Admittedly, this is an odd card for Ron Santo, the beloved Cub who passed away Thursday at the age of 70. Yet, it has always been my favorite Santo card, in part because of its dramatic landscape format and partly because it is the final Topps card that shows him in a Cubs uniform.
Unlike many sideline shots of the era, this is not your standard posed photograph. It appears that the Topps photographer suddenly called out to Santo, who turned in response and was surprised that his picture was being taken at that moment. Santo did not even have a chance to straighten out his helmet, which is tipped awkwardly to his right side. Given the expression on his face, I wonder if Santo let out a few expletives at the cameraman moments after this photo was snapped.
The card has other interesting aspects, too. Although the card is part of Topps’ 1974 set, the photograph could not have been taken during the 1973 season. Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who is seen in the background and to the immediate right of Santo, was not with the Cubs in 1973. He had been fired in the midst of the 1972 season, replaced by Whitey Lockman. So this photograph must have been taken early in 1972, or in some other previous season. It’s an interesting candid shot of Durocher, who is seen with his famously bald profile and strangely appears to be looking at the ground.
I’m not certain whether the inclusion of Durocher ion the card is merely happenstance. Could it be that Topps wanted to make a subtle statement about the relationship between Santo and Durocher? The two men did not get along%mdash;as portrayed famously in Durocher’s wonderful book, “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Durocher’s strained association with Santo, who was generally regarded as the team’s leader, played a role in his firing by the Cubs.
Santo’s card contains another mystery. I’ve looked at the card closely, but cannot figure out the identity of the man in the Cubs uniform on the far right. He’s wearing a glove, so it must be a player and not a coach, but his face is so buried in dark shadows that further identification seems impossible. Perhaps some diehard Cubs fan reading this entry will be able to shed some light.
There’s some irony to Santo’s 1974 Topps card. Though it clearly depicts him with the Cubs, he did not play for the North Siders in 1974. Facing the prospect of a fading team filled with past-their-prime stars, the Cubs began cleaning out their veterans. The aging core included Santo. Having acquired hard-hitting prospect Bill Madlock in a trade for Ferguson Jenkins just after the 1973 season, the Cubs wanted to clear out room at third base. So they shipped Santo to the California Angels for two prized young left-handers, Andy Hassler and Bruce Heinbechner.
There was just one problem. According to the newly signed Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners, Santo’s “ten and five” status gave him newfound leverage. Since he had played a minimum of 10 major league seasons, with at least the last five coming for the Cubs, Santo owned the right to veto any trade. He wanted no part of the Angels or the West Coast, rejecting the trade outright.
Still wanting to trade Santo, the Cubs asked him if he would accept a trade to any other team. With a strong desire to remain in Chicago, Santo gave Cubs management one option: the White Sox. So the Cubs worked out a deal with their cross-town rivals, sending Santo to the South Side for four young players: catcher Steve Swisher, right-hander Steve Stone, and minor league hurlers Ken Frailing and Jim Kremmel.
Thus began the strangest saga of Santo’s big league career. The sensible move would have been for the White Sox to put Santo at third base and move Bill Melton, stiffened by chronic back problems, to the DH role. Instead, the Sox did the opposite. They kept the defensively inferior Melton at third and made Santo the DH.
Santo hated the role. Later in the season, Sox manager Chuck Tanner tried to get Santo playing time in the field by putting him at second base, a position that he had played only briefly (a mere three games in 1972). The idea of putting an aging 34 year old third baseman at second base, a position that requires more range than the hot corner, made no sense. Not surprisingly, the experiment flopped. Santo showed little range to either side and struggled to turn the double play.
Off the field, Santo encountered another set of problems. He and manager Chuck Tanner did not see eye to eye. More significantly, Santo clashed with Dick Allen, the team’s superstar. Never the diplomatic sort, Santo criticized Allen for being lazy; Allen felt that Santo was egotistical and presumptuous, leading to a stormy relationship that finally ended on Sept. 8, when Allen abruptly retired.
Shortly after the season, Santo decided to announce his own retirement. Unlike Allen’s, his was permanent. A five-home run season and a .299 slugging percentage indicated that Santo’s playing days had come to an end.
That final season represented one of the few blemishes on Santo’s playing resume. For most of his Cubs tenure, Santo gave Chicago fans everything they could have wanted from a third baseman—significant power (an average of 24 home runs per season), plenty of walks (four times leading the league), and excellent if not flashy fielding at the hot corner. About all he didn’t do was steal bases, hardly a crime for an otherwise premier third baseman.
It’s long been said that Santo is the best eligible player not currently in the Hall of Fame. That status has a chance to change in 2011. I hope, it will.