This Old Cub (2004)

Director: Jeff Santo

Stars: Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Bill Murray

Release Company: Emerging Pictures

MPAA Rating: NR

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Ron Santo - With Bat, posed ©Photofile
Ron Santo - With Bat, posed ©Photofile Framed Art Print
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The greatest omission travesty of Cooperstown's Hall of Fame is NOT Pete Rose, who was well aware of Major League Baseball's gambling prohibition. A plaque is long overdue Ron Santo, Chicago Cubs third baseman from 1960 – 1973—a passionate "blue collar" professional, who played with unsurpassed intensity and joy and has better numbers than many already enshrined in the Hall. The only logical "reason" I can come up with is the fact that Santo never played in the World Series, but that is one of his endearing qualities.

A loyal Cubs man through and through, Santo once said that if he couldn't play a World Series game as a Cub, he didn't want to play one at all. Originally he turned down higher offers from over a dozen clubs to sign with the Cubs because he just thought there was "something about Chicago." And that attitude has remained steadfast since he hung up his spikes and took up broadcasting games on WGN radio. All you have to do is listen to Santo gleefully giggling after a Cubs homer or groaning after a Cubbie miscue. His partner Pat Hughes recalls a prototypical Santo incident during the final drive to the 1998 playoffs when the left fielder dropped a routine fly to blow the game. All Cubs fans recall Santo painful "Oh nooooooooooooooo!" moan, but only Hughes witnessed the post game locker room scene unique to the man—manager Jim Riggleman actually was consoling the disconsolate broadcaster: "It's OK, Ron; we'll get them tomorrow."

This is among the tidbits packed into This Old Cub, an understandably sentimental documentary directed by the retired third sacker's son, Jeff Santo. A five hankie film for Cubs fans, even non-baseball fans will find it tough to hold back the tears as the personal documentary traces Santo's 45 year struggle with diabetes (including two recent leg amputations) and his heartbreaking disappointment concerning the Hall of Fame followed by the supreme honor that the Cubs give him the day after clinching the 2003 division championship.

No one can help but like Santo and admire the lifelong Cubs warrior. The fact that he defied diabetes back in the days where could only monitor his condition by "feel" and would down a candy bar to prevent a blackout, and that he hid his condition from his teammates for 12 years is amazing in itself. But the fact that he played at an All Star level for over a decade, winning numerous Golden Gloves for his defense while generating Hall of Fame worthy offensive stats is miraculous, especially considering his medical condition.

A varied group of Chicago based actors (Bill Murray, Gary Sinese, Joe Mantegna, and Dennis Franz) describe their childhood memories about the Cubs, the roller coaster 1969 season that titillated Cubs fans before breaking their collective hearts, and particularly Ron Santo--the highly relatable "blue-collar" guy who "looked like us." Sinese relates how he took up third base in Little League because he wanted to be just like his hero, and he's not alone with the sentiment. Managed by Leo Durocher, that exciting '69 team came to be epitomized by Santo and his trademark "heel clicking" routine that followed each Cubs victory. Unfortunately for Cubs loyalists, those moments virtually disappeared during their September swoon to the delight of the Miracle Mets and their fans.

Although the film covers all too familiar territory for die-hard Cubs fans, the filmmakers include enough background material to introduce Santo younger fans through brief archive footage, talking heads, and photographs that follow Ken Burns' trademark movement by using too much of the PhotoShop zoom feature (with individual enhancement). Much of this is targeted to baseball fans, but there's a more universal story that will appeal to everyone. That's where the film works best--chronicling Santo's courageous battles to overcome juvenile diabetes and his indomitable spirit that continues. As longtime broadcasting partner Patrick Hughes declares, "Ron Santo is not about sadness."

Yet the film's most poignant moments include a sequence that shows Santo falling during an exercise (only to stubbornly arise immediately and deny the problem) and his crestfallen reaction when learning that he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame. Then the tear ducts are completely unleashed shortly after this heartbreak, when we are transported to Wrigley Field for the retirement of his uniform number 10--an honor only accorded his teammates Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. The film effectively reveals just how much the expected Hall of Fame honor would mean to the veteran Cub, allowing us to feel the same overwhelming love he feels from the organization at that moment.

Ron Santo personifies Hemingway's claim that "Man can be defeated but not destroyed." His life is a testament to that philosophy, which rests at the core of every true Cubs fan since the team hasn't won a World Series for nearly a century and hasn't even appeared in one since 1945. A competently compiled documentary, baseball fans will all want to see this, and Cubs fans will universally declare that This Old Cub ranks among the finest documentaries ever put to celluloid--at least until the Cubs win another championship. When that happens, Santo will find a way to click his prosthetic feet together down the left field line . . . and the whole world will weep for joy along with him.

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