Fighting to play: Ron Santo’s Battle Against Diabetes

We all love to glorify. To raise people up on pedestals and make them infallible, flawed with only perfection. Sports fans are especially guilty of this. We invest so much of ourselves in a team it can be easy to forget that the players we love, people we’ve never really met, are only human. We create and tell stories about heroes and villains. We are suckers for a rags to riches story, and we will fall in love with the underdog every time. However, some of the greatest feats in sports have no hero or great victory with a happy ending. Some are just remarkably human.

Ron Santo played for the Chicago Cubs from 1960 to 1973, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a great third baseman who played in the heart of the Cubs’ lineup. More than anything else, Cub fans adored him for his personality. Santo has a plaque at the hall of fame, and on it lists his greatest accomplishments in baseball. He was a nine-time all-star and a five-time gold glove winner. At the bottom of the plaque reads “His courageous fight with diabetes during and after his career served as an inspiration to millions.”

Truthfully, Santo was a borderline hall of famer. He had a great career, but was never particularly outstanding. He never set any big flashy records or led the league in a big statistic. It took a long time, with his first year of candidacy being in 1980, before he was elected into the hall of fame in 2012. Unfortunately he had died a few years before and could not be there when he finally made it. His wife received the honor in his place, giving an amazing induction speech.

What makes Santo’s career a feat wasn’t his stat line, it was his fight. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Santo was diagnosed with type one juvenile diabetes when he was 18 years old, just as his professional baseball career was starting. The average life expectancy for a juvenile diabetic then was roughly 25 years. Santo kept his diagnoses a secret, fearing it would end his baseball career. He would keep it a secret from the public while playing for 11 years after his Cubs debut before finally sharing his secret with fans. He would continue to play baseball until 1974.

Santo researched the disease to fight it, being successful enough to keep playing. He began taking insulin shots and learned to control his blood sugar. He would eat candy bars or drink orange juice to control his blood sugar during games. It was not a perfect system. According to the New York Times, Santo once went up to the plate with the bases loaded and began seeing three of everything. He decided to swing for the middle pitch, and ended up hitting a grand slam.

Once his playing days ended, Santo went into business for a while before making his was back to baseball as a broadcaster for the Cubs. Fans still loved the personality of the man who used to click his heels together after a victory. Santo became emotionally invested in broadcasts, echoing the highs and lows fans had when they tuned into a Cubs game.

Santo’s health eventually wore him down. Diabetes would go on to take both of his legs, before he would eventually die from complications due to cancer. His old teammates, including some of the greatest Cub players of all time, served as his pallbearers. His broadcast partner Pat Hughes gave a eulogy that caused as many laughs as it did tears.

Ron Santo wasn’t some great hero, his only special power was that he could hit a major league fastball. Santo was really just a man who loved baseball, and people loved him for it.