Commentary

Santo earned baseball's top honor

Lauded for his character and compassion, Santo enters Hall as a ballplayer

Updated: July 20, 2012, 5:14 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Glenn Beckert was in his second season with the Chicago Cubs and on a road trip in San Francisco in the spring of 1966, when he woke up a little earlier than usual and discovered his roommate giving himself an injection.

"He was hitting .365 and I was hitting .210," Beckert recalled, "so I said, 'Where are those needles? I'm not going to be here much longer if I don't get my batting average up.'"

[+] EnlargeRon Santo
Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRon Santo, one of Chicago's most beloved athletes, will finally get his due in Cooperstown this weekend.

Beckert was only half-kidding. He did say that. But he didn't borrow Ron Santo's needles. And he did end up getting a lesson on what it meant to be a diabetic.

"Eventually, everyone on the team started to know about it and it was a big thing to see how he managed it," Beckert said.

While Santo's regimen would not appear in any manual on the care of diabetes today or even back then, he did monitor his blood sugar.

"So after a game, we'd go out for drinks and Ron would say, 'Give me a scotch and water, and a piece of chocolate pie,'" Beckert recalled. "Well, I'm getting sick watching him but it was something I never knew about and I didn't realize how serious it was.

"When we were growing up, there were a lot of secrets. If a person died of cancer, no one ever mentioned why. Or they whispered."

It wasn't that Santo, who will be inducted posthumously this weekend into the Baseball Hall of Fame, wanted to keep his condition a secret, say those who knew the third basemen best.

"Knowing Ron Santo," said Cubs teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams, "he looked at it like, 'The hell with that. I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me.' That's why he didn't tell anybody for a long time. All the while, he'd still come out to the ballpark and have his problems and people told him he should quit the game. But he told me later, 'This is my life and I kept my life.' "

The issue of Santo's diabetes and how he played with it, is certainly a significant footnote to a Hall of Fame career. He would joke in later years that there were times he would come to the plate with low blood sugar, see three pitches coming at him and pick the one in the middle to hit.

"He told me later, 'I would literally blank out.' Coming to the plate after me, he said it was the only time he wished I made an out," Williams said.

Hall of Fame careers, however, are built on more than dealing with hardships, physical or otherwise. And it is that fact his teammates want people to remember.

"Here's my feeling, honestly," then-shortstop Don Kessinger said. "I'm not making light of the fact that he played with diabetes, but we all seem to focus on that fact. And whether he had diabetes or not, he was a Hall of Fame baseball player. Let's not lose sight of that. He was really good. I applaud everything he did, but that also makes me applaud him as a baseball player."

In fact to appreciate Ron Santo, the baseball player, is to look past the numbers that for a long time may have held him back in consideration for the Hall of Fame.

While his 342 home runs, 1,331 runs batted in, 2,254 hits, nine All-Star Games and five Gold Gloves rank him among the 11 major-league third basemen already in the Hall of Fame, they look relatively ordinary in comparing him to all hitters.

But the very fact that Santo is in the top 10 of third basemen all-time, said his supporters, should have weighed heavier when considering him for the Hall.

"Ron Santo's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame comes way too late," Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame third baseman and a member of the Golden Era committee that voted him in, wrote via e-mail. "His record speaks for itself. He was one of the best of the best."

But beyond that, say Santo's contemporaries, was the kind of player he was.

His career span -- 1960-74 -- came during what many consider baseball's golden pitching era, and yet he had four consecutive 30-home run seasons, seven top-10 finishes in the league in homers, and also showed his plate discipline in leading the league in walks four times.

"When you talk about [that time], it was measured by home runs, RBIs and batting average and there wasn't too much [in the way of] batting average," said Williams, also a member of the Golden Era committee. "But Ron drove in the runs, scored a lot of runs, hit home runs. Consider that among the pitchers we competed against were [Sandy] Koufax, [Don] Drysdale, [Bob] Gibson, and he put up numbers against them."

Defensively, while baseball fans across the country were rightfully admiring the highlight-reel plays of Robinson, whose Baltimore Orioles were showcased in six playoff appearances during his career, Santo was consistently among the best National League third basemen.

"He had such range to his left, he got to balls that other third basemen just didn't get to," Kessinger said. "He made my job at short so much easier.

[+] EnlargeRon Santo
Jerry Lai/US PresswireHis gregarious personality aside, Ron Santo's numbers stack up with the best third baseman in the history of baseball.

"Brooks had a real advantage over Ron because he played so many postseason games where so many people were watching. And to his credit in those games, he was fantastic. But if the Cubs won enough where he [Santo] was playing in the postseason most every year, I think the [Hall of Fame] would have come a lot quicker."

When Santo failed to get in year after year, Williams said, he wondered: "Was it because we already had three Hall of Famers [Williams, Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkins] from our team? Did he piss someone off?"

There was always that theory as well. Most notably, there was the story about him criticizing teammate Don Young in front of reporters after two critical errors against the Mets during the '69 pennant race. Santo reportedly apologized to Young the next day, but there were those who say Young lost confidence after that.

And then there were the infamous heel clicks.

"That was the one thing I didn't like," Beckert admitted. "In my opinion, it was just rubbing it in to the visiting team. I told him but he said, 'It's getting a lot of press.' I said, 'Yeah, but it's getting a lot of bad feelings from the opposing team,' but he kept doing it."

Williams saw it completely differently.

"With Ronnie, from the time he first broke into baseball, when things went real good, he'd celebrate to the highest and when things were not, he went to his lowest point," he said. "That was the only hang-up he had. If we lost 2-1 and he didn't get a base hit, he'd sit by his locker and think he was guy who lost the game."

Williams remembered the first heel click.

"It was a joyous time in 1969, we had just won and we were in first place," he said. "[Cubs manager] Leo [Durocher] saw the picture in the paper and inspired him to do it again. It was fine with him. No way was Ronnie trying to show up anybody. [Originally] it was just a spontaneous, joyous thing he did but through it all, he told me he wouldn't do it again because [of how it was viewed] over the years. Now that's something that would slip through the cracks."

Kessinger said Santo clicked his heels because he knew Cubs fans loved it. "He did it for them, never to show up the other team," he said. "I never had an opposing player bring it up and I never heard that other teams didn't like it."

"I think opponents admired him," Williams said, "because he was a tough player. It's the old saying, strong chest and a good arm. That typified Ron Santo."

When it was time for Williams to make his pitch for Santo to the Golden Era committee, made up of 16 Hall of Famers, baseball executive and veteran baseball reporters, he had notes in his hand but didn't use them.

"I think voters kind of knew by that time [Santo was Hall of Famer-caliber]," Williams said. "So I got up and talked as a teammate, as a fellow player, as a friend. It was a great discussion we had about all 10 players on the ballot. [But] Ron's in the Hall of Fame, so I must have done something right and I'm really happy for him."

In the end, though those in the room are forbidden to speak specifically about the proceedings, it was clear that Santo's entire career as a player and a broadcaster, as well as a life dedicated to sidestepping his diabetes while later becoming one of its most successful spokesmen and fundraisers, also played a part in pushing him through.

But, say his teammates, it was Santo the baseball player, who will be enshrined in Cooperstown on Sunday.

"He was consistent," Beckert said. "He never gave up, he was always trying to do his best every game, he always was strong, in shape, with a good mental attitude. He inspired me in that way."

Santo retired at the relatively young age of 34, spending his last season with the crosstown rival White Sox.

"I felt sorry for him when he came to the South Side," said Sox executive Roland Hemond, a Golden Era committee member. "Sox fans couldn't buy into him because they couldn't identify with him. But he was a great guy.

"He really showed me character after the end of his first year with us. He had a two-year contract but he said, 'Roland, I just can't get it done anymore, forget the second year.' Not too many players would do that. He could have gone through the paces, opened the season for us, maybe played a month or so and said see you later and been paid. He's the only player I've ever encountered who voluntarily gave up the second year like that. But he wasn't able to perform for us as much as he wanted to and he was such a strong competitor with such high standards."

Through diabetes, through all the normal aches and pains of professional baseball, Santo played 154 or more games for 11 straight seasons -- more than 160 in seven of them.

"I knew he was a great player, I knew he was an All-Star, I knew he did a lot of things people might not have noticed or realized," Kessinger said. "Can I say every day at shortstop that I knew I was playing beside a Hall of Famer? I don't know. But it was [evident] when it was over."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.