Ron Santo's Secret on the Field
The inspiring story behind his struggle with diabetes—and letting his teammates know the truth.
I was kneeling in the on-deck circle at Chicago's Wrigley Field that sweltering August afternoon. It was the bottom of the ninth. The Cubs trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0, but we had a pair of runners on base and slugger Billy Williams at the plate.
It was the kind of situation Billy loved, and he was determined to come through. In the stands, 20,000 fans screamed for a hit. Me, I was silently praying that he would make an out so I wouldn't have to bat.
Anyone who ever watched me play for the Cubs back in the 1960s and early '70s will find that last statement hard to believe. No one loved pressure situations more than I.
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But that day things were different. I have type 1 diabetes—juvenile diabetes—and as I watched Williams battle the pitcher, I suddenly felt myself grow woozy. I looked up and saw three scoreboards. My blood-sugar level had dropped fast. I glanced into the dugout.
Should I tell manager Leo Durocher that I needed to come out, that I needed something with sugar to eat, that I didn't think I could hit? Williams drew a walk and those 20,000 screams grew even louder. I had to go up to the plate.
Back then, in 1967, I was probably the only diabetic athlete in professional sports. I signed a pro contract in 1959, at age 18. My doctor wasn't even sure I'd make it through the first minor league season. But I was determined to play in the big leagues. I wasn't going to let this thing beat me.
Growing up in Seattle, I had been the picture of health. By the time I graduated from high school I was considered the best baseball prospect in the state.
There were 16 big league clubs then, and every one of them offered me at least $50,000 to play ball for their minor league team as a third baseman—big money in those days. Every team, that is, except the Cubs. They offered me $20,000 and the promise of a quick promotion to the majors. They knew just how to hook me.
I faced one last hurdle before beginning my pro career: a routine physical. The exam was cursory; the doctor didn't even draw blood. I got a clean bill of health and an assignment to the Cubs' minor league club in San Antonio, two levels from the big leagues.
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Shortly before I left home, though, my mother sent me to our family doctor for a checkup. Dr. Tupper always had a big smile for me. But when he came back with the results from my urine sample, his smile was gone. "Ron, we found some sugar in your urine," he said. "You may have diabetes."
Diabetes? I didn't even know what that was. I had just one concern: "Can I still play baseball?"
"I don't know," he answered.
I headed straight to the library. What I read was frightening. Diabetes could lead to blindness, hardening of the arteries and kidney failure, among other things. One book even said, "The average life expectancy, from the time of diagnosis, is twenty-five years." Does that mean I'm supposed to die when I'm forty-three?
I couldn't accept that a disease would stop me from using my God-given gifts. Reporting to San Antonio in 1959, I felt great. To look at me you'd never guess I was sick. I didn't even have to take insulin yet. With exercise and proper diet, I figured I'd be able to keep my diabetes under control.
I did. I hit .327 with 11 home runs and was considered one of the stars of the league. Between innings, I'd eat a Snickers bar or drink some orange juice if I felt my blood-sugar level dipping.
Snacking in the dugout was common, so no one on the team suspected a thing. And I wasn't going to let any of them know. I wanted my teammates and fans to think of me as a ballplayer—not as someone who needed their sympathy.
Ron Santo is the beloved radio analyst for the Chicago Cubs.