans Committee."
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- All-Star, Billy Williams, Brooks Robinson, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Gold Glove, Leo Durocher, Randy Hundley, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Tom Ricketts