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Zalusky: Santo family looks back 60 years after dad’s major-league debut

Ernie Banks, far left, and Ron Santo, far right, pose with their children during spring training in 1968 in Arizona. Cubs manager Leo Durocher is in the background. With Ernie are twins Jerry and Joey Banks. With Ron are sons Ron Jr., center, and Jeff. Courtesy of Jeff Santo)

Imagine your dad’s home office located on the infield dirt at Wrigley Field.

And picture him not only taking you along to work, but bringing home his Cubs teammates and other Chicago sports celebrities.

That is just a taste of what life was like for Ron Santo Jr. and Jeff Santo growing up in Glenview’s Valley Lo subdivision, but also getting a chance to roam the outfield at Wrigley.

A window into these parallel universes is provided by two pictures that appeared in Chicago newspapers in the 1970s.

One shows Jeff Santo, a student at Lyon Elementary School in Glenview, biting into the pizza as he enjoys his school lunch with another student. The other depicts the Santo family at Wrigley Field on Ron Santo Day in 1971.

Jeff recalls one of the gifts on Santo Day was a dune buggy. “We as kids drove that dune buggy like it was our car,” he remembered.

The brothers hold treasured memories of life both at the ballpark and at home in Glenview.

Recalling the home at 2000 Valley Lo Lane, where Cubs third baseman Ron Santo and his family moved in 1969, Ron Jr. said, “It was a great place for a kid to grow up.”

By the time Ron Santo moved to Glenview, he had firmly established himself as a Cubs great.

Sixty years ago, on June 26, 1960, he made his Cubs debut in a doubleheader sweep over the Pittsburgh Pirates, singling to center in his first at-bat against Bob Friend and going 3-for-7 with a double and five runs batted in.

The homes in the Valley Lo subdivision backed up to a lake, where summers were spent boating and swimming.

“We really spent most of the summer just hanging around the neighborhood, because there was so much to do,” Ron Jr. said.

Among the attractions was the Valley Lo Club.

Local restaurants like Matty’s Wayside Inn on Waukegan Road were favorite haunts.

But summers were also spent at Clark and Addison.

“After school was out, he would bring us a lot to the games, as much as possible,” Ron Jr. said. “We were there way more than anyone else’s children. It was like another home, hanging out at Wrigley. We would have to be in the outfield, but we could shag fly balls.”

When winter arrived, the frozen lake at Valley Lo offered opportunities for ice skating and snowmobiling.

Ron Jr. remembered his dad snowmobiling with Cubs second baseman Glenn Beckert, who lived in Palatine.

Jeff said, “Glenn would always hang out with us during the winter. He was one of the few who stayed in Chicago, or at least near us.”

Santo, with Beckert’s help, built a hockey rink, with lights and nets. Stan Mikita skated there.

“The winters were just as magical as the summers. Our summers were Wrigley Field. And then our winters were ice skating and snowmobiling on the lake,” Jeff remembered.

The house was a magnet for neighborhood kids, among them Peter Nestos, now owner of Spiro’s Deli, a Glenview mainstay for more than half a century and the home of the storied Italian Beef sandwich known as the Bomber, in honor of the Glenview Naval Air Station.

Jeff said that at one point, “I was in (Spiro’s) almost every day. I would just sit with Spiro, Peter’s dad, and we would just talk.”

Peter Nestos, who went to school with Jeff at Lyon Elementary School, remembered days of Wiffle ball in the backyard and fast pitch off the side of the garage. The evergreens would be the Green Monster.

He said, “Everybody knew who Ron was, playing for the Cubs. And when we were done with school, we would all run to WGN and watch him on TV to catch the 7th, 8th and 9th inning. It was a big deal, you know, knowing that you went to school with the son of a professional baseball player.”

But as for his children, “To be honest with you, they were just like every other kid. Ron (their father) would not have it any other way. Ron was more of a blue collar guy.”

The brothers said that even though their dad gave them free rein to hang out at Wrigley, he didn’t pressure them to follow in his footsteps.

Ron Jr. remembers his dad watching his own games from the car.

“He never smothered us. He wasn’t really hands on, unless we came and asked him for something.”

Jeff said, “As I got older I thought about that. I really wanted to get tutelage from him. I wanted him to tell me how you become a major leaguer. Because actually (Cubs catcher) Randy (Hundley) did that with Todd.”

Todd Hundley would have a 14-year major league career, including two seasons with the Cubs.

Jeff said, “I asked Todd about this. It took Randy going, ‘Do you really want to do this? Or if you don’t, I’m not going to help you.’ And Todd goes, ‘I want this,’ and then Randy goes, ‘OK, now I will help you.’ Which is cool. It’s like out of a movie or something.

“We didn’t have that. Ronnie and I were like the only kids who were at Wrigley Field almost every day with my dad.

The Banks kids would show up once in a while, but they lived in Arizona. So we would see them more at spring training. We were there all the time. So my brother and I had each other, and we would always play ball with each other. Spring training, we would be the first ones on the field, before the players got out there. So it was almost like my dad said, ‘Just take it in. And he let us take everything in.’ “

Original article credit Steve Zalusky