Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ron Santo's life centered on the promise of spring; his death sparks memories of Grandpa Champ, friends, war & shoe-store monkey

The kind third baseman’s death exposed raw pieces of my soul.
No. 10. Ron Santo. A picture in mind’s eye of vitality and happiness, a part of my youth, of my life and dreams, gone.
Perhaps it is not really a raw feeling, but simple melancholy that set in, a realization of how many years have gone and how many miles I still need to trek to find, even find out, what I’m looking for during this sometimes savage, other times honey-slathered journey.
All I can tell you is Ron Santo’s death Thursday, Dec. 2, sent me swirling in “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel” memories that included not just this great player and captain of the Chicago Cubs -- my life’s ball club -- but also had me thinking about the brightness of spring dreams, the renewal, when the waiting ‘til next year is done and fresh hope thrives. That’s the real truth behind baseball’s allure and life’s promise.
But in addition to Ron Santo, I also thought of my first baseball hero, my Grandpa Champ, dead 36 years. He used to take me to see the Detroit Tigers play when I would visit his house at Walnut Lake in the summers. It was always a big deal. If the Yankees were in town, that made it just right. Grandpa was a big Tigers fan, knew Ty Cobb and the early guys from the days he would finish up his shift at the Nash plant and wander to Navin Field, later Briggs Stadium, when he was a young man.
He was by all accounts a great ballplayer back in Clayville, N.Y. Only his busted-up fingers kept him from pursuing a career in baseball rather than as a thresherman and later a factory line foreman. Ran for sheriff once too.
Grandpa Champ didn’t live in the past. He had a great appreciation for the players who delighted me as an 8 or 10-year- old. Stormin’ Norman Cash, Al Kaline, Jim Bunning (yes the politician with the click-heels demeanor was a fine pitcher), Dick McCauliffe, Phil Regan, Charlie Maxwell, Dick Wertz, Bill Freehan.
And when I met many of them at Howard A. Snope’s shoe store in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I lived for awhile as a grade -school kid, they all were good fellows. Howard A. Snope (I may have his name wrong, but he was a nice, bald guy and we got our school shoes there) was a part-time pool-hustler, with a table in the lower level of his store. He may have been a yo-yo champion as well. Can’t remember. Perhaps I’ve gotten the whole thing blended in the time machine that is my cluttered and concussed mind.
Snope, or maybe it was Swope?, also had a STORE MONKEY. Can’t remember the name, but I know it wasn’t Chico, a monkey I encountered later in life. That’s a whole different story, though.
When the Tigers came into the store to sign baseball cards and help the old pool shark or yo-yo hustler sell shoes, the monkey roamed freely. Everybody’s got something to hide, they say, but me, well I just let the monkey climb my shoulders. From that point on I always wanted a monkey … at least until the sad tale of Chico getting run to the ground and much worse by the dogs years later.
Anyway, Grandpa Champ first got me interested in baseball mainly because it was the soundtrack of summers at Walnut Lake, which then was intensely rural, where deer and wildcats roamed freely. He even convinced us one night there was a bear out there. Never saw one, though. Now that is an upscale suburb of Detroit. I doubt the little four-room house he and my Uncle Les built even exists any more. In reality, that is. In my mind, it is always there, especially on days like this, when I ponder what it means that Ron Santo has died.
Not all games were on television back in those Walnut Lake summers. So when they were just on the radio, that was the entertainment. We’d sit and listen to the Tigers. Van Patrick and later Ernie Harwell described the game, in detail. My imagination, as a youngster, embellished and thrived on the mental pictures of what was said. Meanwhile, we’d generally be playing poker.
I don’t play anymore. But back then, Grandpa Champ, who went out west at age 16 to work the threshing crews beginning in British Columbia and working as the wheat harvest moved Southeast, spent a lot of time teaching me and my brother, Eric, and cousins, Marc and Jeff, the tricks of the game.
And no, this wasn’t some soft chump of a Grandpa who would let his 6 and 8- year-old grandchildren win. He played for keeps. Matchsticks? He wanted them. Plastic chips? He raked them in. Got pennies, boys?
So on the occasion we did win a hand when we were listening to the Tigers it was a real victory, doubly so if Kaline made a spectacular play in the outfield or hammered the winner across. (Santo, by the way likely fueled young minds similarly during his two decades as the radio voice of the Cubs after his multi-generational career in the infield and as a pizza salesman.)
Of course when the Tigers games were on TV – usually the televised ones were day games – Grandpa watched them. Crippled by arthritis, he’d sit in his lounge chair, his pipe or cigar going, uttering the occasional “Gawd Gawd Gawd” at his team. Really angry by a bad relay, he’d punctuate it with a “damn.” Not too loud or Grandma would say “Oh, George!” while frying up his afternoon lunch of scrambled eggs, dosed with a blanket of black pepper, and a can of kippers on the side.
So you’re asking what this has to do with Ron Santo? Well those summers and the monkey in the shoe store were a part of the reason I fell, deeply and forever, in love with the Chicago Cubs.
When I was 11, we moved to Chicago. Among the first things we did for recreation was go to Wrigley Field as a family. Grandpa would go with us when he visited Chicago.
It also was a place of my liberation. As I got old enough to take the train into the city or bum a ride with a pal, the friendly confines became a place to escape with buddies, 13 or 14 or 15…. Easily old enough to buy an Old Style in the left field bleachers.
Now, those bleachers are the place yuppies go to be seen -- or to cause the Cubs to lose their only chance at a pennant in the last several decades.
Back then, and we are talking the late mid-to-late-1960s, the bleacher bums were blue-collar souls, working stiffs who had the night shift. Daytime was the only time they played ball in the beautiful confines before the bastards who govern Korporate Amerika succumbed to the TV schedulers and insisted lights be put in at Wrigley.
I may be oversimplifying, as is my right as a human being, but basically the Cubs had to put lights in if they were going to have home games in the World Series, which had begun being played at night because of network TV revenue. Otherwise, they'd have to play World Series Games away from the field built by chewing gum's success. Gasp... even perhaps at Comiskey?
(Hey, who else remembers taking the transistor radio to class in elementary school and listening to the World Series when all baseball was played --- as it should be – beneath the sun? Listened to the astronauts take off and land also.)
Anyway, I never understood why the Cubs succumbed to that blackmail and installed lights at Wrigley. It wasn’t like they ever were going to be in a World Series, anyway.
I am one of those fans who have cheered for them for five decades. They are my team. I don’t get to see a whole lot of their games. But they are in my heart and in my soul or however that Rod Stewart song goes.
But this is supposed to be about the now-dead Ron Santo.
And the summer of 1969.
That was the year that the Cubs were destined to win the pennant, rolling through the season.
Jack Brickhouse, the announcer for WGN at the time – he later became a friend – would sing “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way” on the radio and television after the Cubs dropped the Dodgers or the Giants. Unfortunately they didn’t beat the Mets often enough. More details on that later.
I got to know Jack a little bit because I would go up on the ramp to his press box to meet him when I was a kid. Later, I befriended “Clarksville’s Marilyn Monroe,” a large and wonderful spinster named Mary Harris, who ran the almost males-only club known as the tobacco board back when that was the king crop. Miss Mary was always there for me when I needed fresh tomatoes or a cuss-filled dose of Clarksville history.
She was an old woman by the time we met. And her cousin used to come to Clarksville, Tenn., to spend summers with her when he was growing up. His name: Jack Brickhouse.
Miss Mary cut my columns about Clarksville from the local newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle (named for the aforementioned tobacco leaf) and sent them to Jack. He’d write me notes or even call me. “Any friend of Mary’s is a friend of mine,” he’d say.
“Hey-Hey!” I’d say, with a laugh.
Both of them are long dead. I know later-comers to the Cubs worship Harry Caray. And that’s fine. But to me, I knew Jack Brickhouse and Harry – while quite an entertainer – was no Jack Brickhouse. Course Harry’s got the bronze statue.
There were days in the 1960s’ bleachers when I would cheer my Cubs and curse at Pete Rose, who loved every second of it, even the beer showers presented by anonymous donors. Of course, the Old Style was just so much mist by the time it reached the ball field beneath the ivy.
As those as old as me know, every time someone with a blue hat and pinstripes pumped one over the fence Jack hollered “Hey-Hey!”… or “Holly Mackerel.” (Harry added “Holy Cow” to the North Side vernacular later.)
During the 1969 season, at the games’ ends, Jack’s recorded song “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way…” pumped through the speaker system as the boys took their bows and ran to the clubhouse, beneath the left field bleachers.
Ronnie Santo, their captain, would jump up and click his heels all the way to the lockers.
Ernie Banks would laugh and cheer his teammates. If they’d played two that day, he’d say “Let’s play three.” I love Ernie Banks, too.
Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley, Billy Williams.
My friend, Jimmy Hart – I wonder what happened to him? – and I would finish our jobs at the park district and head down there as frequently as possible. Catch the tail end of a double header or go spend Saturday and Sunday there. We’d go in my 1965 Falcon or on the train.
Jimmy once stepped on my prized aviator’s sunglasses – they were in our cooler box – which really bothered me, as everyone knows how much I like my shades.
Yes, you could sneak a cooler into the games then. It’s not like now when all sports are controlled by the fellows with the screw the public rules and mentality of their hero, war profiteer and Korporate cheerleader Shotgun Dick.
It was a sport in which Golden Glovers made 50 grand. You could watch them smoking cigarettes in the dugout, perhaps tossing ‘em in the dirt by the on-deck circle. If they struck out, it might be worth picking the smoke up and finishing. After all they still were suffering the hangover from the night before.
Jimmy Hart broke my sunglasses on Billy Williams Day, a great occasion for a great man. It was standing room only, and Jack stopped by to chat with us during the seventh inning.
But this is supposed to be a story about Ron Santo.
You see, if Ernie Banks was the soul of the Cubs – and he earned that with his glove, his bat and his spirit – then Ron was the heart.
On either end of the infield, these were the team’s giants. Not those Giants. Lowercase giants. Uppercase HUMAN BEINGS.
Anyway, I got to know these boys, my boys of summer, a little back then. It was before the days of high security and Arab terrorists and American wackos with fertilizer and hate. There were no security guards with Tommy Guns, Tazers and Poisonous Snakes by the player’s entrance and exit outside the stadium. Perhaps a single beat cop with a checkered headband, but that’s about it. And he’d be as eager for fun as anyone else.
Get there early enough; a kid like me could talk to Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams. Ernie would pass by and say “it’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.”
Here comes Don Kessinger or “Hello Mr. Hickman.”
Likewise Ron Santo would stop and talk to the middle-class American dreamers who still had their lives ahead of them.
Of course we know what happens in this story.
The Cubs did not win the pennant.
The Mets – you know with Tim McGraw’s pop (who I met a couple of times and liked) hollering “You Gotta Believe” – came from deep in the race and ran the Cubs into the ground in September. Damn Art Shamsky, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee….
Anyway, I was only 17. I graduated in 1969 from Deerfield High and I had gone to Iowa State by the time the horrid end to the season came. I sat and watched, when I could, the games in the dorm recreation room. Or I listened to them. I watched the Cubs swoon.
Those were the least of my real concerns, of course. I was out on my own. I was among new people, no friends came with me, living in a new place. I was worried about the draft and the war in Vietnam. I was meeting Black Muslims and Panthers. I learned that Jimmy Hart had gotten married and was quickly to become a father back in Chicago.
But when the season was over, there was no back-biting among the Cubs. Ron Santo and Ernie Banks still smiled.
They said that phrase which has been uttered every season since: “Wait ‘Til Next year.”
In the years since then, of course, baseball has remained a poetic passion for me, although the rules guys need to cut down on the length. Nine innings needn’t go four hours.
Although I like the violence of football as well, partly because at a time in my life I became very good at dishing out that violence before it began to disgust me.
And as the Cubs were swooning in 1969 I was deep in the pursuit of life, which sometimes led me into strange corners from which I’d escape as I pursued my tomorrows.
I can’t remember if that was the year I went backstage with the Vanilla Fudge. That may have been 1970. That was another big turning point for me.
That year, 1969, remains stitched on my yellowed Deerfield High School letter sweater. Was looking at it the other day thinking I need to throw it away. Haven’t yet, though probably will. Still got my letter jacket, too.
Anyway, all of these thoughts and recollections came flooding when I heard Ron Santo had died.
I thought of my Grandpa. I thought of my cousins. I remembered the monkey in the shoe store.
I thought of my old pal, Jocko. He was a Chicago White Sox fan, but he drank warm beer with me – 69 cents a six for Van Merritt out in Iowa in 1969 – and consoled me. Or at least helped me laugh about it before we headed over to Tork’s Pub to initiate what we later would christen “Rolling,” as good a team sport as any young man could want.
That’s another long story and perhaps I’ll tell it soon. But When Ron Santo’s death was reported, I thought about Jocko, who recently lost his ex-wife to cancer. I was their best man. They still loved each other. I’ve been thinking and writing about death a lot lately, it seems. And so often cancer plays a role. “Gawd” damn cancer.
My friend and marathon running buddy, Tom Carpenter, a world-renowned dog and cat doc in SoCal, reminded me that Jocko once played against Ron Santo in a charity basketball game. Jocko was virtually chased from the game for being too rough with the captain.
(Tom … or “Carpy” as I still call him … I believe is the guy who talked Bob Barker into ending broadcasts with his plea to “have your pets spayed or neutered.”)
Lucky Billy Williams didn’t use one of his bats to tee off on Jocko’s sweaty, bald skull on that day. He did like them high and inside, after all.
There were plenty of laughs, still are, as I sit here writing this.
In 1969, there still was the endless highway of life ahead for me. So I could console myself that the Cubs would be back, that I would be able to cheer them on for decades as they continued to be winners.
But the promise was short-lived. The following year, I was in the draft lottery. I pulled a high number, but some of my friends went. Some of them died. I protested and cried.
There were so many things that were going to happen by this time in my life, by that I mean by today.
I mean, don’t trust anyone over 30 turned to don’t trust anyone over 80….
I’m 59 now. I was 42 years younger back when Ron was clicking his heels.
Those years have been good, for the most part. Bad and ugly at other times.
But that’s life.
Still, when I learned that Ron Santo had died, I knew I wasn’t quite where I was figuring I’d be by this point in my life. My late friend John Lennon sang “life is what happens while you’re busy making plans” or something like that.
He was right, of course. He didn’t plan to be gunned down 30 years ago this coming Wednesday. That may be the subject of another story, another day.
But this is about the Pizza Man, Ron Santo, No. 10, the third-baseman who embodied what the Cubs were all about.
Back when he was playing, I just knew that by now my novels would be published and I’d be a natonally recognized newspaper columnist. Some of that happened earlier than reckoned. Some of it has not happened, thanks to the economy, Shotgun Dick, the times, the death of legitimate newspapers, whoever and whatever you want to blame.
But if there’s one thing Ron Santo and his pal Ernie Banks taught me, it was patience.
Wait ‘Til Next Year.

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