Ron Santo's Secret on the Field
The inspiring story behind his struggle with diabetes—and letting his teammates know the truth.
I already felt isolated enough. Some of the veteran players wouldn't talk to me because I was a rookie, and they figured I had stolen the third base job from one of their buddies.
To add to that, I worried about what could happen to me. In 1960 there were no high-tech gadgets like a glucometer for measuring blood sugar. You had to go largely by feel. If I slipped into a diabetic coma, who would know what to do?
The following season my anxiety increased. My new roommate was a catcher named Cuno Barragan. Cuno was a great guy, impossible not to like, and we quickly became friends—we'd go to dinner, see a movie or just hang out and talk. He began to confide in me. And, oh, how I wanted to confide in him.
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A few days before the start of the regular season the pressure became too much. I sat Cuno down and told him about my condition, swearing him to secrecy. "Don't worry," he said. "You can count on me."
He became another set of eyes for me. Sometimes coming off the field between innings, he'd say, "Roomie, you look a little pale. Better grab a Snickers." At least I no longer had to hide my insulin and syringes from him.
For three seasons he was the only Cub who knew. Then in 1963 I made the National League All-Star team and was named Cubs team captain. The time had come to let my teammates in on my secret.
First I explained things to Cubs General Manager John Holland, and then I called a hasty pregame meeting. The players lounged in front of their cubicles on folding chairs, not knowing what to expect, while I stood in the center of the room. "This has nothing to do with the game," I said, unable to mask my feelings.
Over the next 20 minutes I explained my illness. I gave them details—how I got dizzy on the field sometimes and had to rush to the dugout between innings for candy or juice. I talked about blood samples, urine tests, insulin injections and diet adjustments.
What I didn't tell them was what I read about diabetes on that long-ago day when I was 18: that one day I could go blind; or suffer kidney failure, hardening of the arteries, or gangrene. Or become one of the many thousands who lose limbs each year to diabetes.
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"But I don't want this to go outside this room," I said. "I expect you to judge me by what I do on the field. I just don't want to hide anymore."
There was a long moment of silence. Then someone shouted, "That's okay, Captain. Let's play ball." And the guys and I took the field.
Not until 1971 did the public learn about my disease. The team had decided to honor me with a special Ron Santo Day, and I suggested to Mr. Holland that any donations in my name be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. I felt proud, he felt pleased. "Think of how many diabetics you can help," he said. "When they realize what you've been able to accomplish, it will inspire them to live life as fully as you have."
My life changed that day. I started spending more time in hospital pediatric units, visiting diabetic children. I urged them to remain positive and told them that they could accomplish anything they wanted despite their disease. Kids sent me letters; so did their parents.
It's funny. I always thought I'd make my biggest mark as a ballplayer, but it was after I started speaking up about diabetes that I really made a difference.
Since 1976 I have been on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and I've been told that the annual walks for diabetes we sponsor in Chicago have raised more than $24 million dollars for research.
My own health stayed good until I turned 60, in 2000. Then, inevitably, the disease caught up with me. In the last three years I've had 15 operations. In 2001, circulatory problems necessitated the amputation of my right leg below the knee.
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Shortly before last Christmas, I lost my left leg as well. I was fitted with state-of-the-art vacuum-seal prostheses that fit so well and so painlessly that my legs feel as if they're my own.
I'm doing the things I love: working for the Cubs as a radio analyst, being with my family, riding my horse and speaking to groups about diabetes.
Ron Santo is the beloved radio analyst for the Chicago Cubs.