Up until July 8, 1969 -- almost exactly fifty years ago -- Ron Santo was more or less unanimously admired across baseball. And why not? He did everything you would want a ballplayer to do. He played almost every single game at third base for the Cubs from 1963-1969. He hit with power. He was good for something like 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 100 walks basically every season. He played a good third base; he won four Gold Gloves. He was consistent enough to get MVP votes each of those seven seasons, and he led the league in WAR in 1967.
And he was what sportswriters often called the consummate professional. Santo was the Cubs captain.
Then came that July 8 game. And, with the pressure, the intensity and the disappointment all bubbling together into one toxic brew, Santo (for just a moment) lost his mind.
It was never quite the same after that.
July 8, 1969 was a Tuesday -- the Cubs played the Mets that evening at old Shea Stadium. This was the biggest game in New York Mets history. True, that says more about New York Mets history than the game itself, but so it goes. The Mets had won five in a row. They were nine games above .500 -- the first time they'd ever been above .500 in July -- and they were in second place behind the Cubs by a mere 5 1/2 games. There was a feeling in New York, a dare-not-say-it-out-loud suspicion, that this Mets team might be something special. More than 55,000 poured into Shea to find out.
Ron Santo, meanwhile, knew that his Cubs were something special. They had been building to this moment for his entire career. He had endured the five stages of Cubs Grief -- being terrible, rebuilding, being terrible again, rebuilding again, and finally, shockingly, competence. In '67, they won 87 games, their best record since World War II ended. In '68, they stayed in place. And in '69, Santo knew, the Cubs were the team to beat.
That day, the Cubs sent out a now-legendary baseball team.
Behind the plate: All-Star Randy Hundley.
At first base: All-time great Ernie Banks.
At second-base: All-Star Glenn Beckert.
At shortstop: Perennial All-Star Don Kessinger
At third base: Santo.
In left field: All-Star and future Hall of Famer Billy Williams.
In right field: Future All-Star Jim Hickman
On the mound: All-Star and future Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins.
Four Hall of Famers, four more All-Stars, that was something of a superteam, and they played like it from the start rolling out to an 11-1 record. They had been comfortably (or at least semi-comfortably) in first place ever since. Santo was having the time of his life. On the day of the Mets game, the NL announced Santo as the June Player of the Month -- he'd hit .395 with 34 RBIs in 30 games.
Santo even started a little tradition -- after every Cubs' win, he would jump in the air and click his heels. The fans loved him. Nothing was going to stop these Cubs -- and certainly not the Mets with that offense. When reporters asked Santo what he thought of the competition, he could not mask how unimpressed he was.
"This Mets lineup," he said, "is just ridiculous."
The game went as expected for 8 1/2 innings. Banks and Hickman homered. Jenkins was untouchable -- he allowed one hit through eight innings. The Cubs led 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.
And then ...
Well, take one more look at that list of Cubs players before. You might have noticed this the first time -- I left off the team's centerfielder. There's a reason for this. The Cubs centerfielder was not a Hall of Famer or an All-Star or even an established player. The Cubs centerfielder was a 23-year-old rookie from Houston named Don Young.
The most rabid of Cubs fans will remember his name.
Young had replaced Adolfo Phillips as the Cubs regular centerfielder -- the Cubs had lost patience with the talented but anxious Phillips. Young was meant to bring some energy, some youthful exuberance to the team, and Santo liked him. Santo always said that he liked Don Young.
The Mets Ken Boswell led off the bottom of the ninth. He loved what seeemd to everyone to be a routine pop-fly to shallow center. Four Cubs converged on the ball, but it was Young's to catch ... only he misjudged it. He was playing deep anyway, and then he thought the ball was hit better than it was. He took a couple of steps back and then raced in ... too late. The ball dropped in front of him and Boswell, ever alert, jogged into second for a cheap double.*
The Miracle Mets were about to be born.
*One point that is often overlooked about this famous ninth inning is that the reason Ken Boswell turned this pop-fly into a double is that someone -- specifically Ron Santo -- did not run in to cover second base. This undoubtedly played on Santo's emotions to come.
After an out, Donn Clendenon pinch-hit. He launched a deep fly ball to the left-center gap. This time, Young had a beat on it. He caught the ball on the run ... but in the next instant, he crashed into the wall, and the ball popped free. Clendenon had a double. Boswell, sure the ball was caught, only made it to third.
Two fly balls to Don Young in center. Two attainable outs. Two doubles.
The rest is part of New York Mets lore ... and Chicago Cubs horror. Cleon Jones rifled a full-blooded double down the left-field line to score the tying runs. A couple of minutes later, Ed Kranepool threw his bat at an outside fastball and blooped a single that scored the walk-off win.
It must be said -- this game did not actually change the dynamics of the season. One month later, the Cubs had an 8 1/2 game lead over the Mets. The Cubs still had a five-game lead going into September -- an eight-game losing streak to start that month had a whole lot more to do with the Miracle Mets winning the championship than anything Don Young did. But in the moments after the game, everyone felt like something momentous had happened.
"Yes," Gil Hodges said immediately after the game, "you can call it one of the most important victories in Mets history."
"This is going to take something out of the Cubs," Cleon Jones said.
"I think we're going all the way now," Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman said.
"If they don't catch the ball, there's not much I can do," Jenkins said. "All I can do is throw the ball."
"Our man pitched his heart out and one man can't catch a fly ball," Cubs manager Leo Durocher said. "It's a disgrace."
Reporters looked for Young, but he was gone. He had, in his own words, taken an eight-second shower, and he slipped out of the clubhouse in embarrassment. His escape went almost unnoticed. But one Cubs player definitely saw him leave.
And Ron Santo was dizzy with rage about it. When reporters came to him for comment, he was ready. And he exploded.
“(Young) was just thinking of himself, not the team,” Santo shouted. "He had a bad day at bat (Young had gone 0-for-4 with two strikeouts), so he’s got his head down. He’s worrying about his batting average and not the team."
Santo was so angry, his mind could barely keep up with his words.
"He can keep his head down," Santo said. "He can keep right on going, out of sight for all I care. We don’t need that kind of thing.”
Santo was so out-of-character furious that the Chicago Tribune beat writer, George Langford, refused to quote him, probably in an effort to protect the Cubs captain. "Santo's words about Young," Langford said cryptically, "were not particularly kind ones."
Others more than happily quoted Santo, however. And back at the hotel, Santo began to feel queasy about things. He had never unloaded like that on anyone, particularly a teammate. He tried to convince himself that he had done the right thing, that Young's blunders and clubhouse Houdini act* were unforgivable. But he couldn't sleep. He realized that he'd let his emotions get away from him. By morning, Santo knew that he had to do everything his power to fix things.
*I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I've written a book about Harry Houdini! Coming October 22!
And he tried. Lord, he tried. First thing, he found Don Young and personally apologized to him. Then he called a press conference..
"Don and I sat down today for an hour to talk," he told the press. "I apologized to him then and I want to make a public apology now. I'm also going to call a team meeting tonight and give him a personal apology before the team.
"I was upset. There had been a lot of pressure before the game from newsmen, radio and television, and then we lost the game the way we did, and when I saw Donnie walk out of the clubhouse five minutes after the game was over, I just lost my head."
Santo admitted that he had thought Young took his hitting problems to the field because he himself had done that as a young player. He felt, in a way, that he was ranting at himself.
The reporters were largely sympathetic. The Chicago Tribune, after not even quoting Santo's original lines wrote a long story about Santo's apology. Other papers did too. Santo hoped that he had put the incident away.
But he had not. Looking back, it's easy to see that the problem was not that Santo had briefly lost his head, and it was certainly not his sincere efforts to make things right with Young. The problem was: The Cubs didn't win the 1969 pennant. Everything turned on that simple fact. The heel-clicking routine, so charming when the Cubs were running away with the division, soon turned into a point of mockery. Tom Seaver clicked his heels at Wrigley Field after the Mets took two-of-three in mid-July.
Then Santo went into a stupefying slump in late August and throughout September; he he hit just .243 with three home runs after August 25th as the Cubs felt apart. The boos began to rain down on Ron Santo. He heard boos for the rest of his career.
The Cubs were competent for a couple of years after 1969, but they never again made a pennant run. Santo made news in 1971 by coming forward as a diabetic; it took courage to do that at a time when ballplayers were supposed to display invincibility. He helped many people come to grips with their own diabetes.
The last few years were a slog. Santo still did what he did -- walk a lot, hit some homers, play solid third base defense. But the Cubs had gone South again. In December 1973, the Cubs traded Santo to the White Sox for four players, including Steve Stone. Santo was hurt but defiant. "I was a good player for the Cubs," he told a reporter. "I don't care what anybody says."
Santo is in the Hall of Fame, I think, in large part because of a change in the voting process. In 1980, Santo appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot and got just 3.9% of the vote. By the rules of the last 35 or so years, that would have meant that Santo would have forever dropped off the ballot, and if that had happened, I don't think he would be in the Hall now.
But in his case, he was put BACK on the ballot in 1985, and that time he got 13.4%. He stayed on the ballot for 13 more years, and even though he never topped 43% of the vote, he sparked a lot of conversation and people took the time to take a much closer look at his Hall of Fame credentials. It also helped that Santo was a beloved and enthusiastic broadcaster. He became a cause.
The Veterans Committee, sadly, did not vote him into the Hall of Fame until 2012, a year or so after his death.