Nature abhors a vacuum. So, where pessimism sucks the air out of life, Nature created Ron Santo. Even if you hate baseball – or just reading about baseball – it's hard not to love Ron Santo.
One must experience Ron Santo to do him justice. The legendary third baseman for the Chicago Cubs, a nine-time All Star, has been the team’s radio analyst for 20 years. The closest way to describe his broadcasting is that it’s like listening to your crazy uncle yelling at the TV with a beer in his hand.
But even if you wince occasionally, just knowing he’s part of your family makes you feel good.
Santo regularly complains at length about how his broadcast partner Pat Hughes eats soup with sandwiches. He’ll come back to the booth halfway through an inning and apologize, "Sorry, I was in the bathroom." Once, he brought his cleaning woman in and introduced her. It’s a daily occurrence to hear him agonize over Cubs misplays with "Oh, nooooooooooooooo!! What is going on here???!" His most common Expert answer to questions is an honest, "I don't know." He talks openly about everything…including his toupee, which he acknowledges once caught on fire during a broadcast
Pure, utter honesty is Ron Santo’s hallmark, and why he’s loved in the city. Never mind that his voice sounds like a broken cement mixer. You know that “Ronnie” cares profoundly about the Chicago Cubs, and will always, always, always tell you the truth.
In this day and age, it is terribly refreshing.
Example. Hughes and Santo interview a guest celebrity each day. One memorable game, Olympic gold-medalist Bruce Jenner was in the booth. Afterwards, returning from commercial, listeners were treated to Pat Hughes calmly doing play-by-play, all the while hearing Ron Santo venting in the background, “Can you believe the ego of that guy???…Man. What an ego…Talking about his airplanes…Oh, man. Oh, man.” For five minutes.
Further, it’s the engulfing passion of Santo’s broadcasts that affects listeners because they know his personal history. That he has diabetes, failing eyesight, has had several heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, his heart stopping once, countless operations and both legs amputated. And all he does is exude joy and optimism – for a team that hasn’t won a World Series in 102 years. Never a word of personal complaint. Instead, his Annual Walk has raised $50 million for Juvenile Diabetes.
(A wonderful documentary on Santo’s life, This Old Cub was made by his son, filmmaker Jeff Santo. Like the man, it’s honest, open, moving, wistful, hilarious, joyful and utterly optimistic.)
When the Cubs made the playoffs in 2003, Santo couldn’t be there, because he needed his bladder removed. As tribute, the ballplayers themselves kept his old uniform in the dugout. This for an announcer.
And all that only touches the surface.
A Hughes and Santo broadcast is like nothing else. It’s less play-by-play than a vaudeville act that happens to take place during a baseball game. People don’t say they’re going to listen to the Cubs game, they (literally) call it “The Pat and Ron Show.”
This is a broadcast where you can hear extended debates about the best pillows to take on vacation. About cloud formations. Where celebrity visitors are handled so freely they once provoked actor Billy Dee Williams to admit, "This is the strangest interview I've ever done in my life" -- prompting Pat Hughes to laugh, "Hey, we do this every day."
It’s unique. And uniqueness can be foreign to an untrained ear. But it’s Mozartian opera to the aficionado.
The Hughes and Santo relationship is a complex novel that weaves stories and themes and brings them up again many chapters later. It's the development of a friendship that seeps through the loudspeaker and becomes endearing. They’ll drive to work together. Support one another. Ridicule each other for being cheap, or dressing badly, or anything.
It's real life, it's human, and when Santo explains he won’t be there tomorrow because he’s got a doctor’s appointment, you know you are a part of that family.
Pat Hughes is an accomplished and engrossing broadcaster. “And Ronnie…” – as a WGN announcer once noted – “Well…Ronnie is Ronnie.”
Ron Santo is a force of nature. One night in Milwaukee, Santo saw an opposing pitcher and was reminded of another player. For 10 bewildering, frustrating minutes, he kept trying to think of the name, getting more maddened by each agonizing minute. Finally, he realized who it was the pitcher reminded him. It was – the pitcher himself! Pat Hughes politely chimed in, “Proving once again, folks, that we do this live.”
It’s what makes Ron Santo a joy. On a blistering afternoon in St. Louis, Hughes commented it was so hot that he forgot what he was talking about. Santo openly replied, “I do that every day.”
The truth is, you always know what Ron Santo is talking about. It’s that in the midst of any suffering, there is hope. And comfort. Even if it means, “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow, my man.”
Ron Santo has always worn his heart on his sleeve. Even as a Cubs player, he would sometimes leap in the air after a victory and click his heels.
The other day, Santo missed a couple games because he was in the hospital. He called in on the phone.
The only remaining question for Ron Santo is whether he’ll get elected to the Hall of Fame. With 342 homeruns and five Gold Gloves, he’s come painfully close. Too many times. But his legend is set. His number has been retired by the Chicago Cubs and flies high above Wrigley Field. You can hear his acceptance speech, or hear him broadcast. But more than anything, even on your worst day – especially on your worst day – you just appreciate that he’s been here.
Pat and Ron (L) -- photo credit: WGN Radio