Ron Santo dies

In what seems like a lifetime ago, an extraordinarily successful fund manager said to me once:  You can’t be as South Side Chicago as you say, because you root for the Cubs.  A product of Wharton and Northwestern, he had spent enough time in metro Chicago to know the difference between folks who root for Cubs (lake hugging yuppies, residents in Mark Kirk’s old district along the North Shore, etc.) and those who cheer for the Sox (Back of the Yards, Old Irish in Evergreen Park and environs, even Presidents-to-be a hop, skip and a jump from Comiskey Park in oh-so-fashionable Hyde Park.)

I am from a part of Chicago south of the old US Steel South Works and north of the City Incinerator.   Many times I had walked through industrial wastelands, to the viaducts which span rail tracks coming from somewhere truly South to the soft underbelly of the Loop.   From the pedestrian side of that vehicular bridge it was possible at night to see the occasional explosions coming from blast furnaces on the right (South Chicago) and the gleaming lights straight ahead of what we thought then were skyscrapers downtown.  Of course, this was while steel was still being made in Chicago, and while the idea of truly tall buildings still seemed novel.  There was a reason that our high school team was called The Boilermakers, and another that the only graduate in school history who had gained Harvard admission was not just a 4.0 but also the best pitching prospect from metro Chicago that year.

I can still remember 1959 when the city’s air raid sirens went off, but neither I nor any of my friends was worried that autumn day, as almost every one of us had a transistor radio pressed to our ear, and knew that the White Sox had just won the pennant.   It just went without saying that the Sox’s biggest fan, Richard J. Daley, had the authority and the good sense to set off those sirens.

The street where I lived in those days was a circular one, without much car traffic.  Those of us who lived in the duplex houses there spent hundreds, maybe thousands of afternoons playing baseball in the street, with man hole covers for plate and second, our mother’s car doors for first and third.  Sometimes we were Sherman Lollar or Ted Kluszewski, sometimes we were Ron Santo and Ernie Banks.  Day to day, it all seemed to mesh into each other.

It seemed that all of us had cousins on the richer, North Side of town.  One family had inlaws who operated a bakery; their daughter’s name was Sara Lee, and their business was to go far beyond breads and pastries.  There was one Catholic church and one synagogue.   We didnt have housekeys as most doors weren’t locked.

One day as a senior in high school, Mother sat me down at the green, Formica table in our kitchen.  Let’s talk about college, she said.  Go anywhere you want as long as you live at home, work for your father, pay for it yourself.  Which is exactly what I did.  Which put me not all that far from Wrigley Field.

As there were no dorms at the college I chose,  we tended to gather daily at specified tables in the cafeteria area.  Newspapers were cheap back then, a few cents a copy increasing to perhaps a nickel.  There were always copies of them scattered about, under our shoulders en route to class, to be glanced at before an instructor made his/her appearance.  It was the sports pages which captured our attention, which in the fall meant baseball.

I left Chicago for graduate school after four years as a commuter, and carefully followed the sports pages where ever life took me.  It is with pain even now that I recall the Collapse of 1969, as Chicago fell at season’s end to The Mets.  Although it may have been more of a Chicago collapse than a New York victory, I will never forgive them for it.

Ron Santo was a big part of that season;  I believe it was about that time that he ‘kicked up his heels’ heading for home plate.  He played almost all of his career for the Cubs, and put up spectacular numbers:  His playing career is summarized on www.cubs.com as follows:

But the more veteran Cubs fans know Santo as an All-Star third baseman, a fourth-place finisher in 1960 National League Rookie of the Year balloting who went on to hit .277 with 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs in 15 big league seasons, all but one with the Cubs.

He hit at least 30 home runs in four straight seasons from 1964-67 and drove in at least 100 runs four times, including a career-best 123-RBI season in 1969, when the Cubs lost a nine-game lead in the NL East to the eventual World Series-champion Mets.

Santo won five consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1964-68 and made nine All-Star teams. He holds the NL record among third basemen for consecutive games played (364, from April 4, 1964, to May 31, 1966), most games played in a season (164 games, 1965) and most seasons leading the league in fielding chances (nine).

As my commuter college graduation was approaching, one afternoon Father looked up at me from the desk he maintained in his South Side business.  A gun was in his belt, the dog (who had saved us from problems) sitting patiently on the wooden floor.  You know I never went to college, my father was saying, and I don’t know very much about what you are studying.  My only piece of advice is this:  To have a purpose.  This business (and he pointed around us) probably isnt a very good one for you.  Whatever you do, if you have a purpose, things should work out.

Over the years I have thought many, many times about the discussion in Mother’s kitchen, and the advice at Father’s business.  I have had three children myself, and have taken liberties with Father’s instructions, expanding it to four rules:  Have a purpose;  Accept responsiblity for mistakes;  Avoid jealousy; and Play the dealt hand.

I have tried to hold myself and kids to those rules, and have used them to judge others, particularly politicians and sports figures.   Think President Obama re accepting responsibility (‘I inherited these problems from George Bush’ or avoiding jealousy (‘It’s not fair that they have so much…’)

Ron Santo was a child when his father deserted the family.  It has never been clear whether stress from that loss led to onset of juvenile diabetes.  Ronnie  started in the majors at 19, in the days before medicine had figured out how best to treat it;  instead he kept a stash of lemon drops in his uniform pocket for times when he felt sugar levels falling dangerously low.  It was years before his team mates caught on to the problem.

All but one year of his baseball career was played from The Friendly Confines.  After a mediocre business career he became an announcer in the Cubs broadcast booth;  never was there a more devoted fan,  a true champion of the team.  We knew that first he lost one leg, then another.  Never a complaint.  We knew that more than admission to the Hall of Fame, more than any personal success, what Ronnie wanted above all else was to see his team (and despite sale to the Ricketts, it was his) play in and win the World Series.  That and to help JDF conquer the disease which had so gotten in his way.

We know what you stood for, Ronnie.   You never shirked responsiblity for a mistake, on or off the field.  In today’s market, your numbers would have made you wildly rich, but you were never anything but gracious and encouraging to the stars of today.  You were dealt a tough hand, which you played brilliantly, and for that we are appreciative and saddened at your loss.  We loved you Ron Santo;  may God bless your memory.