Five home runs, a batting average of .221, and on-base and slugging percentages each south of .300: 1974 was an unceremonious end to a remarkable career for Ron Santo, his first and last on Chicago’s South Side after fourteen seasons at Wrigley Field with the Cubs. He’d been a National League All-Star just the year prior—he had socked 20 homers and, while his rate stats were down several notches from his Hall of Fame peak, a .788 OPS was enough for Santo to nab his ninth selection to the Midsummer Classic.
Only three years before, in the summer of 1971, Santo had revealed that he had been living with diabetes since he was 18 years old, a much more serious disease half a century ago due to the limited treatments and testing available. Despite this, and motivated by it, Santo starred for the Cubs, putting together a resume that few third basemen in history could rival, and endearing himself to a generation of Cubs fans as a hard-nosed, heel-clicking slugger with great defense.
That Ron Santo ended up with the crosstown White Sox, then, is somewhat confounding if you only look at the man’s impressive stats. However, there are a few reasons that the Cubs sought to trade Santo, despite the third baseman’s fine 1973. In his last few years with the Cubs, Santo had butted heads, publicly and privately, with the legendarily irascible Leo Durocher, Chicago’s manager. But, primarily, the Cubs’ prospects were beginning to ebb. After three second-place finishes from 1969-1972, the club had slipped in 1973, finishing only five games behind the Mets for first in the NL East, but winning only 77 games. An aging core of Santo, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins, and Don Kessinger presented the front office with a conundrum: do they play out the string with their stars of the late-’60s, or do they hunt for promising young players on the trade market?
The club chose the latter, and Santo was among the first on their list to go. In the winter of 1973, they hooked up with the California Angels in a deal that would send Santo to Anaheim for a trio of young players. The talks were reportedly arduous, including an 11-hour marathon session between front office officials on December 8th, but a deal appeared complete.1 However, when John Holland, the Cubs’ general manager, talked with Santo on the phone about a potential deal, Santo refused.2 In doing so, he invoked a theretofore unused right: the “10/5” veteran no-trade rule, stating that any player with ten years of major-league service, and the last five with one team, could veto any trade.
Santo’s novel decision had a longer history behind it. The 10/5 clause was a hard-fought victory for the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) included in the 1973 Basic Agreement between the union and owners, but long had the union and specific players assaulted the “reserve clause,” which bound players to their teams in perpetuity in the form of a standard one-year option that clubs reserved. The most prominent challenge to the reserve clause had happened only five years before, when Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals refused to be traded to Philadelphia and sparked a years-long legal battle culminating in the United States Supreme Court. The court eventually ruled against Flood, even though the player had the backing of Marvin Miller and the players’ union, and assaults on the reserve clause itself were stalled for a few years. Flood’s case did spur the union to move on protecting veterans from unwanted trades, which uprooted their families and forced them to leave places where they had made homes for a decade. After a short lockout prior to Spring Training in 1973, a three-year Collective Bargaining Agreement instituted “best offer” salary arbitration, a vital step in the path to any sort of free agency system, and brought the 10/5 rule, then colloquially called the “Curt Flood rule,” into effect. It was a milestone in the union’s transformation from a loose association of players mostly concerned with their benefits and pensions in the mid-1960s, to an adversarial force in negotiations over contracts, licensing, working conditions, and other labor issues by the mid-1970s.
It was in this context that Santo found himself fending off a trade to California. Although he was born in Seattle, he had found a home in Chicago, established business ties in the city in the latter days of his playing career, and simply grown fond of the Midwestern metropolis. He had no desire of absconding to the West Coast. Few thought that the 10/5 rule would actually affect the landscape of player acquisition, as it only applied to about a dozen veterans in each league, and so it was almost an afterthought for those keeping tabs on the negotiations between the union and owners. For Santo, though, it was a saving grace.
Cubs’ management threatened to cut Santo’s $110,000 salary by the maximum amount allowable heading into 1974 if he remained with the club. Santo was quoted as saying, “There is no room for me on the Chicago Cubs,” a morose statement from one of the franchise’s best-loved players. Holland and the Cubs’ brass were not pleased, and Santo suggested that the general manager try to find a match with the Chicago White Sox, as Santopreferredd to stay in the city. The deadline to trade players across leagues had just recently passed, but Santo cleared the necessary waivers for him to become a member of the White Sox. On the 12th, the trade was complete, as White Sox GM Roland Hemond sent catcher Steve Swisher, pitcher Steve Stone, and two other arms to the Cubs.
At Comiskey Park, Santo faced a new slate of problems. Hemond inked Santo to a two-year deal at $115,000 per season, a slight raise, but the White Sox had a young incumbent at the hot corner, Bill Melton, who had led the league in home runs as a 25-year-old in 1971. Santo split time between third base, designated hitter, and the foreign territory of second base as he struggled to find his hitting stroke. He played only 11 games in September, and his batting average slipped steadily from the .260-range in April and May into the .220s. He didn’t hit a home run after June 24th. At the age of 34, Santo retired.
New York Times sage Red Smith noted that Santo could have bartered for a raise in salary arbitration with the Cubs following the 1973 campaign, “but there was no way he could have protected himself from the “humiliation and abuse” of the Cubs.3 Smith, an ardent defender of the union in his column, gave no quarter to the owners when he likened Santo and others’ plights to the slave trade. The difficult process by which players slowly gained bargaining rights and eventually limited free agency became a radical cause in the early-1970s, as Curt Flood likened himself to a “well-paid slave,” and Miller’s players’ union rallied for gains in an industry so mercilessly ruled by domineering team owners.
Santo himself may not have found a better situation in Chicago or elsewhere in 1974. He got his wish to stay in the city, but as the demands of professional baseball took a toll on his body—Santo had already outlived the life expectancy given to him, as a diabetic, at age 18 by nearly a decade—and the Cubs’ malevolence caused him undoubted emotional duress, it was obvious that a player who starred for over ten years at the highest level had received a bad deal. His incredible on-field performance and off-field personality, characterized by the often charming abandon with which he displayed emotions across the spectrum, are those by which all remember the late Santo. But he’s also worth remembering as a player who boldly exercised a right that drew the scorn of his team’s management, emboldening future players to take stands against being traded without their consent.
1. “Angels Fail to Woo Santo Again,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 1973.
2. Joseph Durso, “Santo First to Veto Trade by His Club,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 1973.
3. Red Smith, “Ron Santo and the Slave Trade,” New York Times, Dec. 12, 1973.
Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports