(This is Day 15 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Ron Santo who grew up near Seattle.
For as long as Ron could remember, what he loved most in life was playing baseball.
And he was good at it, too.
By the summer when he was 14, Ron had developed enough of a reputation on the Seattle Little League circuit to latch on with the local All-Star Babe Ruth team, and he helped lead that team to the Babe Ruth World Series.
There, against a team from Tennessee, the teenager drilled a grand slam that cleared the center field fence some 354 feet from home plate.
Around that same time, young Ron learned that he had a disease called, “diabetes.” He would definitely need to change the way he ate and lived his life, but Ron was intent on continuing to play baseball.
And boy, did he!
After a standout high school career, Santo was scouted by several Major League teams in 1959. Those were the wild west days before the baseball draft, and Santo finally signed with the Chicago Cubs on a $20,000 free agent contract.
Santo hit well in 136 games for the Double-A San Antonio Missions but committed 53 errors at third base in 136 games.
His bat carried the day, though, and Ron began the 1961 season with the Triple-A Houston Buffs for whom he smacked seven home runs in 71 games.
That was good enough for a call-up to the Cubs, and Santo made his Chicago debut at Wrigley Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 26, 1960.
The little boy with the big bat and big dreams had made it all the way to the Big Leagues.
Over the next few years, Ron dug in at the hot corner for the Cubs and continued to hone his bat. He reached 30 home runs in a season for the first time in 1964, then reeled off four such campaigns in a row.
Those early years were also marked by lots of errors but enough improvement in the field that Ron won five straight Gold Gloves from 1964 through 1968.
Santo probably should have won the 1967 National League MVP award, and he was the proverbial perennial All-Star.
All of which is to say that the Seattle boy named Ron Santo built himself into a legend among the Cubbies faithful during a period when the team itself inspired little in the way of pennant hopes.
Out of the Limelight
By December of 1973, the Cubs had teased their fans with several excellent seasons — with no championship of any kind to show for their efforts — but were once again a fifth-place team in the new(ish) National League East, and Ron Santo was an aging third baseman whose best years were behind him.
Sure, he was only 33 years old and had hit 20 homers in ’73, but he was starting to have trouble staying in the lineup. And, in the field, he had become average at best.
So on December 11, the Cubs decided to do themselves — and maybe Santo — a favor by trading him to the California Angels.
The deal would land a couple of young pitchers for Chicago and give Santo the chance to become the Angels’ designated hitter, a “position” which had debuted the year before.
But the DH wasn’t the only new thing in the game, as players and owners had agreed to the “10-and-5” rule after the 1972 strike.
Armed with his 14 seasons in the Majors and with the Cubs, and not interested in relocating to the west coast, Santo vetoed the trade.
The Cubs weren’t done, though, because they wanted to be done with Santo.
It was a compromise that Ron could accept — he got to keep playing baseball and he got the keep playing baseball in Chicago — so he let the trade go through.
Spring of Dismay
You can imagine that, even by the time Santo reported to White Sox Spring Training in Sarasota, FL, in February of 1974, he was still grappling with the move.
Sure, he’d be playing in the Windy City as usual, but transplanted from the cozy confines of Wrigley Field on the Northside to old Comiskey Park on the Southside.
And even spring in the Grapefruit League had to be disorienting after spending the previous several Marches in Scottsdale, AZ, with the Cubs.
So, when young collectors pulled their first Santo cards from packs of 1974 Topps baseball cards about the same time Santo was tugging on his White Sox pinstripes for the first time, they were greeted with a mind-boggling, time-warp representation of reality.
“What Is Going on Here?” — Topps Edition
Santo is there in the foreground of the grainy, horizontal picture, looking as confused and annoyed as you might imagine he would be given the circumstances of the preceding few months.
But he’s still in Cubs garb, not Sox togs, and that’s as you’d expect, too, when you think about it. Topps generally issued their cards a year after their photographers snapped their pics, and that was especially true in 1974, the first year all the cards were issued in one series.
No chance to include Spring Training photos of players with new teams in series issued later in the season because there were no later series.
So this photo is from 1973, then, right?
But that looks an awful lot like Leo Durocher … um … doing … um … something (relieving himself?) just behind Santo, doesn’t it? And Durocher did wear Number 2 during his Cubs managerial stint, which ran from 1966 through part of the 1972 season.
He was replaced that year by Whitey Lockman, who also wore Number 2 in both 1972 and 1973.
But then who is that player with the big glove standing even farther back in the frame? A first baseman, maybe?
The legendary Ernie Banks played first base at Wrigley in the latter half of his career, stretching all the way until 1971.
If I had to choose a combo, I’d pick Santo, Durocher, and Banks because that would mean Topps was at least three years behind on their photos, and that prospect is intriguing somehow.
And that trio — as well as the one in which Williams replaces Banks — represents the hopes and dreams of a generation of Cubs fans. As the team rose and fell in the late 60s and early 70s, so did those visions of World Series delight, shaped and guided by this core of the team.
Decline, Fall, and Rise
As the 1974 Topps cards hit store shelves in Chicago, though, the Cubs were at the very head of a new era of futility.
Lockman had led them to a losing record in 1973 and would be fired before 1974 was done, replaced by Jim Marshall.
The Cubbies faithful would endure 11 straight non-winning seasons before the magical 1984 team teased with visions of greatness, then fell flat in the postseason.
As for Ron Santo, he would last just one season with the White Sox before hanging up his spikes at the end of 1974, just 34 years old.
As the Cubs plummeted through the second half of the 1970s, Santo fell from the public consciousness.
By the time he hit the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 1980, he was an afterthought and failed to receive even 4% of the votes.
That dropped his name from future consideration in the writers’ vote, but the BBWAA successfully petitioned the Hall of Fame board to have Santo — along with Curt Flood and Ken Boyer — added back onto the yearly ballot starting in 1985.
Santo steadily gained more support until his final year of eligibility in 1998, when his name appeared on 43.1% of ballots, still well short of the 75% required for election.
All during the 80s and 90s and 00s, Santo’s health declined, and his old nemesis diabetes finally got him on December 2, 2010. A year later, the Veterans Committee elected him to Cooperstown.
At last, he was back with his Cubs teammates, just as he had been on that strange but wonderful 1974 Topps baseball card.
Ron Santo had finally made it from Seattle to Cooperstown, by way of Chicago and with a brief stop in the Cardboard Twightlight Zone.