A little bit of Glenview clung to the good feelings surrounding the late Ron Santo's election to baseball's Hall of Fame Monday and the dedication of his spectacular statue outside Wrigley Field’s right-field gate on Aug. 10.
At some point in all his incarnations as the Cubs' greatest-ever third baseman, popular baseball announcer and fund-raiser to fight the Type 1 diabetes that later ravaged him, Santo had to cool down his fiery personality, kick back, relax and re-charge his batteries.
From 1969 to 1983, that place was a lakefront home in Glenview’s northwest Valley Lo sub-division, a place “just like Kiddieland,” according to Peter Nestos, one of the neighborhood kids who hung out with Santo’s two sons.
The inviting home rocked with the sounds of kids playing wiffle ball in the summer and hockey on the frozen 38-acre lake in the winter, with Santo himself sometimes joining the kids. They hopped rides on one of Santo’s snowmobiles during the cold weather.
It sounds like American Graffiti come to life, and it was. Four decades ago the typical baseball player made a good salary, somewhat above typical middle-class levels, but nowhere near the Hollywood-celebrity, $20 million annual paydays common today.
A slew of big-name Cubs lived year-round in middle-class neighborhoods all over the north and northwest suburbs working off-season jobs, rather than escaping to Sunbelt homes in the off-season as most players do these days with their mega-million salaries. That’s why that generation of players is still so popular today – they were accessible and invested themselves in their communities.
“It was just a different time and different era where these guys didn’t exclude themselves in the winter months, and go somewhere warm where they could,” said Jim Hinchsliff, one of a pair of identical twins from the Tall Trees subdivision one block south, on the other side of Chestnut Street, who frequented the Santo home.
A move to Glenview in his Cubs prime
Santo, the Cubs’ captain and cleanup hitter at 29 in 1969, moved to Glenview from Park Ridge “because he wanted to move into a bigger house,” said his oldest son, Ron Santo, Jr., 50. “And when we moved in 1969, he started getting better contracts.” Santo’s salary in the era started nudging the $90,000 mark, akin to corporate executives.
He did not zoom right home to hide in a gated community. Santo, who liked Italian Deli in Franklin Park early in his career while living in smaller home in the near-west suburbs, started stopping at Spiro’s Deli, then located near the northeast corner of Lake and Waukegan, where Trader Joe’s now stands. Spiro’s opened on the site four years before Santo moved to Glenview.
“Ron was pretty blue collar,” said Nestos, who took over from father Spiro to run the deli, now three blocks south of the original location. “I think it was more because he was that kind of guy. He wasn’t a ‘frill’ guy. He was more of a people person. It showed through the years. He was very approachable.”
Valley Lo had everything Santo could have wanted for activities. An avid golfer, he could enjoy the courses within the subdivision. The lake provided a myriad of recreational activities.
“The house in Valley Lo definitely had great memories,” said Ron Santo, Jr., now a Des Plaines resident who works in sports promotions, including handling his late father’s appearances and memorabilia. He, younger brother Jeff (now a filmmaker) and sister Linda all are Glenbrook South alums.
“The area in Glenview was great," Santo Jr. said. "It’s a great town.”
But the main activity was just plain old non-scripted backyard and frozen-lake fun, — “It was sports central,” said Jim Hinchsliff — of the kind that belonged to another generation.
A 'little Wrigley Field'
“It was like our own little Wrigley Field," Nestos, who met Ron, Jr. in fourth grade at Lyon School, said of the back yard. “It was like our own little Wrigley Field. We imagined the hedges as the ivy.”
“We played like crazy in the back yard,” said Mike Hinchsliff, Jim’s brother. “You could dive through the (hedges) to catch the wiffle ball. It was surreal. It was the place to be, the place to hang out. The family was great.”
Soon the kids learned not to interrupt their games to query Santo on that afternoon’s game at Wrigley Field if the Cubs lost.
“If he had a good game, we could certainly talk about it,” said Ron Jr. “If he didn’t, you’d lay low, give him some space.”
“They had a big, white couch,” said Mike Hinchsliff. “He’d be sitting on the couch. You’d say, ‘Hey, Mr. S., how are you?’ No comment.”
But when he cooled down, Santo displayed his warm personality to the kids. All of Ron and Jeff Santo’s friends could tag along to games at Wrigley Field.
The iceman cometh
The man of the house’s real recreating was in full bloom when the temperature was lowest and spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz. a hopeful two months away.
“We used to put up the boards (on the lake) for hockey,” said Jim Hinchsliff. “Mr. S. used to call out the fire department, so they’d spray water on the rink. Got to empty the tanks once in awhile. I found one of his gold chains, a thick chain, in the ice. We dug it up. He must’ve lost it playing hockey with us.”
Eventually, the Santo family moved from Glenview as Ron Santo’s first marriage ended. “Judy, his first wife, was a great lady,” said Nestos.
Santo went on to divide his time between a home near Deerfield and off-seasons in Scottsdale. His appeal to the masses was renewed, and grew far beyond his playing-days popularity, thanks to his radio work, diabetes fund-raising and never-ending personal counseling of patients facing amputations of their legs.
But Santo’s surviving family and their friends will always have a special, more innocent time to hold close.
“That what being a kid was like,” said Mike Hinchsliff. “You didn’t realize what great company you were in. That’s what we did, that’s what we knew.
“Nobody had a better childhood than Ronnie (Jr.) and his friends.”
Want to stay up-to-date on the latest Glenview news? Like us on Facebook!