By Doug Halberstadt
When Chicago Cubs legend Ron Santo passed away last week, so did a little piece of my childhood. As a 9- or 10-year-old impressionable Little Leaguer, I had several fond memories of watching him and his fellow teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Glen Beckert, Joe Pepitone, Randy Hundley, and the four-man pitching rotation of Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, Kenny Holtzman and Joe Niekro. If you’re a Cubs fan and are between the ages of 45 and 95, you more than likely have some of those same fond memories.
Younger fans may not have had the opportunity to see him anchor the hot corner at the “friendly confines,” but I hope they’ve had the opportunity to hear one or more of his trademark emotionally-charged radio broadcasts of his beloved team. Santo was definitely unique, both on the field and in the booth.
On the field, Santo played with a certain charisma, flair and pizazz. He made plays that would have routinely qualified as “web gems” by today’s standards. Santo was often criticized by his opponents for being “cocky.” After a home win, Santo was often seen leaving the field jumping up and clicking his heels together. That little maneuver landed him in hot water on more than one occasion. Santo’s hitting and fielding numbers have led to more than one discussion about his Hall of Fame worthiness. My opinion is there should be no argument—he belongs in Cooperstown.
Career highlights include the following:
→ Debuted June 26, 1960;
→ Led the National League in putouts every year from 1962 through 1967 and again in 1969;
→ Was a nine-time National League All-Star;
→ Led the league in walks four times, in on-base percentage twice, and in triples once;
→ Hit for a .300 average and hit 30 home runs four times each;
→ Was the only the third baseman in Major League Baseball history to post eight consecutive seasons with 90 RBIs (1963-1970);
→ Was winner of five consecutive Gold Glove Awards for fielding excellence (1964-1968);
→ Set or tied National League records by leading the league’s third basemen in total chances eight times, in games, putouts and assists seven times each, and in double plays six times;
→ From 1966 to 1974, held the National League record for assists in single seasons;
→ Set National League records for career assists (4,532), total chances (6,777) and double plays (389) at third base;
→ His National League total of 2,102 games at third base fell 52 short of Eddie Mathews’ league record;
→ His 164 games at third base in 1965 remain the Major League record;
→ Established a league record with 364 consecutive games at third base;
→ Had a career batting average of .277;
→ Hit 342 career home runs;
→ Registered 1,331 career RBIs; and
→ Won the 1973 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award.
Off the field, Santo was one of the first sports figures I can remember lending his name to a product. I remember sitting in Wrigley Field as a kid munching on a piece or two of Ron Santo pizza. And Santo had a pizzeria in Rockford during the late 1960s.
His work to find a cure for juvenile diabetes is well documented. His annual Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes has been in Chicago since 1974, and has raised more than $50 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In 2002, Santo was named the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s “Person of the Year.” He also sponsored an annual golf outing to raise money for JDRF. Santo had both his legs amputated below the knee as a result of his diabetes—the right in 2001 and the left in 2002.
In the booth, Santo wore his emotions on his sleeve. Santo was known for being a “homer.” He loved the Cubs and was never afraid to admit it. Fans regularly heard “Oh, no!” when errors were made, or “Oh, boy!” when something truly awful would happen.
Santo died at his home in Arizona last Thursday, Dec. 2. His physical body may have been in Arizona, but I’m sure his heart was right where it’s remained since that sunny summer afternoon in June of 1960, when he first stepped onto the green grass of Wrigley Field, patrolling the hot corner known as third base. That’s where I’ll always remember him. RIP No. 10.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Dec. 8-14, 2010 issue