Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ronnie, They Hardly Knew Ye

I heard yesterday that Ron Santo had died — and, while I have never been a Chicago Cubs fan, I mourn the loss.

Santo actually died on Thursday — in a hospital in Arizona — but I didn't hear about it until Friday. Apparently, he lived in the Southwest during the offseason, but for more than 20 years, he had been announcing Cubs baseball for WGN radio.

Unless you're older than 40, though, you have no memory of the days when Santo played third base for the Cubs, and, for most folks who are old enough to remember but didn't live in Chicago, I guess, that memory would be spotty at best.

Santo's career ended several years before cable TV. There were no baseball telecasts every day of the week during the season when he played, only a single "game of the week" on Saturday afternoons, and many solid ballplayers in his era were virtually unseen by most fans outside their local fan base.

I was old enough to collect baseball cards in the latter years of Santo's career, and I saw him play once when my family went to St. Louis and watched the Cardinals play the Cubs one warm summer night. The Cubs absolutely hammered the Cardinals that night, much to the dismay of the Busch Stadium crowd, but we stayed to the end, long after many of the Cardinals fans had departed.

It had been my first major league ballgame. I don't remember if Santo hit a homer that night. He may have because the score was something like 12–0. I remember hearing his name a lot. If he wasn't hitting home runs, maybe he was getting some hits — or at least fielding a lot of grounders.

He did it all, really. He was an All–Star nine times, and he won five straight Gold Glove awards.

He could hit home runs, too. He hit 342 in his career, a number that may seem pedestrian by today's standards but it stood as a testament to power hitting in the pre–steroids era.

Yes, I knew who Santo was when I was a child. I knew who most of the ballplayers of those days were, the famous and the not so famous, because I collected the cards. And I thought I knew a lot about all the ballplayers because I had their cards.

But I continue to learn how little I really did know. And it reminds me of the truth of something Harry Truman once said — The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.

I didn't know, for example, that Santo played professional baseball while concealing the fact that he had diabetes. But he did.

It is said that Santo died of complications from bladder cancer so diabetes is not being blamed. But diabetes may have caused those complications. I don't know. He was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 18, and he was 70 when he died the other day.

And I know that diabetes ultimately led to the amputations of both his legs in recent years.

He kept his diabetes secret from his teammates and team management at first, then continued to keep it a secret from the public until near the end of his career. I don't remember hearing about it until after he had retired, probably because I didn't live near Chicago.

Many folks outside Chicago also didn't know about his charitable work. I didn't.

"People would ask me whether I knew Ron Santo," writes Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun–Times, "and my response was always the same: 'Yes, and so do you.'

" ... [H]e never did get the things he wanted so badly: a Cubs World Series title and a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y. But what a good life he led, 70 years' worth, and he knew it."

Santo never stopped believing that both of those dreams would someday come true. They didn't come true in his lifetime.

And, while I can't say that I'm particularly eager to see the Cubs win a World Series, I do hope Santo is recognized by the Hall of Fame — soon.

He deserves it.

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