(Ron Santo shown during spring training of 2007. Associated Press Photo).
Ron Santo was the greatest major-league player ever to come out of the city of Seattle proper, not that it’s a huge list. There was Fred Hutchinson, of course, and Billy North. Rube Walberg, who graduated from Seattle Christian High School, won 155 games in the 1920 and ’30s. There were Tom Lampkin, Ken Phelps, Sammy White, Paul Dade, and a few assorted others.
But Santo, out of Franklin High School, is the only one who could have, and should have, and I firmly believe eventually will, make the Hall of Fame.
Here’s an excerpt from a 2001 story I wrote when Santo was to be inducted into the Franklin High School Hall of Fame that gives a flavor of his Seattle roots:
Looking out the window of his childhood home in the Rainier Valley neighborhood known as “Garlic Gulch,” Ron Santo could see the lights of nearby Sicks’ Stadium. At various times in his youth, he worked for the Seattle Rainiers as a bat boy, groundskeeper, clubhouse helper and press-box attendant.
Baseball was in his blood, so it was only fitting that years later, when a group of Franklin High School buddies were discussing their futures, mapping out plans to become lawyers, bankers and doctors, Santo had a different idea.
Santo told them he was going to give pro baseball a try. If he didn’t make it in four years, he would go back to college and pursue a business career.
“I knew I had a gift, a special gift,” he said in a telephone interview from his Chicago-area home.
Baseball was a wise choice. Santo was in the big leagues by age 20, forging a career with the Chicago Cubs that made him, arguably, the most successful ballplayer Seattle has ever produced. Santo made nine All-Star teams and won five Gold Gloves as a third baseman, finishing his 15-year career with 342 home runs.
Tonight, Santo will be inducted into Franklin’s Hall of Fame, joining a diverse group that includes former Rainier manager Fred Hutchinson (who once arranged for a petrified Santo, as a teenager, to take batting practice against ex-Dodger Don Newcombe) and musician Kenny G.
Santo, who has previously been inducted into the Chicago Hall of Fame and the Italian-American Hall of Fame–but not, to the everlasting frustration of his fans and himself, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown–cherishes the honor.
Though he can’t attend in person because of his commitments as a Cub broadcaster, he has sent along a videotape expressing his thanks.
“I had a lot of wonderful memories at Franklin High,” Santo said. “That was a great time for baseball in Seattle. It was a hotbed, and I always felt there were a lot of players I played against who could have made it in pro ball.”
I saw Santo last week at Wrigley Field during a side trip I made while the Mariners were in St. Louis. I picked up a story on Lou Piniella and another on Carlos Silva, but I also enjoyed sitting on the bench for nearly half an hour with Santo, mainly just shooting the breeze. He reminisced about Hutchinson, Edo Vanni, Dewey Soriano, and other legends of Seattle baseball.
Santo, who has broadcast Cubs games for more than 20 years, said he was looking forward to coming home to Seattle this week with the Cubs (who open a three-game series tonight at Safeco), seeing his old Franklin buddies and relatives who still live in the Seattle area.
But then came this story out of Chicago that Santo will skip the Seattle series for health reasons, and cut back his travel to Midwest only next year.
I was well aware of Santo’s health issues, much stemming from a lifelong battle with diabetes, but also including cancer and heart trouble. I realize he turned 70 in February. Yet I thought he looked great last week, and he seemed to be in fine spirits, eager for what would have been just his second time to broadcast the Cubs from Seattle (the other occuring in 2002, when then-mayor Greg Nickels honored him at City Hall). Ron said he felt good, though admitted that his diabetes throws him for a loop every once in awhile.
I asked Santo, who was part of the heartbreaking 1969 Cubs team that was overtaken by the Miracle Mets, and has witnessed all the heartbreak that followed, if he believes in his heart of hearts he’ll see the Cubbies win a World Series.
“I’m telling you, I believe I am,” he replied immediately. “Ever since Lou (Piniella), and right before Lou, I could see our minor league starting to build. Now you look at (Starlin) Castro, you look at (Tyler) Colvin, (Andrew) Cashner. We have some talent that’s coming up. I do believe we’ve got the pitching, and we have some good pitching in the minor leagues. I feel (general manager) Jim Hendry has done a fabulous job.”
Yet the Cubs come to town seven games under .500, and seven games out of first place. For Santo, it’s likely to be yet another “Wait ‘Til Next Year” scenario.
The Cubs may be in town, but without Santo, an important piece is missing.