Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Glory of Their Time, Chapter 10: Ron Santo

The Chicago Cubs franchise dates all the way back to 1876, when they broke into the National League as the "White Stockings".

Since then, the name of the team has undergone many transformations. Hundreds upon hundreds of players have come and gone from the team, players bought and sold, players traded or drafted. Some good, some bad. Some have stood the test of time, but many are forgotten today.

If there's one thing that will always hold true in Chicago, it's that Ron Santo will always be a beloved figure. Quite possibly the most beloved figure.

While he gained additional fame as an announcer later in his life, he was already a massive fan favorite in Chicago during his playing days.

It all started more than fifty years ago...

2001 Topps Archives #38 Ron Santo

Born in Seattle in 1940, Santo was involved in baseball early as he served as a bat boy for the Seattle Rainiers, a minor league team.

In 1959, Ron Santo was signed by the Cubs. He was originally a catcher, but the Cubs quickly converted him to a third baseman.

His minor league career would not last long. In '59, Santo hit .327 and led the Texas League with 35 doubles in his first professional season.

He began 1960 in Double-A, hitting .268 in 71 games.

He was called up to the big leagues and would make his debut on June 26, 1960, after just one-and-a-half years in the minors. He'd get off on the right foot, as he hit a triple in his first career at-bat.

He'd play in 95 games with the Cubs in 1960, hitting .251 with nine homers.

He was just getting started.

1962 Topps #170 Ron Santo

It didn't take long for Santo to establish himself in the majors.

In 1961, he'd blast 23 homers and hit .284 with a .362 OBP, thanks mostly to the 73 walks he took during the course of the season.

That 1962 Santo card was one of the first I featured on this blog. Santo is featured in his fielding crouch, a crouch that would help him lead the league in assists seven times, a record at the time (since broken by Brooks Robinson).

Santo fell off a bit in '62. Although he'd play in all 162 games, he'd hit just .227 with 17 homers and 83 RBI.

1963 Topps #252 Ron Santo

This was the first great Ron Santo card I ever owned. There's a huge card show twice a year near my house, and there's always a guy there with a giant bin of vintage cards, each individually priced. You've just got to grab a handful of cards and hope that there's something good. If not, you go on to the next batch of cards. Luckily, I unearthed this '63 Santo for the modest price of one dollar.

The Cubs knew they had unearthed a gem after Santo's 1963 season, just as I did with this card.

Santo would again play in all 162 games that season. He'd knock a career-best 187 hits in '62, twenty-five of which were home runs. He'd fall just short of the 100-RBI plateau, finishing with 99. 

He'd finish with a .297 average and was elected to his first of nine All-Star games.

2002 Topps Archives #15 Ron Santo

Santo now assumed a confident glare on his bubble gum card after his stellar '63 season, a far cry from the baby-faced enthusiasm that graced his first few issues.

Santo managed to better himself in 1964. He'd hit 30 homers in '64, the first of four consecutive years he'd reach the 30-HR plateau. He'd also drive in 114 runs, the first of four times he would drive in more than 100 runs in his career. He'd also win the first of five consecutive Gold Gloves at third base.

He posted a .313 batting average, but he also led the league with 86 walks and a .398 OBP, stats that weren't heavily looked into at the time.

In one of the more fascinating aspects of Santo's career, he also led the league with 13 triples in '64. He was by no means known for his speed; he'd steal just 35 bases in his career (as well as get caught stealing 41 times).

2005 Topps Fan Favorites #124 Ron Santo

Santo played in 164 games in 1965. Let that sink in. 164 games.

Back in the day, tie games would be replayed in their entirety, but the stats from the original game would still count towards a player's total stats. That's probably how Santo managed to play in 164 games.

Santo would set a career-high with 33 homers in '65. Although his batting average dropped to .285, he still managed to post a fine .378 OBP.

In 1966, Santo would again lead the league in walks (95) and OBP (.412). It would also be the only year that he'd walk more than strike out, as he struck out just 78 times in '66.

He'd also break the Cubs' modern hitting-streak record by posting a 28-game streak, bettering Hack Wilson's 27-game streak in 1929.

Santo managed to change the course of baseball safety in a big way in 1966. During his hitting streak, he was hit in the face with a pitch, fracturing his cheekbone and ending his consecutive games streak at 364 (the record for third basemen at the time). 

When he came back on the field after being out for a couple weeks, he was sporting the first batting helmet with protective ear flaps in major league history, in an effort to protect his cheekbone. 

1969 Topps #420 Ron Santo AS

There's a large gap of years where I don't own a Ron Santo card. Somehow, I managed to obtain his '62 and '63 cards, but none afterwards until this '69 issue.

Santo would hit 30 homers for the fourth and final time in 1967, finishing with 31 dingers and 98 RBI. He'd again lead the league with 96 walks, as well as post a fine .300 average and .395 OBP. He'd also score 107 runs that year, the most of his career. 

Santo placed fourth in the MVP voting in '67 (his highest finish), but he was surprisingly left off the All-Star roster that year for the first time since 1963.

In 1968, Santo would hit just .246, although he'd again post a league-leading 96 walks. For the first time since '63, he'd fail to hit 30 homers, finishing with 26. He'd also win his fifth and final Gold Glove in '68.

1969 is easily the most hallowed year of Ron Santo's playing career. He'd hit .289 and post a career-best 123 RBI, but his 1969 season goes beyond his stats.

After a comeback victory against the Expos on June 22, Santo jumped in the air several times while heading to the clubhouse, "clicking" his heels each time. Manager Leo Durocher asked Santo to keep clicking his heels after each Cubs victory that year to motivate the team.

The heel-clicking became the lasting image of his playing days.

The Cubs famously blew a late-season lead to the "Miracle Mets" in '69. Santo would never again perform the heel click.

1970 Topps #454 Ron Santo AS

These 1970 All-Star cards are among my favorites of the '60s and '70s All-Star subsets. The players are literally coming out of the newspaper. Too bad that didn't come with 3-D glasses.

Santo would post his last 100-RBI season in 1970, finishing with 114 to go along with his 26 homers.

1971 Topps #220 Ron Santo

By this time, Santo already had the charming smile that would win over so many Cubs fans in the future.

He'd hit just .267 in 1971, finishing the year with 21 home runs, although he would be elected to his seventh All-Star game.

1972 Topps #555 Ron Santo

This is among my favorite Santo cards. I love the "garbage-bag" warm-up uniforms that were featured on a lot of cards in the '70s.

Santo would rebound and have an All-Star year in '72. Although his power dropped a bit (he'd hit just 17 homers), he'd hit .302 and post a spectacular .392 OBP.

In researching for these posts, I've picked up a lot of new baseball knowledge. This post is no exception.

Another new piece of knowledge: Ron Santo was the first player to invoke the "ten-and-five" rule, which allows a player with at least ten years of major league service, the last five with the same team, to refuse any trade. Santo declined a trade that would have sent him to the California Angels, stating that he didn't want to play on the west coast.

 1973 Topps #115 Ron Santo

1973 would be Santo's final season as a Cub.

He'd be elected to his ninth and final All-Star team en route to his final 20-HR season (he'd finish with 20).

1974 Topps #270 Ron Santo

This is also among my favorite Santo cards. Any horizontal '70s cards are neat, much less one of Mr. Santo. I'm not too sure what Leo Durocher is doing in the background, though.

Unfortunately, Santo had already been traded by the time this card was released.

 1974 Topps Traded #270T Ron Santo

Airbrushing was still in its primitive stages in the 1970's, as you can see here.

In December of 1973, Santo was dealt to the crosstown White Sox for Steve Swisher and Steve Stone. Ironically, Stone would later wind up with Santo in the Cubs' broadcast booth.

1975 Topps #35 Ron Santo

One of the classic cards of the '70s, Santo's 1975 Topps issue is also his final card. He had already retired by the time this one hit the streets.

His lone season on the south side of Chicago didn't go well. He'd hit .221 with just five homers in 117 games for the White Sox.

With the blossoming Bill Melton already at third base for the Sox, Santo was forced to DH most of the time, which he didn't enjoy. He'd also play 39 games at second base in '74. He even played an inning at shortstop.

When Santo retired, he was just 34 years of age. Part of the reason for his early retirement was due to his battle with diabetes, whose regulation methods were not as advanced at the time. His affliction was kept secret for most of his playing career.

2002 Donruss Classics #178 Ron Santo LGD /1500

Santo made his broadcasting debut in 1990, announcing for WGN with Pat Hughes. They'd become a famous broadcasting tandem for years to come.

It was always fun to hear Santo on the radio when I got the chance. Although I didn't hear it live, his famous call of Brant Brown's game-losing drop of a fly ball against the Brewers is among the best all-time radio calls. It showed his genuine passion for the Cubs franchise by displaying how upset he was at the time.

From 1974 on, Santo raised over $60 million with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation with the annual "Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes". 

I know that it comes off as typical of my generation, but the first I heard of Santo's untimely death was on Facebook. I remember the day vividly.

I was away at college at the time, and had just woken up to go to class. I had a few extra minutes, so I decided to check Facebook. To my surprise, a few of my friends had posted "RIP Ron Santo". I was shocked and devastated. I had to check a few news outlets before I realized that it was actually true.

I went to my classes on the sad day of December 3, 2010. But my heart wasn't in them.

The news that Santo was finally made it to the Hall of Fame this year was bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I was ecstatic that he had finally made it. He certainly deserved to be there all along.

But on the other hand, I was enraged and deeply saddened at the same time. Saddened because he wasn't around to see what probably would've been the greatest day of his life. Enraged because I kept wondering, "What was keeping him out before? You couldn't have elected him last year? Or the year before?".

But now that I reflect on it, I am genuinely glad that Ron Santo will have a plaque in Cooperstown, even if he's not around to see it. Cubs fans haven't had a lot to be proud of over the last century, but seeing Santo in Cooperstown with all the other legends of baseball will surely be a memorable day in Chicago.

It just feels good to be able to say it now. "Hall-of-Famer Ron Santo."

At heart, Ron Santo was just another avid Cubs fan. But to the people in Chicago, he is the Cubs fan.


Hackenbush said...

Great tribute to my favorite player. After so many years I still have trouble realizing he's in the Hall. -- It's silly but what I've written about the 74 card is that it looks like a little Leo Durocher taking a pee on Santo's jersey. -- My favorite Santo Hughes bit I heard one day while driving (which is when I mostly listened to games). I think it was late in the season and the game was meaningless. Ronny did what seemed like a five minute monologue on peeling an orange in one piece. It was great. RIP "Big Boy"

'30-Year Old Cardboard said...

Thanks for all of the pictures - that was a great stroll through Santo's career. We miss you Ronnie!!