After 30 years of waiting in vain, the late Cubs icon Ron Santo is at long last a Hall of Famer.
The Cubs icon was elected today, receiving 15 of 16 votes cast by the Golden Era Committee. He was the only one deemed worthy by the committee, with White Sox great Minnie Minoso coming up three votes shy.
When the results were announced, you could almost hear all of Chicago let out a sign and say “Well it’s about damn time.” And really, it is about damn time. Santo was one of the best third basemen of his era, a defensive whiz who could hit for power and average. That he wasn’t elected during his lifetime is one of the great fallacies in the history of the Hall of Fame.
Today, the Cubs honored the best third baseman in team history with a simple gesture. One more time, the team put his name in lights on the iconic red marquee, hanging flags bearing his name on either side and from the flagpole atop the centerfield scoreboard, a simple tribute to a man beloved by an entire city. Rain – and let’s face it, work – kept many fans away from the stadium when I swung by immediately following the announcement, but there were no shortage of TV camera crews as you can see below.
Seemingly everyone in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs have a Ron Santo story. I myself have two, having profiled him last year for ESPN.com’s Page 2 and attended the infamous Brant Brown game in Milwaukee as a high school sophomore on September 23, 1998, a day that gave us one of Ronnie’s infamous “Oh NOOOOO!!!!” call after Brown dropped an easy fly ball with the Cubs in the thick of the pennant race.
Santo told me last year when I was interviewing him in the WGN Radio booth that he had forgiven Brown immediately afterward, that he was just reacting as many of us fans were in the stands and at home. That more than anything is what made Ronnie so endearing to Cubs fans. He was one of us.
As a player, he played the game with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old staying out just ten minutes longer on the sandlot with his buddies. He was good at it too, esttablishing himself as one fo the best third basemen of his era. When all was said and done, his offensive numbers were solid, posting a lifetime .277 BA with 342 HR, 1,331 RBI, a .826 OPS and a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 66 over a career spaning 15 seasons, all in Chicago, all but one with the Cubs.
He was a key cog in the engine that drove the 1969 Cubs to the brink of the playoffs, which would’ve been the team’s first postseason berth since falling in the 1945 World Series. He’d punctuate every win by leaping in the air and clicking his heels, only further endearing him to fans at the corner of Clark and Addison. During my three years as a racing sausage for the Milwaukee Brewers, I would click my heels before every race as a tribute to Santo. I’m not sure anybody at Miller Park ever understood why a racing sausage was jumping and clicking his heels before every race, but if you were in the crowd and saw it, now you know.
After his playing days were over with, he’d go on to become the lead singer of the city of Chicago’s unofficial summer house band, the color analyst for Cubs broadcasts on WGN Radio. He was never the most polished broadcaster nor did he claim to be, and that’s why Cubs fans everywhere loved him. He was one of us. He lived and died with every pitch. He didn’t sugarcoat anything the way some color analysts do. If the team stunk, he’d say they stunk. If they were winning — which was all too rare during Santo’s tenure in the broadcast booth — he’d tell you about it with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old who ate all his Halloween candy way too quickly. His passion for the game brought those summer afternoons to life, emanating through the radio and bringing an added dose of sunshine to otherwise mundane days.
At the end of the day, he was one generation’s cool older brother who wore his varsity jacket with a sense of pride and accomplished feats of athleticism that they often then tried to replicate in their own backyards, the kind of guy you could feel good about looking up to. He was another generation’s crazy, awesome uncle, telling stories about the glory days and keeping us entertained as we watched our favorite team together. He was a Hall of Famer as a player and a Hall of Famer as a human being, one of the few heroes I’ve ever had who actually lived up to the billing in person. The 20 minutes I spent with him in the WGN Radio booth last Spring interviewing him about his remarkable life remains one of the most memorable and cherished experiences of my life.
It’s a shame he couldn’t have been alive to take the call from Cooperstown himself, but as some Cubs fans are saying this evening, with this honor it’s better late than never. We here in Chicago always knew that Ron Santo belonged in the Hall of Fame. It’s nice to see the Hall of Fame at long last agrees with us.