While he’s pleased with his father’s Dec. 5 election to baseball’s Hall of Fame, the late Ron Santo’s oldest son, Ron Santo, Jr., wonders if the enshrinement could have come years earlier — while Santo was still alive — if previous Hall voters understood the difficulty of playing with unregulated diabetes.
Santo, Jr., 50, of Des Plaines, said the all-time great Cubs third baseman pulled off an under-rated feat by performing at a Hall-of-Fame level without being able to accurately measure his blood-sugar levels. As a result, he sometimes experienced diabetic reactions, likely aggravated by daylong games at Wrigley Field in the 1960s and early 1970s, then switching to a nighttime schedule on the road.
“When he was up for the baseball writers committee [in the 1980s and 1990s, and] then eventually the veterans committee with all the living Hall-of-Famers [from 2003 to 2009], I wish all of them could have tried playing baseball for one year with diabetes, with no glucometer,” the younger Santo said. “They now have all that advanced technology he didn’t have.
“My mom would tell us kids, if your dad didn’t have diabetes there’s no telling how much better he would have been on top of how great he was then. He would have played longer [than 14 seasons]. There were many, many days when he was tired or worn out because of his blood-sugar levels. He still put those numbers up [playing against] great pitching and great players.
“If all of them could have walked in his shoes for one season. Come back and tell me how it was to play. I think that would have made a huge difference. It would have given them a much different outlook and a much better perception of what he played through.”
Stashed Sugar Fix
Even physicians did not have accurate instruments to measure blood sugar during Santo’s career. While administering to himself his daily insulin shots, he could only react to symptoms with an instant sugar fix via candy bars or soda pop stashed in the dugout.
In one notable 1968 incident, Santo’s vision blurred due to a diabetic reaction. At bat in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field, Santo saw three baseballs pitched to home plate. The third baseman swung at the middle baseball, and slugged a game-winning, grand slam homerun. Santo ran the bases as quickly as possible to get to the candy bar waiting in the dugout to stem the reaction.
Santo was afflicted with Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes, diagnosed when he was 18, before he signed with the Cubs. He did not initially reveal the disease for fear of losing his contract. Santo went public with the diabetes story in his 12th season in 1971.
By then questions were raised about the Cubs’ all-daytime home schedule that remained in effect until Aug. 8, 1988, when the first Wrigley Field night game was played. Medical experts and baseball officials have long theorized the constant switching from day games at home to mostly night games on the road through the six-month schedule tires out many healthy players, let alone those afflicted with diabetes.
Santo, Jr. helped manage his father’s personal appearances through a resurgence in popularity as WGN-Radio’s Cubs color announcer starting in 1990. But a decade into that period, diabetes really began to bite at the elder Santo. It seemed to be a delayed reaction to the strains of playing with the disease, through heart problems, the amputation of both his legs and bladder cancer that eventually claimed his life at age 70 on Dec. 3, 2010.
Day to Night, Back to Day Took Toll
Santo, Jr. said the time-zone changes and switching to night games when hitting the road was an additional strain on his father.
“That physically is what caught up to him later in his life,” Santo, Jr. said. “That’s what all the physical problems he had later in life was due to — unbalanced regulation of his sugars during his playing days. By the time he was 60, it all caught up to him. Starting with his heart condition, then his two legs.”
Though Santo is no longer alive, Santo, Jr., his stepmother Vicki Santo, brother Jeff Santo and sister Linda Brown will continue to play an active role in the local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Ron Santo began his annual “Walk for the Cure” in 1979. The October event, including a walk near downtown Chicago and another in Busse Woods near Schaumburg, has raised some $60 million for diabetes research.
“It was the first year without Ron,” said Nicolette Coorlas, director of the Santo walk. “[The family] was there to kick off the event and greeted the walkers. They had an absolutely wonderful day, and continued in Ron’s steps by being visible. All those years, on walk day, it was such a special day for Ron, to see him greeting all our walkers, young or old. The name of the walk will never change.”
But Santo, Jr.’s role will change. He’ll handle other personalities in a desired sports-promotional gig while deciding how to sell or disperse his father’s signed memorabilia.
“Anything the Cubs do in honoring him, I’m certainly involved with that,” he said of the run-up to July induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. “I’m involved with any licensing thing. It’s certainly a change. The memorabilia thing has changed. I do have some signed memorabilia from him. I can sell a little bit — photos, baseballs, jerseys — put some into fundraising auctions. I’d probably hold onto some. I’ll be very picky of who I sell it to.”
One thing, though, won’t ever change — the fans’ love for Ron Santo.
“The people’s choice,” said his son. “He’s always had a great connection with the fans. Dad being the No. 1 Cubs fan, it certainly was very nice to see all the people come out. He helped people to be positive, to see what he did [to overcome diabetes].”