By Michael G. Glab
He had a reputation as the most emotional player in baseball. He’d bark at teammates, rail at opponents, rage at umpires. And when his team–if ever so briefly–was on top, he ran down the left field line after victories clicking his heels in glee.
Ron Santo is a bit thicker around the chest and waist now than he was when he was snatching hot grounders at third base for the Cubs. But the Cubs’ radio colorman looks sharp in stovepipe black denims and shiny cowboy boots. His eyes still sparkle. And though famous professional talkers pass through the media dining room of Wrigley Field every day the Cubs play at home, nobody can hold court like he does. His hands gesture, his eyes dance, and his tablemates hang on every word. Every few moments they break into laughter so intense there is pain in their faces.
“He wakes up talking,” says Pat Hughes, Santo’s on-air partner.
He was born in the shadow of Sicks Stadium, home of the Seattle Rainiers, in a middle-class neighborhood known as Garlich Gulch for all the Italians who lived there. One was Louis Santo, who married a woman from Sweden named Vivian Danielsen. They had two children: a daughter, Adielene, and then Ron.
“We lived in a duplex right behind the ballpark,” Santo says. “I worked for the ball club in the summers. First of all I was a batboy. Then I moved up to the press box and served hot dogs, and then I worked on the grounds crew. My last year with the team, I was the clubhouse boy. The funny thing about it, I used to shine Vada Pinson’s shoes. Three years later, I’m playing against him in the major leagues.”
When Ronnie was six, his mother told his father to get out. “Louis was a wonderful Italian man when he was sober,” Santo says. “But sadly, he had a drinking problem that made him vicious.” Louis would come home at three in the morning, toss his fedora on the kitchen table, and begin arguing with his wife. Ronnie would jump out of bed to protect his mother but he was no match for a tough, drunk merchant marine.
The agreement was that Louis could pick up Ad and Ronnie every other weekend. “The first two weekends he picked us up,” Santo says. “But the third time, my sister and I were waiting on the corner and he never showed up. I never saw him again until I was 20.”
Without a father around the house, the headstrong Ronnie drifted. “I had some problems as a kid,” he admits. “When you only have a mother bringing you up, you have a tendency to go your own way. Fortunately, I was a leader rather than a follower, so the trouble I got in was very minimal.” One day, though, he was caught stealing a carton of cigarettes on a dare. The police called his mother to come down and pick him up. When she got Ronnie home, she decked him.
Not only was Vivian tough, she was serious about the task Louis had left her. “She supported us,” Santo says. “She worked in a drugstore at night and waitressed in the day.”
A dry cleaner named John Constantino came into Vivian’s life and married her when Ronnie was 12. After the marriage, Constantino sold his business and went to work for Boeing as an inspector. Vivian was able to quit her jobs. “My mother worked all her life, and then when my dad went to work for Boeing, she was able to be a home mother,” Santo says.
Constantino gave Santo what he missed from Louis, and Ronnie called him dad from the start. “Oh, he was a wonderful man,” Santo says. “He was involved with me. He never criticized me.”
“I didn’t have any problems in high school,” Santo says. “I loved it. I played all three sports [football, basketball, and baseball]. I kept my grades up because I wanted to be a professional ballplayer.”
He was Franklin High School’s starting quarterback and some scouts saw him as a potential college star. A few even offered full football scholarships.
Only Dave Koscher, a bird dog, sensed early in Santo’s high school career that the kid might have what it takes to play professional baseball. Before the amateur draft, paid scouts covered whole regions of the country, but they depended on the reports of unpaid bird dogs who simply loved to watch young kids play ball.
“Dave Koscher followed me throughout high school,” Santo says. “Real nice guy. He was a spastic. Slurred when he talked. He told me my sophomore year, ‘You’re going to be in the big leagues, believe me. You’re going to be taking the ball out of the ballpark.'”
Koscher did his bird-dogging for Hard Rock Johnson, then the head scout for the Chicago Cubs.
It wasn’t until his senior year that Santo began to excel in baseball. He’d played third base his first three years in high school but when Franklin’s starting catcher got hurt Santo took over that position. Scouts from other baseball organizations were beginning to sniff out his potential.
“My senior year in high school, Cincinnati was one of the teams interested in me,” Santo says, “so when they came in to play an exhibition game against their farm team, the Rainiers, I put on a Cincinnati uniform to take batting practice.” An intimidating fastballer named Don Newcombe, who a couple years earlier had won 27 games for the Dodgers, was pitching batting practice for the Reds.
“I was a nervous wreck,” he says. “Aw, I’ll never forget it! I was six feet, 165 pounds, and I had a 31-ounce bat. The first pitch I fouled off and the next pitch Newcombe broke my bat right in half. Ed Bailey, the catcher, throws me another bat, it must have been 36 ounces. It was a big bottle bat. I just said, ‘Thank you.’ But here I’m facing Newcombe, I got this heavy bat that I don’t think I can get around, and I didn’t do very well. After I was finished I handed Ed Bailey the bat back. He said, ‘That’s what separates the men from the boys.’
“I said in the back of my mind, ‘Who the fuck does he think he is!’ But I didn’t say anything to him. Two years later I’m in the big leagues. We’re in Cincinnati. I’m 20 years old. Guess who’s catching? Ed Bailey. I was facing Jim Maloney [another fastballer]. He threw the first pitch down and away. I stepped out of the batter’s box, and I said something to Ed Bailey.
“‘Remember me? I’m the kid you handed that oversized bat to in Seattle. You said, “This is what separates the men from the boys.”‘”
Telling the story, Santo pauses for effect. “Well, now I’m a man.”
As soon as Santo graduated from high school the scouts began to make offers. “I had all 16 major league teams after me. I had a scout at my door for two days. My first offer was for $50,000. Can you believe it? In 1959, that’s a lot of money.” The Reds offered him the most–an $80,000 signing bonus. Most of the other offers were in the $40,000 to $60,000 range.
But in his heart, money didn’t matter most. “I used to watch the game of the week on national TV,” Santo says. “I’d always said, ‘There’s something about Wrigley Field.’ And they had Ernie Banks.”
After the rest of the scouts had made their pitches, Dave Koscher phoned. “He said, ‘I know what you’ve been offered. The Cubs are not going to offer you more than $20,000.’
“The Cubs had the lowest offer!” Santo says today, shaking his head in amazement. “I said, ‘Dave, bring in Hard Rock Johnson. Let’s talk. I haven’t made a decision.'”
Despite Koscher’s enthusiasm, Johnson only went through the motions of trying to sign Santo. He told him that he’d never make it at third base, his preferred position, in the big leagues. If anything, he’d be a catcher, a position Santo disdained. Santo’s stepfather was miffed at Johnson’s indifference. “Is that all you have to say?” Constantino asked the scout. Johnson nodded and was shown the door.
Santo drove Koscher home. “He was very embarrassed,” Santo says. “I said, ‘I still haven’t made a decision. You’ve been very confident in me. I don’t know. I’ll let you know tomorrow.'”
When he got back home, Santo spoke with his stepfather. “Every team wants you,” Constantino said. “You can take the $80,000 that Cincinnati offered and be set for life. But I know you, you want to make the major leagues. You could get lost in one of those minor league systems. You gotta go where you feel comfortable. You’ve got to do what you feel is right.”
“So I signed for 20 grand,” says Santo. “Took it over a three-year period. And I got $500 a month salary.” He was told to report in three weeks to the Cubs’ rookie camp in Arizona. A few days after he signed his Cubs contract, Santo’s mother came to his room and handed him an envelope that had just come in the mail. “Here’s your check,” she said.
“I looked at it and it said $8,000,” Santo says. “I put it in my pocket and went down to the bank. On the way, I went by a Chevrolet place that had a 1958 Impala convertible in the window. I get to the bank, I go to the teller, and I say, ‘I’d like to cash this check. I’d like to open a checking account, and I’d like $3,000 in cash.'”
The teller looked Santo up and down. He was dressed like a typical 1950s tough: rolled Levi’s and white T-shirt. The teller called for a vice president. Santo was lucky that day. “That vice president knew I’d signed with the Cubs so he OK’d the check. He gave me $3,000 in $100 bills. I put it in my pocket and I go to the Chevrolet place. The convertible top is down on the Impala. I open the door, I get in and just sit there and go, ‘Oh man!’ This guy came and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Whaddya doin’ in that car, kid?’ So I got out. He said, ‘You know how much this car costs?’ I looked at the sticker and said, ‘$3,800, but all I have in cash is $3,000.’ So I bought it right there. They opened that window, I drove it out and had my first car.”
Before leaving for Arizona, Santo’s mom made him see the doctor. “My mother every year wanted us to get a physical,” Santo says. “I said, ‘Mom, I feel great!’ I was turning 19, what could be wrong?” Mark Tupper poked, prodded, drew blood, and checked Santo’s urine. “So I go out in the waiting room,” Santo recalls. “It was only five minutes. When Dr. Tupper came out to see me I could tell there was a problem. I’ve always had this ability to read people.”
“What’s wrong?” Santo asked.
“Ron,” Tupper said, “we found sugar in your urine.”
Santo shrugged. “Yeah? Sugar in my urine? I eat candy bars.”
Tupper shook his head. “I want you to go to Providence Hospital. I’ve already called. I want you to get a glucose tolerance test. Anytime we find sugar in the urine there’s a possibility that person’s a diabetic,” Tupper said.
Diabetes. Santo had one thought.
“Can I play baseball?” he said.
“I’ve never dealt with a diabetic who’s in professional sports,” Tupper said. “I have no idea how this will affect you.”
Santo went to the hospital, took the test, and went home. A few days later, Tupper called. Santo had diabetes. He hung up the phone and walked directly to the public library, where he read everything he could find about the disease. “I hadn’t been to the library since I was in grade school,” Santo says. He learned the life expectancy of a diabetic was 25 years from the onset of the condition. The most common physical malady caused by diabetes was blindness, followed by kidney failure, hardening of the arteries, and gangrene.
He also read that diabetes could be caused by a traumatic event early in life. Santo began brooding about his father’s departure and the violent events that led up to it.
Santo also learned no one with diabetes had ever played major league baseball.
Tupper referred Santo to a three-week program for newly diagnosed diabetics. There Santo was told that he suffered from Type 1 juvenile diabetes. “Right now, your sugars aren’t too bad because you’re working out and you’re burning up excess sugar. But I can only tell you, you’re going to be on insulin,” the program’s doctor told him.
“No I’m not,” Santo said. “I know I can work out every day, watch my diet, keep my sugars down.”
A woman sitting next to Santo fell out of her chair in a diabetic coma. Not even that incident swayed him.
“Denial,” Santo later wrote in his autobiography, For Love of Ivy, “is part of the disease.” To fool the nurses, Santo ran to the clinic every day–he’d learned that physical exertion would immediately lower his blood sugar level. Santo left the program determined not to defeat the disease but to ignore it. He gave up alcohol, candy, and most carbohydrates. And he decided to conceal the disease from the Cubs.
Santo had to leave his new Impala at home because the Cubs didn’t allow their rookies to have cars in camp. When he got there he was given catcher’s gear and what seemed to him to be a permanent place on the bench. Impatient, he approached his manager, a former Cubs catcher named Elvin Tappe, and asked when he was going to play. In the tradition of the day, Tappe gave Santo an earful, reminding him who was boss, what a rookie’s place was, and where he could shove his questions. Santo still pressed.
Tappe stiffened. “I just told you to shut up!” he said.
“And that’s the last time you’ll tell me to shut up,” Santo snarled and stalked off.
Tappe put him into the game that day, and he hit a home run in his first at bat.
“The turning point of both our careers was when we got the chance to work with Rogers Hornsby,” says Billy Williams, who’s now the Cubs’ first base coach. “He gave both of us a lot of confidence.” Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, was the Cubs’ roving hitting instructor. At the end of camp, he assembled the rookies, 30 in all, and gave each a brutally frank assessment. He pointed at player after player and said, “You’re not going to make it.” At last he got to Santo and Williams.
Williams remembers, “He said, ‘You can play in the major leagues right now,’ to Santo and, ‘You can play in the major leagues right now,’ to me. ‘You guys got a great future right in front of you.'” Hornsby was prescient; between them Santo and Williams would hit more than 750 home runs.
The next year, 1959, Santo was promoted to the minor league team in San Antonio and moved back to third. He stunk up the park with his bat and with his glove. His manager finally called him into his office and broke the news: he was being sent down. Santo begged for another chance, and when it was denied he began to sob. Just one more week, Santo pleaded, one more chance. The manager gave him the week. Santo got hot with the bat and stayed with San Antonio the rest of the season.
During the off-season Santo married his high school sweetheart, Judy Scott. In the middle of their Palm Springs honeymoon, Santo’s mother called to tell him the Cubs wanted him to report immediately to their big league camp in Mesa, Arizona.
Santo performed so well that spring that manager Charlie Grimm told him he’d head north with the Cubs. But the day before the season started, Grimm and general manager John Holland called him in. The Cubs, they told him, had just traded for a veteran third baseman, a fellow named Don Zimmer. They were sorry, but they were sending him down to Houston. Santo begged, argued, and ultimately stormed out of the room swearing he was going to quit. Holland and Judy took turns trying to change his mind even as he packed his suitcases.
In the end Santo did report to Houston. He played fairly well there. Meanwhile, the Cubs foundered under Grimm, who was fired and replaced by the team’s radio announcer, Lou Boudreau. One of Boudreau’s first acts was to call up the 20-year-old third baseman. Santo reported to the Cubs in Pittsburgh, and when he arrived at Forbes Field, it was the first time Santo had ever been inside a big league ballpark. The Cubs played a doubleheader that day; Santo drove in five runs.
“Sporting a flat-top haircut with slicked back fenders on the sides, Santo made an immediate hit with the leather-jacketed teenaged ‘greasers’ who dominated the Wrigley Field bleachers during the late 50s and early 60s,” wrote Eddie Gold and Art Ahrens in their 1985 book, The New Era Cubs. Even as a green kid, Santo wouldn’t back down from a soul. In his second year, Reds pitcher Bob Purkey made him look bad and Santo decided Purkey was laughing at him. Finally he managed a sacrifice fly, and running past the pitcher’s mound on his way back to the dugout, he shouted at Purkey, “Laugh that one off, you son of a bitch.” Purkey chased Santo, caught up with him at the third base line, and a bench-clearing brawl followed.
The next day Santo was called into John Holland’s office. Santo feared he’d be upbraided for starting a fight or, even worse, sent back to the minors. Instead, Holland told him a good fight could pick up the spirits of a team. Holland handed Santo a reward, a bonus check for $2,000, a significant amount for a kid making $8,000 a year.
“Ron Santo was very fiery,” says Cubs coach Sandy Alomar, a National League opponent in the 60s. “In those days it was I destroy you or you destroy me. The game was played hard. They broke up double plays, they did a lot of things to win.”
“He was extremely animated,” says Gene Oliver, a teammate in 1969 who became a close friend. “Fierce. Intense. ‘I’m gonna be good!'”
Santo was just as tough off the field. He and Glenn Beckert, his road roommate and best friend, were in a go-go bar in Cincinnati one time, and another patron began razzing them and trying to goad them into a fight. Eventually Beckert obliged. “The guy took a swing at me,” Beckert says. “I’d just got a brand-new coat, too. That was the end of that coat.” The bartender called the cops but then pointed Santo and Beckert toward a rear exit. Beckert ran like the wind; Santo stayed long enough to make sure the guy Beckert had roughed up still had breath in him. The cops arrived, and Santo was stopped in the back alley and ordered up against the wall.
Beckert remembers the phone ringing as he walked into his hotel room. It was Santo. Everything’s settled, he said. Beckert went back to the bar and, lo and behold, there was Santo with the guy Beckert had beaten up, chummy as long-lost friends.
In 1961 Santo and some other investors opened a pizza parlor in Park Ridge. They used Santo’s mother’s recipe and called the place Santo’s. Santo himself filled in one Saturday night for a driver who called in sick and delivered pizzas out of his Cadillac.
Santo and his partners eventually franchised six other locations in the Chicago area and sold frozen pizzas in local groceries under the name Pro’s Pizza. Santo sold out in 1969, but for years after he was known among Cubs fans as the Pizza Man.
After the 1961 season, Santo and Judy moved to an apartment near Wrigley Field. That winter he began losing weight and urinating constantly. Then he began to feel terrible pains in his right leg. Within three weeks he lost 22 pounds. “I thought I was dying,” he says.
Santo called his son’s pediatrician, told him his symptoms, and then grudgingly confided that he was diabetic. The pediatrician ordered him to a Michigan Avenue specialist.
“You’re leaving here with insulin,” this doctor told Santo. “If you don’t, you may lose the leg.”
“I started insulin, then I started putting weight back on, started getting stronger, working out,” Santo says. “After about three weeks I had put back on at least 15 pounds.”
When Santo was strong enough to test his limits, his doctor told him to go to a gym with a friend and exercise until he started experiencing hypoglycemia.
“I want you to experience every symptom,” the doctor said. That’s why the friend had to tag along–to make sure Santo wouldn’t go too far and lapse into a diabetic coma. “You’re going to need to know your symptoms more than anybody,” Santo’s doctor continued. “You’re going to be traveling, playing day and night ball. When your symptoms come about you’re going to have to take care of them right at that moment. You’re not going to be like a normal diabetic, getting up, taking your insulin at eight o’clock in the morning, going to the office. You’re going to be active. You’re going to be burning excess sugar. You’re not going to be able to be on a regular diet like them.”
So Santo and a friend shot baskets and ran and pumped iron. After about 45 minutes the first of his symptoms, cold sweats, hit. Then he felt strong hunger pangs, followed by numbness in his nose and his tongue. His fourth symptom was a combination of physical weakness and mental slowness. The symptom just before a coma is vision impairment. Santo pushed and pushed until he’d experienced all five symptoms, and then his friend fed him candy bars and orange juice.
“I was insulin dependent,” Santo says. “That’s a shot every day. You can have insulin reactions. If your sugar drops you can go into a coma on the field. I had to keep candy bars on the bench. And there was no Glucometer to prick my finger with at that time. When I played I had to know my body. I had to feel it. You could get a late symptom or an early symptom. But I didn’t hesitate, when I got one, to put sugar in my mouth of some kind–Coke, candy bar, straight sugar. Hot days more so.
“I had to regulate my insulin. The reason you’re a diabetic is because your pancreas is not secreting insulin when it’s needed. So you’re taking insulin and putting it in your body all at once. It reaches a peak after eight hours. In the off-season I would normally take 35 units of U-100 insulin. During the season I would take anywhere from 15 to 20. Exercise is like insulin. If I was in a hot streak I would be on base all the time, and then I’d take less insulin the next day. You don’t know how tough it was. It took me four years to adjust to the two-hour time difference in California, one hour in the east. Day ball was perfect for me. I could regulate things–get up in the morning, have my insulin at eight o’clock, eat a big breakfast, come to the ballpark, work out, have a candy bar or a Coke before the game, and then after the game get a Coke in me.”
When he reported to spring training in 1962, Santo told team physician Jacob Suker about his diabetes but swore him to secrecy. Before management knew, he intended to make the all-star team; he wanted to prove he could excel despite the illness. But Santo batted .227 in 1962, and he led National League third basemen in errors. Trying to juggle insulin injections with time zones, cold April nights, hot August days, extra innings, and late meals made that first year terribly difficult.
But in 1963 he bounced back and hit .297. He was selected to play in the all-star game, and then he leveled with John Holland. “I told him not to publicize it. I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me. Then I told my teammates. They didn’t know what diabetes was. ‘What do you mean you’re diabetic? What is that?’ They didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Santo hadn’t kept his diabetes an absolute secret. He did tell each of his roommates, in case he fell into a coma on the road. But by the time Glenn Beckert came up to the Cubs in 1965 and became Santo’s roommate, the diabetes was such common knowledge that Santo simply forgot to bring it up. Early in the season, Beckert was mired in a slump and Santo was whacking the ball all around the park. One morning in San Francisco Beckert still lay in bed while Santo was up and about. Beckert turned over and saw the bathroom light on. The door was open, and a full-length mirror allowed him to see Santo inside. “I see him pinching the fat in his stomach and putting a needle in him. I was hitting .220 or less and he was hitting something like .320. I said to myself, ‘We gotta have a talk.'”
That night at dinner, Beckert whispered to Santo, “Say, roomie, I don’t care what it is. I hate needles, but I want it.”
In 1961 the Cubs were run on the field by a College of Coaches, an innovative if not mad scheme that eventually found a half dozen bosses of varying capabilities and demeanors occupying the manager’s office on a revolving basis. Players walked around the clubhouse cross-eyed over the often conflicting directives. Santo was as bewildered as anyone on the team, which in 1961 finished 29 games out of first. It had been owner Philip K. Wrigley’s idea, and by ’63 he’d had enough of it, but stability didn’t make the team any better. After the ’65 Cubs lost another 90 games, Wrigley and Holland launched a quiet search for a charismatic personality to take over. The search led to Leo Durocher, a flashy, loud, infuriating, driven man who’d helped resurrect a moribund Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1941 and had beaten out the 1950s New York Giants for a couple of pennants. Durocher, nicknamed “the Lip,” bragged to anyone within earshot that he and Frank Sinatra were close pals. In 1947 he was suspended from baseball for associating with known hoodlums.
Durocher’s fire is even more legendary than Santo’s. A product of the fabled Saint Louis Gashouse Gang, he fought opponents on the field and teammates in the clubhouse. He once put a stranglehold on Babe Ruth. Wrigley and Holland thought he was the dynamite that would shake up a team that hadn’t had a winning season in two decades. So did Santo.
“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, and the most exciting,” Santo said before the season. “He’s got me so steamed up with great expectations I can hardly sleep nights thinking of getting to camp.”
It seemed logical that Durocher would fall in love with Santo, and the new manager did indeed name Santo captain. But somewhere along the line things went sour. Durocher, who died in 1991, had a less than glowing appraisal of his all-star third baseman in his own autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last.
“When I took over the club,” he wrote, “I looked upon Santo as one of my great assets….But right from the first, other baseball men whom I respected began to tell me that I was never going to win a pennant with him. What are you talking about? ‘Sooner or later,’ they would say, ‘Santo is going to come up with the game on the bases and nine times out of ten he’s going to kill you.’ Five runs ahead, and he’d knock in all the runs I could ask for. One run behind and he was going to kill me.”
Santo, asserted Durocher, “gave you everything he had. That was one of his problems, he tried too hard. He’d get into a slump and press so bad that he became helpless. And then the fans would get on him and his fielding would fall apart too. A very emotional kid. He’d get so mad that he’d come in and tear the bench apart. He’d hit the door with his fist. He’d pull the bat rack down, and we’d have to send for the ground crew and have them build us a new one during the game.”
“Opposites attract,” teammate Gene Oliver says. “Similar people are polarized.”
In a June game during Durocher’s first season with the Cubs, he got a firsthand glimpse of the toughness of his third baseman. “I had a 25-game hitting streak going,” Santo says. “We were playing the Mets. Jack Fisher was on the mound. First time up, I get a base hit to go to 26 games.” The team record was 27, and Santo was gunning for it.
The next time Santo, a right-handed hitter, came up in that game, the Mets moved their second baseman to the third base side of second.
“I knew Fisher was going to come inside,” Santo remembers. The Mets were daring him to hit to left, something he did all the time naturally. But Santo got the idea to cross them up. “I’d never done this before,” he says. “Usually I’m thinkin’ Waveland Avenue. This time I tried to go the other way, hit the ball to the right side where nobody was. I was so locked into that idea that when Fisher threw the pitch, I strided right at it.”
Replays showed Fisher’s high inside fastball zooming toward Santo. At the same time Santo was dipping his head and leaning over the plate to try to punch the ball toward right field. He might as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on his face.
“All I could do was scrunch up my shoulders and sort of tuck my face in,” Santo says. The fastball hit him flush in the jaw. “It knocked me down like a fighter. I tried to get back up and went down again. Next thing I know Durocher was over me and I said, ‘Leo, I can’t see out of my left eye!’ With the diabetes, I thought, ‘Jesus, it must have torn a retina or something.’ In my mind, I’m blind! He said, ‘No, Ron, your eye is swollen.’ I couldn’t believe the lid of my eye could close that much. They took me off on a stretcher. When they took me down through the clubhouse, I said, ‘I’m not gettin’ in that ambulance, I’ll get right off this stretcher if you don’t let me see a mirror.’ When they showed me the mirror I could see the eye was completely shut, so I felt better.
“I went to the hospital. That was Sunday. Monday, the surgeon came in and said, ‘We think your eye’s going to be fine. Your jaw is split in half–at least it’s not shattered.'”
The surgeon operated on Tuesday, and Santo left the hospital on Friday. “I was in Wrigley Field on Saturday taking batting practice. They made a special helmet for me. They put two screws in it and attached a flap covering my jaw and my ear. I took batting practice on Sunday. Monday was the Fourth of July and we played the Pirates. I hit a home run the first time up, then had a base hit and a double. Now I’d tied the Cubs record with a 27-consecutive-game hitting streak. The second game was long. I walked the first time up. I lined out the second time. I’m walkin’ to the plate the third time but it’s getting dark. We’re in the seventh inning. Jocko Conlan’s the umpire behind the plate. Jocko walks out to me as I’m comin’ up and says, ‘Kid, this is your last chance, because I’m gonna call the game after this inning.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Jocko.’ He even said, ‘Good luck.’ It was kinda neat. He was letting me know if I was gonna get the record, it was now or never. So I went to the plate. The first pitch was out over the plate. Line drive. Center field. I broke the record.”
The next season, 1967, there was a game when Santo almost didn’t make it to the plate.
“I was on the on-deck circle and we were playing the Dodgers at Wrigley Field,” he says. “About a quarter to four every day my sugar would really drop. I knew that, so I’d prepare–I’d have some orange juice in the dugout and candy bars. All of a sudden I look up and I see three scoreboards, one on top of the other. This is my fifth symptom, the one right before diabetic coma, and I hadn’t felt any of the earlier ones. I blinked my eyes and thought, ‘Holy shit! I’m having a reaction.’ Billy Williams was at the plate, runners on first and second, and we’re two runs down in the bottom of the ninth inning. Billy’s got a three and two count on him. It’s exactly 3:20–I remember that. I was surprised my sugar had dropped so soon. But I didn’t want to go in and tell Leo, ‘I can’t hit because my sugar dropped’–I never had to do that.
“So anyway, Billy ends up walking. I go to the plate and I swear, I looked at [Bill] Singer and I see three of him. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to swing at every pitch whether I strike out or not. I gotta get out of here. Well, I took the first ball that looked like it came from the middle Singer and hit a grand-slam home run.”
Williams, joyous the Cubs had won so dramatically, took his time circling the bases. Santo was in a desperate hurry to gobble a candy bar. “I’m goin’, ‘Billy, get goin’, get goin’!’ And Billy couldn’t understand because he was all excited. Then I get to home plate and my roommate Beckert could see I was as white as a sheet. So we came back to the dugout and I just sat there and I drank orange juice and ate three candy bars. Then I went into the clubhouse, and my teammates and the reporters were waiting for me and I could barely talk–your brain quits working.”
Just before spring camp broke in 1968, Durocher gave several starters a day off. Santo liked to ride horses, and he’d gotten some of his teammates interested too. “I was there that day,” Billy Williams says. “We were going to open up the regular season in Philadelphia the next day. Fergie Jenkins was going to be the starting pitcher. When we got to the stable Fergie was the last guy to get his horse. The stable guy asked Fergie, ‘Can you ride?’ Fergie said, ‘Uptight. I can do it.’ You know, Fergie being from Canada, we figured he had rode a horse before. And this horse, he had a stomach that looked like he couldn’t run faster than ten miles an hour. Santo was the lead guy. I stayed back and made sure everybody got on their horses. We got about three or four hundred yards out. Santo began to wheel around and check everybody out and see if everything was all right. When Ronnie came back around, Fergie’s horse just took off, goin’ back to the stable. That motherfucker was wide open! Fergie’s legs were flapping to the sides. I said, ‘I didn’t know Fergie could ride like that.’ All of a sudden the horse made a left and Fergie went straight. He tore up his leg, had a big gash. We took him to the hospital. Then Santo had to call Leo and tell him Fergie had got hurt riding a horse.”
Williams, sitting on an equipment trunk and eating his postgame meal after a Cubs loss to the Cardinals, chuckles at the memory of the phone call. He holds his fist out about two feet from his ear, mimicking Santo on the phone. “You could hear Leo’s voice on the other end throughout the emergency room–‘You dumb bastard!’ The next day, Leo held a team meeting. He said, ‘If we go to Iwo Jima, you guys are going! You’ll never get a day off again!’ Fergie wound up pitching anyway and we won the ballgame.”
For five months of 1969, the Cubs ran through the National League like a buzz saw. In the last month of the season the New York Mets, a previously woebegone eight-year-old expansion team, went on a tear, overtook the Cubs, and eventually won the World Series. The Cubs’ fall and the Mets’ triumph have been encrusted in metaphors ranging from David slaying Goliath to the dawning of the age of Aquarius. The simple truth is, the Mets won more games. Santo sheds no tears for the season that so many portray as tragedy.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world,” he says.
What’s meaningful to Santo about 1969 is not the melodrama of the Cubs’ collapse but the joy he felt through most of the spring and summer. The year started out with Santo and Judy buying a new home in Glenview for the then princely sum of $80,000. The down payment and the mortgage left them so cash poor they couldn’t afford to buy furniture. Santo told Judy not to worry–they’d get it after the Cubs collected their World Series checks. As it turned out, two more years went by before the Santos got their house furnished.
Santo, Williams, and Ernie Banks had been together the entire decade. Many of the other Cubs were fixtures as well. The 1969 team became unusually close.
“Santo and I roomed together on the road nine years,” Beckert says. “We’d hit it off pretty good my first year with the team. We had similar likes–cars, dancing, and stuff like that. He was an excellent dancer. He asked me to room with him on the road. You have an all-star asking a rookie to room with him–it was nice.”
When Beckert was a rookie, he says, Santo didn’t mistreat him the way veterans traditionally did. “We’d have to carry the vets’ bags in spring training, or they’d tell us to get out of the batting cage. Ron wasn’t like that.”
“I could remember him coming from Washington, a bonus baby,” Williams says. “We went to Triple A together and all those years we spent in the major leagues. We became friends. Santo’s best friend was Beckert. As a matter of fact, Santo will tell you that Beckert saved about $30,000 because [Santo] used to buy everything for him.
“Because we stayed together for so long, we did a lot of things together. We used to have parties. One weekend we’d go out to Santo’s house, the next weekend we’d go to Beckert’s house, then another guy’s house. We’d put up the barbecue grill and just have a ball.”
“That’s a treasure that we had–we stayed together so long,” Beckert says. “We saw our kids being born and raised.”
“Everybody asks me, what did the ’69 Cubs have that everybody remembers us?” Santo says. “I tell them, ‘We related to the fans. We signed autographs. We talked to them.’ In those days you needed fans. Players today with all their money, it’s different.”
Wrigley Field was surrounded by shot-and-a-beer joints filled with fans. Santo had resumed moderate drinking after he started taking insulin, and he and his teammates would be mobbed the moment they walked in. “Oh yeah,” he says. “We didn’t mind. They were all drinking buddies of ours. We had a beer with everybody.”
By June the Cubs were flying high. They lost the first game of a doubleheader with the Montreal Expos and were behind 3-1 with two outs in the ninth inning of the second game when Jim Hickman hit a three-run homer. In the mob scene around home plate, Santo screamed and jumped and pounded on Hickman’s helmet so hard that Hickman had a headache the rest of the day. Santo began to run back to the clubhouse, whose door in those days was in the far left field corner, and suddenly he leaped in the air and kicked his heels together. The fans, who were beginning to make a habit of remaining in the ballpark long after games ended that year, roared.
That night Santo turned on WGN and saw himself clicking his heels. It was the lead story. The next day Durocher said, “Why don’t we make that the victory kick?” And so a tradition started.
“The visiting players thought, ‘There’s a hot dog,'” Gene Oliver says. “That wasn’t true. Ronnie was just excited about being on a winner.”
One of Santo’s responsibilities in the spring of ’69 was to keep an eye on an emotionally fragile young center fielder named Don Young, a weak hitter with a tendency to sulk when he slumped. Durocher figured Santo might be the tonic for Young’s melancholy. Santo agreed to take on Young as a project.
In July the Cubs traveled to New York to play the Mets. Disaster followed. In the first game of the series Young misplayed two fly balls in the bottom of the ninth inning, allowing the Mets to score the tying and winning runs. After the game Durocher exploded in his office. Loud enough for all the players to hear, he shouted, “My two-year-old could have caught those fucking balls!” Young, his hearing as good as anybody’s, left the clubhouse without showering.
“Young was just thinking of himself,” a New York paper had Santo saying. “He got his head down, worrying about his batting average and not about winning the game. All right, he can keep his head down, and he can keep on going right out of sight for all I care. We don’t need that sort of thing.”
Chicago reporters would have protected Santo and his teammates, keeping their angry rants inside the clubhouse. But a New York reporter jotted down everything. In his book Santo swears the only thing he said about Young to reporters was this: “It’s like anybody as a rookie. Sometimes you put your head between your legs. I’ve done it as a player. Those things happen.”
That night Santo was awakened in his hotel room by the ringing phone. A reporter wanted Santo’s reaction to the big story that he’d blamed the rookie for blowing the game. Santo told the reporter he didn’t know what he was talking about and hung up. Another call awakened Santo at 8 AM. This time it was a Cubs coach telling him to get down to Don Young’s room immediately because the kid was packing his bags to go home.
Santo offered to apologize in front of the team if it would make Young feel better. The next day he stood before the team in a closed-door meeting and that’s what he did.
“It was a difficult thing for a proud Italian like myself to do,” Santo would write.
That night Mets ace Tom Seaver came within two outs of pitching a perfect game against the Cubs. A few days later the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field and Santo heard boos from home fans for the first time.
Today, Santo refuses to talk about the Don Young incident. “I won’t get into that,” Santo says. “I will not. You want to get me started on something–that caused my family trouble for two years. That was all caused by a person that I took under my wing–and the writers–I don’t even want to get into it.”
“If it wasn’t New York City, you’d have never heard about it,” Glenn Beckert says. “The New York writers got down to the clubhouse before we did.”
“That writer was trying to kill us,” Gene Oliver says. “That’s why Santo hated New York. He hated playing in New York after that.”
In 1971 Young would quit baseball suddenly to clean golf clubs at an Arizona country club for $2 an hour. A series of odd jobs followed before he dropped out of sight about 15 years ago. His last known home was a trailer.
Hate mail started coming in. It got Santo so down that Beckert and Oliver made him stop opening his mail at the ballpark. “I’d open his hate mail,” Oliver says.
One day in August a sack of mail sat next to Santo as he dressed for the game. One by one, teammates came by and asked him what was ticking. Santo opened the sack and heard the ticking himself. It emanated from a package without a return address. Santo snatched the package, ran out the clubhouse door, and flung it into the outfield. When he got back to the lockers the rest of the Cubs were rolling on the floor. Oliver finally confessed–he’d wrapped up an egg timer and placed it in the mail sack.
After the season Santo began to get what he would eventually refer to as the “Tuesday letters.” Every Tuesday there’d be a message, made of words cut out of newspapers, threatening Santo and his family. The letter writer had a frightening familiarity with the Santos’ routines and neighborhood. The first letter read: “How could you do this to a rookie? I’ll get even with you.” Santo got 24-hour police protection for himself and his family.
Just before the start of spring training in 1970, the “Tuesday letter” writer sent Santo an apology and asked the player to meet him, alone, outside Wrigley Field at 10 PM on a specified date. The police had a look-alike drive a Cadillac similar to Santo’s to the rendezvous. No one appeared. The next Tuesday, the writer complained about Santo not showing. That was the last Tuesday letter Santo would receive.
Later that same year Holland told Santo several calls had come into the team offices saying Santo would be shot from the stands in New York on an unspecified day at 2 PM. The Cubs were in Philadelphia at the time. Holland hired two bodyguards to accompany Santo 24 hours a day. When the Cubs got to New York, Santo took a freight elevator to his floor.
A few hours before the first game in New York, someone called the Cubs office and said Santo would be “gone” within an hour. Nothing happened. Minutes before game time, Holland called the Cubs clubhouse and told Santo that wires to the security phones in Shea Stadium had been severed. Holland ordered Santo to get on the first plane back to Chicago. Santo raced for the airport, leaving his baggage behind in the hotel. A contingent of Chicago police officers met Santo’s plane at O’Hare.
A few months later the threats stopped and Santo eventually discontinued the 24-hour guard. The memory of that year and a half has never left him. He and Young met again in 1983, at the first of Randy Hundley’s fantasy camps, where grown men pay thousands of dollars to play baseball with former Cubs. Young showed up, but he had to be coaxed into the clubhouse. He and Santo greeted each other civilly but said little.
In Talley’s The Cubs of ’69 Young said Santo had done nothing wrong. “I should have spoken out and said that years ago,” he told Talley. “If it hadn’t been for Santo taking a liking to me in the spring of ’69… I probably wouldn’t have stuck with the club in the first place. He was always the first to speak up for me.”
“It was one of Santo’s slumps that led, indirectly, to the worst argument I ever saw in a clubhouse,” Durocher wrote in his autobiography. The year was 1971 and the scrum was the beginning of the end for a powerful team that never won anything. The incident occurred during a closed-door meeting the manager called after the Cubs had lost five straight.
The catalyst was an event that should have been one of the most joyous in Santo’s life. The Cubs were planning a Ron Santo Day. Similar tributes had been staged for Ernie Banks and Billy Williams.
“John Holland had called me in and told me they were going to have a day for me,” Santo says. “I said to him, ‘If that’s going to happen, I want all moneys and benefits to go to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.” In those days, before ballplayers became multimillionaires, any star having a day would receive a raft of gifts–a new car, a boat, checks, gift certificates from all the best men’s stores in town, a gold-plated bat or glove, and so on. The swag would total $10,000 or $20,000. Santo decided to donate everything to the JDF, and during his acceptance speech reveal to the public that he was diabetic.
According to Durocher, Santo hadn’t been hitting a lick, so he caught up with his manager in a hotel elevator in Atlanta and told him he wanted the Cubs to cancel the day–the honor would embarrass him while he was slumping so badly. Besides, Santo said, he never wanted a day anyway. He then asked if he could skip batting practice for a while, in case a change in routine might help him at the plate. Durocher gave Santo permission to do that and promised to see what he could do about canceling Ron Santo Day.
Durocher claimed he spoke with Holland, who said too many preparations had been made to kill the day and wasn’t this ironic–Santo had demanded a day during his last contract negotiations because Banks and Williams each had one.
Cut to the clubhouse meeting. Durocher opened by telling the team it was playing lousy baseball and the players weren’t working hard enough. Look at guys like Billy Williams and Glenn Beckert, he said; they work as hard in practice as they do during the game. Santo spoke up for the rest of the players. Durocher huffed, saying he was a fine one to talk, a guy who didn’t even take batting practice. Santo–according to Durocher–started shouting that he’d given him permission to do that. The two jawed at each other. Then things seemed to settle down.
But a couple of renegades the Cubs had acquired in 1970, pitcher Milt Pappas and first baseman Joe Pepitone, piped up. Pappas told Durocher he didn’t know how to handle players. Pepitone jumped up and agreed, comparing Durocher unfavorably to Ralph Houk, his old manager with the Yankees.
The meeting degenerated into shouting, Durocher wrote, with Santo the loudest and most emotional. The manager quieted the room by asking Santo if it was true he’d demanded a day during contract negotiations.
“The room went absolutely quiet,” Durocher wrote. “‘That’s a lie!’ Ron screamed, and took a leap across the room at me.”
Players and coaches separated the two of them. Durocher claimed he tore his uniform shirt off, told the players he was quitting, and stormed upstairs to his office. But before he did, he said he’d ask Holland to come down and verify his version of the Ron Santo Day story. Santo fell silent, Durocher wrote, apparently in fear of the truth coming out.
Some minutes later, Durocher’s account continued, Santo made his way up to the manager’s office with his tail between his legs. One of the coaches demanded the two men apologize to each other. Leo wrote: “‘Ronnie,’ I said, ‘I haven’t got a thing in the world against you. As we shook hands, Ronnie, who was just emotionally drained, threw his arms around me. ‘I didn’t mean to say the things I said, Leo,’ he said. ‘You know how I get.'”
Santo’s book offers a different take. Durocher had chastised the team for its recent play, and when he opened the floor for complaints Pepitone leaped up and accused Durocher of ripping the players in the newspapers, something Ralph Houk would never have done. Santo wrote that Durocher responded: “Now who the fuck do you think you are? The only fucking reason you’re on this ballclub is me! You were out of the fucking game! If it weren’t for me, you’d be in the fucking gutter, you asshole!” Then Durocher went off on the rest of the team. Santo defended his teammates. “Maybe I should have not gotten into it with him,” Santo wrote, “but my Italian blood was starting to rise.”
Durocher then leveled the accusation that Santo had demanded a day. “I went nuts,” Santo wrote. He tore after Durocher and began to choke him. Teammates separated them and Durocher ran upstairs to his office. Santo, angry and crying, was held down in the clubhouse by a couple of teammates. When they loosened their grip, he dashed up the stairs and pounded on Durocher’s door, demanding Holland come down to verify his version of the Ron Santo day events.
Holland did indeed come down, according to Santo’s book. The GM and manager huddled privately in Durocher’s office, then both entered the clubhouse. Santo demanded that Holland admit he hadn’t asked for a day. Holland, caught between his manager and a star player, hemmed and hawed. Santo, feeling betrayed, called Holland a “bastard,” and the GM then admitted that Santo was right. Durocher responded by quitting on the spot and retreating behind the locked door of his office. Holland begged Santo to patch things up. After waiting a few minutes to cool down, Santo went upstairs to ask Leo to reconsider.
The incident remains fresh in Santo’s memory. He has a quick answer when asked if he demanded a day in his honor. “Uh-uh,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. “No.”
But why would Leo think he had? “He didn’t!” Santo exclaims. “He was mad at me that I even got up and talked–‘What are you getting on us for? What are you saying?’ And then Pepitone opened his mouth and Leo got pissed. Now Leo’s pissed at everybody. So I’m a person that when you say the wrong thing–” Santo pauses. His face is turning red.
After a moment, he continues. “He knew what he wrote would hurt me. Leo was a man who knew how to get the best out of somebody but also he knew how to bring out the worst in somebody. Leo knew me. I was just as competitive as Leo. Leo and I, when it came to baseball, thought along the same lines. When we walked across those white lines, nobody was our friend. We knew how to hurt.
“Leo’s book, believe me, was bad. Leo buried me in his book.”
The next year, 1972, Durocher did quit in midseason. Not long before he died, he attended one of Randy Hundley’s fantasy camps. Gene Oliver remembers Durocher standing before the players and making some startling admissions. “Leo got up and openly apologized to Ernie Banks and Ron Santo for any misunderstandings they might have had. [Durocher’s book had come down particularly hard on Banks, by reputation a near saint.] And then he said to the entire 1969 team, ‘You didn’t lose the pennant, I did. I was at fault.’ We were awestruck.”
The apology did little to soothe Santo’s hurt feelings. “This is a man who was dying,” he says when asked about Durocher’s speech.
Still, Santo praises Durocher the manager. “Leo, he was the best manager I ever played for,” he says. “I loved the way he managed. Did I love the guy? No. But I respected the guy–that’s all you have to do. Respecting somebody is more important than liking somebody.”
In 1973, Vivian and John Constantino were driving to Arizona from Washington to visit Santo at spring training. Santo’s phone rang at 3 AM. It was his sister Adielene. Vivian and John had been killed in a car wreck on the way.
A man who talks plenty, Santo is reticent about his parents’ deaths. What he does mention, though, is something that brought him comfort. Santo and his wife had to break away from spring training and travel up to Seattle for the funerals. Glenn Beckert offered to accompany them if he could get the manager’s OK.
“It’s up to you,” Santo said to Whitey Lockman, the new manager.
“I got to the airport with my wife and three kids,” Santo says. “When we were ready to get on the plane, here comes Beckert, running down the tarmac. I really needed him. It was wonderful.”
“Santo was always one of the good tippers,” Beckert offers. “He taught me that. He said, ‘My mother was a waitress–remember that.'”
In 1973 the Cubs headed into the All-Star break with a comfortable East Division lead. Then they plummeted, finishing with a losing record as the Mets again won the pennant.
Holland and Wrigley decided to break up the team. “Holland called me,” Santo says. “It was hard for him even to talk to me.” The GM haltingly explained the new order to his aging star. “This is so difficult,” Holland said. “We’re going to clean house. It’s hard to have to tell you. We’ve got a chance to pick up some left-handed pitchers for you.”
Santo was quiet for a moment. “John,” he finally responded, “are you asking me if I want to be traded?” (With his seniority, Santo had the right to veto a trade.)
“Well, Ron,” Holland said, “we do have a deal pending for you. It’s up to you. I was wondering if you’d want to go to the California Angels. They want to give you a three-year deal.”
The Angels, then owned by Gene Autry, were known as a team that lavished money on its players. Autry was willing to pay Santo well over $100,000 a year for three years, a huge sum in those days. Santo, though, had already started a new career. In 1971 he’d taken a job as a salesman for Torco Oil, an outfit that barged crude oil up the Mississippi and sold it to Illinois steel mills. He’d eventually become a vice president in charge of the sales department.
“If I had to financially, I might have taken that deal,” Santo says. “But I sure in the heck didn’t want to move my family to California for the season.”
Santo told Holland, “John, I’m not going to accept the trade. I don’t care what they’re offering.”
“You don’t know how tough this is for me,” Holland said. “We’ve been together for 15 years. But we’re going to make some moves, so why don’t you start thinking about where you’d like to go.”
“I was hoping I’d end my career here. I’d only planned to play two more years,” Santo said. There was a pause. “I’ll think about it,” he said at last.
“I hung up the phone and I started to cry,” Santo says now. “It was tough. Chicago was my life.”
A few weeks later Phil Wrigley called Santo. He offered him a position as a player-coach. The team had just acquired a young third baseman named Bill Madlock for Fergie Jenkins. Would Santo be interested, Wrigley asked, in sticking around and helping Madlock settle in at Wrigley Field?
“I might have thought about it if you’d come to me at first and said, ‘We want to keep you as a coach,'” Santo replied.
But the heart Santo had always worn on his sleeve was broken. He turned Wrigley down.
“I felt I had a couple of years left, I really did,” Santo says. “I was hurt when they just called me and said they’ve got a deal pending.”
The major league’s new collective bargaining agreement, under which Santo could nix the Angels trade, had just gone into effect. Santo was the first player to exercise it. “Everybody started calling it the ‘Santo Clause,'” Santo says.
Later that winter, Santo got a call from White Sox manager Chuck Tanner. Tanner wanted him. He figured Santo would bring experience and drive to a young team on the rise. But the Sox already had an established third baseman, Bill Melton, who’d set a team record for home runs in 1970. What about Melton? Santo asked Tanner. The Sox manager promised Santo he could play some third base as well as some first base and a little left field.
Santo had another concern. He didn’t want to be stuck as a designated hitter, a position the American League had created a year earlier. Santo was dead set against winding down his career as half a player.
“I’ll tell ya, Chuck, I’m not coming over there if I’m going to DH,” Santo said. “I want you to know that. I still got a couple of years left in me and that’s all I want to play. Shit, I’ve played in nine All-Star games at third base.”
Tanner assured Santo that he’d get plenty of time in the field. Santo took him at his word, called Holland, and said he’d OK a trade to the south side.
“That wasn’t easy!” Santo says. “I hadn’t been anywhere else but the north side for 14 years. But I was able to keep my family in Chicago. I didn’t want to move them. I was in business here. I decided, well, if I’m going to win, I want to win in Chicago.”
He signed a contract with the White Sox for two years at $120,000 a year. In February he reported to their camp in Florida. As Santo tells the story, he walked out onto the practice field and Tanner greeted him warmly, putting his arm around him.
“Aw, God, I’m so happy to have you here,” said Tanner, an ebullient sort with a reputation as a players’ manager. “I know what you can do. You just have a good spring.” Santo was beginning to warm to the idea of wearing a uniform other than the Cubs’. Then Tanner dropped a bombshell.
“By the way,” he said. “Would you stay away from third base?”
“What?” Santo said.
Tanner scratched his spikes in the dirt. “Melton’s a little nervous about you coming over,” he said at last.
Santo’s shoulders sagged. “I didn’t say anything more,” he says now. “I coulda had a talk with Melton, you know? ‘I’m not here to take your job away from you. I’m here to help the team win.’ Tanner was bullshitting me on the very first day. I just knew right then and there, that was my last year in baseball.”
When the season began, Tanner used Santo almost exclusively as the DH. Santo seethed. One day a Sox coach approached Santo and asked if he’d like to try his hand at second base. “I couldn’t stand DH’ing. Nine All-Star games, five Gold Gloves, and I had to sit on my ass and just swing the bat? So just to get out on the field, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go to second base.'”
First baseman Dick Allen was the kingpin of those White Sox. He was the highest-paid player in baseball and had carried the team in 1972. But Allen was a pariah in baseball circles. He’d had repeated run-ins with management at previous stops, leaving teams without permission, spending afternoons at the racetrack, and reporting to the ballpark mere minutes before games. He was moody and sullen and he demanded to be held to a different set of rules than his teammates. In Tanner, Allen had found the only manager to allow that.
Santo almost reached the boiling point watching Allen dog it day after day. One day in Minnesota, Santo saw Allen ask Tanner to replace him in the middle of a game. Tanner patted Allen on the butt and told him to take the rest of the day off. Santo gritted his teeth and dashed into the runway connecting the dugout to the clubhouse. He intercepted Allen and confronted him, upbraiding him for quitting during a game. Allen told him to go to hell and the two almost came to blows.
Again, someone Santo battled would take his revenge in a book. Allen’s autobiography, Crash, reamed Santo. The 1973 season had been fun, Allen asserted. He’d established himself as a team leader that year. “But in ’74, the Sox went and got Ron Santo from the Cubs. Things got real screwed up both on the field and in the clubhouse after that,” Allen wrote.
The rift between Santo and Allen became so pervasive that Tanner had to intervene, Allen claimed. Dissension was ruining the team, Tanner said. The White Sox had only one leader, and that was the manager. “I decided it was time to go home,” Allen wrote. Which he did before the season was over.
Santo retired after the season, turning his back on another $120,000.
Two years after he retired from baseball, Santo borrowed one and a half million dollars from the bank and with three other investors started his own crude oil company, Nova Oil. He spent so much time getting that business off the ground, he says, that he and Judy drifted apart. Santo’s partners bought him out of Nova Oil in 1981, leaving him set for life. He and Judy divorced in 1982.
In the early 80s Santo met a woman named Vicki Tenace at the stable where he kept his horse. “I was not a baseball fan,” Vicki says. “I had no idea who he was.” He challenged her to a race, she accepted, and he won. “He cut me off,” she says, sounding not a bit unhappy about it. They married in 1983.
About that time, Santo was diagnosed with proliferative retinopathy, an illness common in diabetics that causes blindness. He underwent years of laser treatments to stop the symptomatic bleeding behind his retinas. Today he uses reading glasses to scan the stat sheets in the radio booth, but he observes the action on the field unaided. He still can see by the rotation of the baseball’s seams the difference between a curve and a slider.
Santo invested in four Chicago-area Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and started another company, Interpoint Corporation, that eventually would own and operate 76 truck stops in seven states. Today he’s out of both businesses, but he owns a couple of suburban restaurants. According to Eddie Gold and Art Ahrens, Santo’s a millionaire, and Santo allows that he’s comfortable.
He’s helped raise four kids who have made good. Ron Jr. sells sports memorabilia; Jeff is a playwright and rewrites movie scripts; Linda, who works in radio and TV ad sales, is on maternity leave; Kelly, Vicki’s daughter from a previous marriage, grew up with Santo and is also in TV ad sales.
Not long after Santo remarried, he received a phone call from his uncle Sam, his birth father’s brother and someone he was particularly fond of.
“You’re dad’s not doing too well,” Sam said. He advised Santo to visit Louis before it was too late.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Santo replied. “But I don’t have any feelings. He was never there.”
After he hung up, Vicki sat him down. “You ought to go see him,” she said.
“No, I won’t,” Santo said.
“I think you’ll feel better,” Vicki said.
“She talked me into it,” Santo says now. “I did see him before he died. It was the right thing.”
WGN radio tried three times to lure Santo into its booth. In 1987 Santo said no because he was too busy running Interpoint. WGN hired former Cubs manager Jim Frey as its radio colorman but the next year, in a move bizarrely Cub-like, the team plucked Frey out of the booth and made him general manager. Again WGN came calling and again Santo turned the job down.
“I had been out of baseball 15 years,” Santo says. “Everything was good. I was very happy. I followed the Cubs–I had season tickets from 1975 on. Then I threw out the first pitch before the first game in the 1989 playoffs. The feeling I had was unbelievable. I thought, ‘This is great.’ But I wasn’t even thinking of getting back in the game in any capacity.”
WGN called yet again after the ’89 season, and by this time Interpoint was practically running itself. “Well, I’ll give it a try,” Santo said.
In the spring of 1990 he competed head-on with former big-league catcher Bob Brenley to see who would be named permanent sidekick to play-by-play announcer Thom Brenneman. Each spring training game that WGN aired was divided between Santo and Brenley. As the regular season began, WGN hired both of them.
On opening day at Wrigley Field, Brenneman, Brenley, and Santo each threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Then they sprinted up the ramps to the radio booth.
The weather was cold and windy. The three announcers squeezed into the tiny booth, cups of steaming coffee on the desk before them. Just as Brenneman began to broadcast, the wind knocked over Santo’s coffee cup, soaking his notes and books. “Goddamn it!” were his first words over the airwaves in the regular season.
“The first year I was horrible,” Santo says. “Nervous. Horrible. I was always good on the other side of the mike as a player, but on this side I didn’t know any of the players other than the Cubs. So I had to do a lot of reading, a lot of studying. Thom Brenneman and Bob Brenley made me relaxed. They protected me.”
Brenley left the booth after the 1991 season to become a coach for the San Francisco Giants. From that time on, Santo has done color commentary alone.
Pat Hughes came aboard in 1996 to handle the play-by-play. “Ron does a fine job of color,” Hughes says. “From all that I hear, people enjoy our teamwork and our chemistry. We are very different. He’s a former player–I’m not. I went to college–he didn’t. He’s louder than I am. I do a lot of talking on the air, but really I’m a very quiet person. I like to read and I like to listen to music. Ronnie likes to talk all day long. The broadcast is merely an extension of his day.
“I think I’ve become a fan but not in the same sense Ron is,” Hughes says. “I don’t think that’s my style. We balance each other out. Ronnie says, ‘We need a rally.’ I always say, ‘The Cubs…'”
“He dies up there,” Gene Oliver says. “I say, ‘Ronnie, you’re gonna have a heart attack.’ That’s the way he played the game. But I say, ‘Ronnie, you can’t run for them, you can’t hit for them.'”
“The biggest thing that happened to him was getting back into baseball,” Beckert says. “He’s a fellow that belongs in the game. He’s much happier now than when he was in business.”
It’s a bright, cool summer day at Wrigley Field. Santo watches batting practice from the area in front of the dugout he occupied as a player for so many years. Hitting coach Jeff Pentland ambles up. The two, basking in the sunshine, make pregame small talk.
“Mr. Santo, how are you?” Pentland asks.
“Pretty good,” Santo says. “How you doin’?”
“Hanging in there.”
“Gracie’s looking a lot better,” Santo observes.
“We spread his stance out a little bit.”
“I don’t know what was wrong but his swing was weak,” Santo says.
“It was like he was hittin’ with a five-pound weight on his bat.”
“Exactly,” Santo says. “Gutierrez is lookin’ good.”
“It’s gonna take him a while.”
“And that kid Matthews,” Santo says, mimicking the rookie’s swing, “short and sweet.”
For this, Santo earns a paycheck.
“Ronnie,” a voice calls from the stands behind the dugout. Present and former players learn to ignore people who shout their name; otherwise their heads would be on swivels. But this man is persistent. “Ronnie,” he calls. “Ronnie!” Santo turns his head just enough to see who the guy is. It’s a new pal, a surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Santo had throat surgery two years ago; benign polyps were removed. Then there was the big scare. “I had quadruple bypass surgery on June 27, 1999,” he says. Forty years’ worth of diabetes had hardened his arteries.
When Santo finished his autobiography, he turned to his cowriter, Randy Minkoff, and talked about something he never dwelled on while he wore a baseball uniform. “I never thought about diabetes affecting my career,” Santo says. “I said, ‘Y’know, Randy, I am so surprised that I put up the numbers I have. I wonder what kind of numbers I would have put up without diabetes. There were plenty of times I couldn’t tell my sugar was low, so all of my faculties were not working a hundred percent. You’re a little slower thinking, you have a little slower reactions. I might have played longer too.”
There are nine third basemen in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Santo compares favorably with any of them. For a few years the question was, will Ron Santo ever make the Hall of Fame? The question is becoming, if Ron Santo, now 60 years old, makes it, will it be while he’s alive?
“If I were in control of the Hall of Fame’s selections, the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo,” baseball analyst Bill James wrote in his book The Politics of Glory.
“I hope somewhere in the near future he will be traveling to Cooperstown with me,” Billy Williams says.
One of the raps on Santo, the one Durocher harped on in his book, was that he failed too often in the clutch. Williams waves his hand at the idea. “I don’t know–he drove in, what, about 1100 runs, didn’t he? If that’s not clutch, I don’t know what is. Ernie was at 12, 1300 runs driven in and I was at 12 or 1300. I don’t agree with the assessment of Santo that says he didn’t hit in the clutch. I was hitting third and Ronnie was hitting fourth. I hit doubles and he drove me in.”
“Ron Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame,” Gene Oliver says. “The writers have hurt him more than anything. A lot of times Ronnie wasn’t the warmest individual to the press after a ball game. He was wound up. It was not a good time to talk to him.”
Funny thing is, Ron Santo still gets wound up. Vicki says she can tell what the Cubs did by the look on his face when he comes home. She says, “It isn’t good for his health the way he lets it get to him.”
He doesn’t smoke. He watches his diet like a hawk. He monitors his exercise. His only alcohol, he says, is the occasional glass of wine with dinner. The one concession he can’t make to his health is the way he lets it get to him.
It’s a glorious day at Wrigley Field, sun shining, 73 degrees, a cool breeze off the lake. Santo sits in the WGN radio booth, serene as a Buddha. “You love to see days like this in July,” he says, his blue eyes scanning the full house and sometimes landing on the white sails out on the sliver of lake visible from the upper deck.
The game starts promisingly for the Cubs. The Milwaukee Brewers go down in order in their half of the first and the Cubs put their first two men on base. Santo sits at the edge of his seat, anticipating a big inning. Mark Grace, who had more hits than any other ballplayer in the 1990s, is at bat.
Grace fools the opposition, his manager, and–most alarmingly for the occupants of this radio booth–Ron Santo. Grace bunts. He moves the runners over to second and third and the fans cheer. Not Santo.
As Pat Hughes congratulates Grace on a well-executed sacrifice, Santo fidgets in his seat. “You know me,” he says on the air, “I don’t like him bunting. I don’t think it’s a very smart play.”
The Brewers intentionally walk Sammy Sosa, Henry Rodriguez hits a sharp single to drive in one run, and then Willie Greene grounds into a double play. What might have been a big inning turns into a moral victory for the Brewers. Had Pat Hughes dared to glance at his partner, he’d have seen Santo’s face becoming redder as the inning unraveled.
As Hughes signs off for a commercial, Santo sits quietly, arms folded, fuming. As soon as their microphones are switched off, Santo erupts. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” he yells. “I don’t understand that!” Hughes keeps his head down, shuffling the reams of statistics before him. Engineer Mike Mavrogeanes busies himself on his sound board. Hughes’s daughter Janell buries her face in the new Harry Potter book.
Santo roars. “That’s precisely why you don’t give up your number-three hitter! He’s there to drive in runs, not to move them over! Not to bunt!” Everyone pretends not to listen. Again and again, Santo loudly revisits the theme of Grace’s bunt being the dumbest act in history. An attendant peeks her head in and asks if anyone wants anything to drink. Santo swirls in his chair. “No!” he hollers. “Nothin’! I don’t want anything! No, nothin’!” The attendant recoils, her eyes wide. Then she remembers who’s blowing the hot air. “All right,” she says under her breath and closes the door very gently.
Now Santo realizes no one is listening to him. That doesn’t deter him. He raps on the glass separating his booth from that of the Milwaukee radio team. Announcer Bob Uecker sits not a foot and a half away but is unaware of the gale next door. Uecker looks up from his scorebook and sees Santo, his eyes made even bluer by the contrast to his crimson face. Uecker looks scared. He rises slowly to see what the madman wants. The two lean forward over their desks, their heads out past where the glass ends, and face each other.
“What the hell was that?” Santo screams. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever saw! Grace did that on his own! His head’s not in the game!” Uecker, who parlayed his own gift of gab into countless Tonight Show appearances and a network sitcom, opens his mouth once as if to speak but can’t get a word in edgewise. He can only nod as Santo rails on. The commercial break over, Santo plops down in his chair and sighs deeply.
Pat Hughes resumes his play-by-play and soon leaves an opening for Santo to comment on the sad state of the Brewers pitching staff. Santo speaks calmly and expertly. “They have no control,” he says.
After a few minutes, a couple of visitors affiliated with a WGN advertiser enter the booth to have their photos taken with Santo and Hughes. Santo turns to them, flashes a brilliant smile, and waves charmingly. As the visitors leave, one turns to the other and says, “Wasn’t he sweet?”
A couple of innings later, a Cub tries to bunt for a base hit and fouls it off. Hughes asks Santo on the air if he’d ever tried to bunt for a hit in the big leagues. “Nope!” Santo says defiantly. “Never.”
Between innings Hughes rises and approaches his daughter, still reading her book. “How are you?” he asks. “How’s the book coming?”
His daughter is about 11 years old. She’s surrounded by burly men, one of whom not long ago seemed ready to toss everyone out the window. She seems uncomfortable with her father’s solicitousness. She doesn’t speak. She keeps her face buried in her book and nods perfunctorily.
“Do you need anything to drink?” Hughes asks her.
She shakes her head slightly.
“Do you want anything else to eat? Some ice cream?” She shakes her head even more slightly.
Hughes leans in closer. “Do you need to use the bathroom?” he whispers.
She is mortified.
Santo throws his hands in the air. “Jeez,” he says. “She just got finished eating. What do you want from her?”
“Yeah,” Hughes laughs nervously, “she had two ice creams and two hot dogs.” The daughter now is about to die of embarrassment.
“No she didn’t,” Santo says. “She had one hot dog.”
Hughes is now embarrassed himself. “Ron’s watching out for you,” he tells his daughter. She looks at Santo. He winks and smiles kindly at her. At last she breaks into a grin.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.