There aren't many kids who can brag about their dad being a famous baseball player, but there are even less kids who can say they've made a film about him. That's just what second-time filmmaker Jeff Santo has done for his father, Ron Santo, the former Chicago Cub whose baseball accomplishments are only matched by his unwavering optimism. He played for 14 seasons with the Cubs (and a 15th and final season with the White Sox), was a nine-time All-Star, batted .277 with 342 homers and 1,331 RBI, received five Gold Gloves…and carefully hid the fact that he suffered from Type I diabetes since the age of 18, knowing that he might not be able to play if his "secret" was revealed.
It certainly takes courage to play professionally with such a handicap---especially during Santo's career, when the disease wasn't as "out in the open"---but the Chicago native was always driven by his sincere love for the sport. Without the benefit of modern medical equipment, Santo would often rely on a sweet snack if his blood sugar felt too low. Still, the third baseman continued to play his hardest---especially during the infamous 1969 season, when the Cubs missed the playoffs despite earning a 92-60 record. Santo never made it to the World Series, though he made it known that he didn't want a championship unless it was with the Cubs. Even after playing his final game in 1974 with the White Sox, Santo wasn't ready to leave Chicago quite yet---he eventually became a broadcaster on WGN radio with play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes.
His remarkable baseball career is interesting enough, but Santo's day-to-day routine since then is equally inspiring. Both chapters in his life are carefully examined during This Old Cub (2004), the aforementioned documentary by Ron's son, Jeff. This isn't your typical documentary for one main reason: the personal relation of the filmmaker to the subject ensures that it's not always objective. Even so, This Old Cub is such a personal story that it almost requires that extra layer of emotion to be as effective as it is. In one scene, we see Ron struggling during rehabilitation; his son's hand instinctively reaches out from behind the camera to offer help. The father refuses.
Ron's determination to succeed on his own may be stubborn and selfish, but it's a strong theme throughout his son's film. Ironically, the brightest glimmer of hope during This Old Cub is that exact same determination. As his life's story progresses, the contrast between Ron's "silent years" and his post-baseball accomplishments can't really be measured by the usual standards: he's dedicated his fame and free time to organizations like the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), showing a level of commitment not unlike his passion for baseball. Though Ron's optimistic determination is just one more layer present in the film, it's easily the most affecting of all.
Sit-down chats with several now-famous Cubs fans are also an important part of This Old Cub, which include testimonials from Bill Murray (Stripes, Rushmore), William Petersen (Manhunter, CSI), Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Of Mice and Men) and several of Santo's own teammates. These "anchors" spread throughout the documentary really add a sense of scope despite the film's intimate and personal style, resulting in a film that really delivers on many levels. This Old Cub is a winner in just about every department, easily deserving of any baseball (or documentary) fan's attention.
The DVD delivers on many levels as well: aside from a decent technical presentation, there's also a handful of interesting bonus features that fans of the film should really appreciate. While there are a few setbacks that prevent this disc from earning higher marks, baseball and documentary enthusiasts should have no problem enjoying the efforts of both Jeff and Ron Santo during This Old Cub. If you consider yourself a die-hard Cubs fan, though, stop reading and just buy it already.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Despite a curious lack of anamorphic enhancement---especially frustrating, since the menus are anamorphic---This Old Cub looks good. The 1.78:1 widescreen transfer displays fine colors and image detail, though several instances of compression and edge enhancement were spotted. Modern footage is clean and clear; older clips look rougher but are still quite watchable. The sound department offers a slight improvement, as the film is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround mixes. Either one is a fine choice, though the latter exhibits a stronger "ballpark" atmosphere and punchier dialogue. Unfortunately, no Closed Captioning or subtitle options have been provided.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The animated menus (seen above) are nicely designed, combining a terrific atmosphere and easy navigation. The 91-minute main feature has been divided into 16 chapters, with no layer change detected during playback. The packaging for the DVD is fairly basic, as this one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase. No inserts or rock-hard sticks of bubble gum have been included.
Fans are treated to an interesting mix of bonus features that complement the film well, leading off with a Behind the Scenes Featurette with the filmmakers (15 minutes). We hear from several of the producers and the director himself (below right) during this casual segment, though the real highlight is seeing the local sights. Next up to bat (sorry) is a selection of Additional Interviews (35 minutes total), with most of these simply being extended versions of the ones seen in the film. In all, we hear from long-time Cubs fans Bill Murray (5 minutes), Gary Sinise (3 minutes) and William Petersen (7 minutes), as well as Cubs veterans Brooks Robinson (3 minutes), Billy Williams (2 minutes), John McDonough (4 minutes), Pat Hughes (5 minutes) and Ernie Banks (2 parts, 6 minutes total). There's also a pair of interview segments entitled Ron on Diabetes (12 minutes total); these involve Ron sharing his early experiences with the disease (7 minutes) and his involvement with the JDRF (5 minutes).
Next up is a selection of Bonus Footage (22 minutes); highlights include a few short interviews with WGN during 1967-1971 and a vintage clip of Ron and Joe Pepitone singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". There's also the awkwardly-titled Son Then Father: Beginning and End (14 minutes total), a pair of interviews with each Santo that take place 2 weeks into shooting and shortly after completion. Winding things down are the film's Theatrical Trailer and info about making JDRF Donations. Strangely enough, a Filmmaker's Commentary is advertised on the packaging, yet it's nowhere to be found.
Truly a must-have for old-school baseball fans (especially Chicago locals), This Old Cub is an inspiring look at one of the sport's most overlooked legends. It's always satisfying to see a portrait of a truly deserving subject, but the personal aspect of this documentary only makes it all the more moving. The DVD presentation is surprisingly well-balanced, combining a decent technical presentation with an interesting assortment of bonus features. Mildly interested parties might want to give this disc a rent first, but there's certainly enough quality material here to consider This Old Cub a solid blind buy for those who enjoy fascinating documentaries. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.