Hall of Fame Weekend: thinking of Ron Santo

Although Ron Santo died nearly two years ago, his spirit is the one that most pervades this year’s Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. As someone who has long argued for Santo to make the Hall of Fame, it’s especially satisfying for me to see him finally receive the honor, even if it has to come after his passing at the age of 70.

Santo’s presence will certainly be felt at Sunday’s induction ceremony, but it will also pervade the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown on Saturday morning and afternoon. Beginning at 11:30 a.m., the Cubs will host an open reception in honor of Santo. Several of his former teammates are expected to attend, including Randy Hundley and Glenn Beckert, and will mingle with fans. The reception is free to the public, though visitors are encouraged to make a small donation to the Cubs.

The reception is a wonderful idea, and a fitting tribute to a Chicago legend and icon. Santo has become so well known that you’ve probably read and heard most everything relevant about his career, but I’ve tried to uncover some interesting and little-known tidbits about the great third baseman while researching his Hall of Fame file and wandering through the Internet. Here are a few tidbits:

*During the winter of 1964-’65, Santo told the Cubs that he wanted to move from third base to shortstop in the spring, as a way of filling a void left by the departure of veteran shortstop Andre Rodgers. The Cubs, who had traded Rodgers to the Pirates, initially indicated that bonus baby Don Kessinger and the versatile Jimmy Stewart would be the leading candidates to replace Rodgers.

“I’ve asked the Cubs for permission to shift to shortstop,” Santo told the Chicago writers. “I am confident that I can play the position and will be of greater value to the team at shortstop than I am at third base.”

Let’s keep in mind that Santo was coming off arguably his finest season (with a .962 OPS), so it’s somewhat striking that he volunteered to make such a change. Deciding to take him up on the offer, the Cubs worked Santo out at shortstop during the spring of 1965. But they ultimately decided to go with a combination of Kessinger, Stewart and journeyman Roberto Pena. Santo played every one of his 164 games at his accustomed position of third base.

How would Santo have fared at shortstop? He certainly had the soft hands and the strong throwing arm required to handle the position, but it’s doubtful that his range would have held up over a full season. Still, it’s nice to think of a star player who volunteered to switch positions, especially in today’s age when teams practically need a federal proclamation to switch a player’s position for the good of the team.

*In the early 1960s,the Cubs seriously considered trading Santo to the Dodgers. Early in 1962, the Cubs discussed a trade that would have sent Santo to Los Angeles for a package of Frank Howard, right-hander Stan Williams and infielder Dick Tracewski. The rumors swirled so heavily in April that they began to take a toll on Santo. At first, he laughed off the rumors, before eventually giving them some credence.

The rumors even created a controversy, which turned out to be a false alarm. After the Cubs played the Dodgers, a report circulated that Los Angeles’ third base coach, Leo Durocher, had spent some of the game yelling at Santo, needling him that he was about to change uniforms. The report infuriated Cubs GM John Holland, who hinted that tampering charges might be filed against Durocher.

As it turned out, there was nothing to the story. Santo said that he and Durocher had casually talked about the trade rumors, which Santo had already heard about for days, but that “Leo the Lip” had not yelled at him or needled him in any way.

Of course, the trade never did take place. Santo remained a Cub, and was eventually joined by Durocher, who became his manager in Chicago.

*Finally, a lighter note. We all know that Santo was extraordinarily popular in Chicago. Yet, I did not know that his popularity made him something of a Chicago food king. He was so beloved, in fact, that he successfully started his own pizzeria, which was based in the suburbs and was known by the rather obvious name of “Ron Santo Pizza.”

Santo’s pizza venture represented his first foray into the food and restaurant business. The pizza apparently caught on in the Chicago area, as the Cubs sold the brand at Wrigley Field during the late 1960s and early ’70s. At the ballpark, it was served as a personal size pizza, featuring the usual sauce, cheese and a few slices of sausage. As a lover of pizza, I wish that I’d had a chance to sample the Santo brand, but the pizza never made it to my home town in Westchester County.

Hall of Fame Weekend news and notes

Here are some additional signings that will be taking place in Cooperstown this weekend. Pete Rose will be signing at Safe at Home, Denny McLain will appear at Paterno Brothers Sports, and fomer Yankees (Ron Blomberg, Elliott Maddox and Roy White) will be signing at Seventh Inning Stretch. All the memorabilia shops are on Main Street.

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