Ron Santo's play, then broadcasting, comforted Cubs fans for decades
Many people, even some Cubs fans I know, might make the reasonable argument that Ron Santo, the old third baseman, ranks among the least articulate announcers ever to call a game. He made Harry Caray, even in his drunken dotage, seem erudite. My late dad would agree, but could not care less. He loved Ron Santo, first as an underrated ballplayer, but even more as the voice of the Cubs with his partner, Pat Hughes.
The newfangled announcers were either too bland or glib for him. His preferences ran completely to the babbling, incoherent, lovable homers, Santo prime among them. Anyone can call balls and strikes, or offer an astute observation on the erratic play of the second baseman during a road trip in June, or coin some distinctive way of calling a home run, but who besides Santo could produce so many central European gutteral sounds of agony as his team was on its way to blowing another game?
For most of his life, my father lived by the motto "It could be worse." That was in the real world. In the world of baseball his sensibility was that it was going to get worse, no matter how good things seem right now, and Santo was his favorite poet of imminent demise. From homer to Homer.
I'll never forget what Santo did for my dad one July day in 2001 when he was starting to show his own first signs of mortality. He and my mother had taken a bus from Milwaukee to Madison, where my wife and I were spending the summer to report a book on the Vietnam era. As my dad stepped down off the bus, he said, "David, I'm sick. I've got to get to bed right away."
We drove across town to the house and put my dad on a cot with a radio. The Cubs were playing a day game. I can't remember anymore who they were playing, either the Phillies or the Cards, I think. I do remember the Cubs were leading by eight runs in the third or fourth inning. As soon as my dad heard the score, he muttered, "Uh-oh. The Cubs are gonna blow it." For the next two hours, he and Santo were on the same wavelength. Santo moaning, my dad laughing, as the Cubs did what they were destined to do and relinquished a nine-run lead.
I was as into the game as either of them, but didn't care about the score or the final result. What made me deliriously happy was how much joy Santo was unwittingly bringing my ailing dad. What drug, what surgical operation, what wisdom from what physician, what felicitous phrase from the Santo antipode Vin Scully could have been better treatment for a sick old baseball guy? The answer is absolutely none. Two hours of joy and laughter, and he was up and ready for dinner.
This essay is excerpted from the author's recent collection of writing, "Into the Story."