(A worker at Wrigley Field today lowers to half-mast the flag honoring Seattle native Ron Santo, who died yesterday. Photo by Associated Press).
When I think back on Ron Santo, who died yesterday at age 70 after a courageous battle with, well, just about every malady known to man, I’ll remember most his incredible fortitude in facing his health challenges. Ask anyone who ever spent time around him — he never complained about getting a raw deal, even as he faced heart problems, cancer, and operation after operation on his legs (both of which eventually had to be amputated because of the ravages of diabetes). In fact, he just used that as motivation to work harder on behalf of finding a cure for diabetes. His fund-raising efforts helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and I feel confident he’d ask anyone wanting to do something on his behalf to make a donation to that organization. (In fact, I see now his family is asking just that: In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Ron’s memory to the Juvenile Diabetes
Research Foundation – Illinois chapter at the below address, by visiting
https://www.jdrfillinois.org and clicking on “Donate Now” or by calling 312-670-0313.
JDRF Illinois Chapter
11 S. LaSalle Street
Ron’s life challenges actually began in Seattle, where he was born on Feb. 25, 1940. In a 1992 article in the Chicago Tribune, Santo tells how his father, Louis Santo, an alcoholic, left the home when Ron was 6 and his sister Adielene was 8. Their mother, Vivian, later remarried, but she and Santo’s stepdad, John Constantino, were killed in a car accident in 1973 while driving to spring training in Arizona to watch Ron play with the Cubs.
Santo told the Tribune:
“As long as I can remember, I always had a glove in my hand. (My dad) was the first person to put a glove in my hand when I was 2 years old, and you could say he was the one who started me in baseball.
“I guess he was a wonderful man when he wasn’t drinking, but I just remember the bad times. One weekend, he didn’t show up. Then 14 years later, after I signed with the Cubs, I walked into the clubhouse and there he was. Then I didn’t see him until my folks were killed, and after that not until 1975 or 1976, when I went back to Seattle to make amends, and he died a year later.”
But Santo nevertheless thrived with his mother and stepfather, who provided him a loving home in the Rainier Valley neighborhood known as “Garlic Gulch.” His home was so close to Sicks Stadium he could see the lights of the ballpark out his window. During his childhood, at various times, Santo worked for the Seattle Rainiers as a bat boy, groundskeeper, clubhouse helper and press-box attendant.
In a 2001 interview I did with Ron, he told the story of how he signed with the Cubs out of Franklin High School, where he graduated in 1958. He had attracted the attention of scouts at a high-school All-Star Game in New York. Remember, there was no draft in those days. Players were free to sign with whatever team they wanted. All 16 clubs sent representatives to the Santo home to try to lure him to sign with them.
Here’s what I wrote in the article, which highlighted his election to the Franklin High School Hall of Fame (where he joined an eclectic group that included, among others, another Seattle baseball legend, Fred Hutchinson, as well as musician Kenny G):
Santo’s stepfather listened to their (scouts’) overtures one at a time on an hourly schedule. Though the Cubs’ bonus offer of $20,000 was the lowest of them all — he was offered as much as $80,000 by other teams — Santo chose them anyway.
Santo’s stepfather felt the Cubs offered the quickest path to the major leagues, and Ron felt a strong loyalty to the late scout Dave Kosher, who had championed Santo’s career.
“He always believe in me,” Santo said. “I’ll never forget the time he said to me at Sicks’ Stadium, ‘One day you’ll be hitting the ball out of this park.’ He felt strongly I’d make the major leagues, and he followed my career at Franklin very closely.”
I’ve talked today to several of Santo’s Franklin High buddies, who naturally are devastated by the news. I’ll feature their comments in a tribute column running in Saturday’s Seattle Times, but I’ll throw out as a sneak preview this comment from close friend Bill Chatalas, Franklin ’58.
“Ronnie was was probably the toughest, kindest and wittiest guy I knew. He was so tough, mentally and physically. That’s why he was as good as he was. A lot of guys in high school didn’t care for him. They thought he was conceited. He wasn’t conceited; he was sure of himself. He was a very confident guy, anything but conceited. He just knew how good he was. He could walk the talk.”
Santo, Chatalas said, “was a miracle man. My wife kept saying, ‘This guy was my hero.’ With all the health problems he went through, he never complained. You’d never know he had a prloblem. He was an incredible guy.”