Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
Posted: 6:08 a.m. Updated 6:04 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
Ron Santo considered it therapy. That's why he kept coming back each day, each year, even as his body betrayed him.
A beloved player who became an iconic broadcaster, Santo would stop the golf cart that took him up the ramps to the Wrigley Field press box to sign autographs and chat with fans. His legs were amputated years ago, the consequences of his fight with diabetes, but this gave him energy.
To generations of fans, Santo was the soundtrack for Cubs baseball. That unique voice was silenced as the 70-year-old Santo drifted into a coma on Wednesday and died overnight Thursday in an Arizona hospital from complications with bladder cancer.
"There is no star player in any sport that loved his former team the way Ron Santo loved the Cubs," said Pat Hughes, Santo's radio partner on WGN-AM 720. "He loved being at Wrigley. He loved being around people. He loved the fans."
Santo's legacy goes beyond baseball -- he helped raise more than 40 million for diabetes research -- and he played the game under extraordinary circumstances, without insulin pumps or devices to measure his blood sugar levels.
"On the field, Ronnie was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen," teammate Ernie Banks said in a statement. "Off the field, he was as generous as anyone you would want to know.
"Ronnie was always there for you, and through his struggles, he was always upbeat, positive and caring."
Nine All-Star selections, five Gold Glove awards and 342 home runs didn't get Santo into the Hall of Fame. But he found his own Cooperstown once his retired No. 10 flew from the left-field flagpole.
Hours after his death the marquee at Wrigley Field read: "RONALD EDWARD SANTO 1940-2010." Flowers and Cubs hats were placed outside the entrance to Gate G. And into the night, beneath a black sky, they took pictures of his name in lights.
"The heart and soul"
Like so many others across Chicago, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his family first felt like they knew Santo listening to him from the broadcast booth.
"We knew him for his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor," Ricketts said in a statement. "Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans. (We) share with fans across the globe in mourning the loss of our team's No. 1 fan and one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game."
As Santo hobbled through the dugout on his way to a pregame interview with Lou Piniella -- "the fine manager of the Chicago Cubs!" -- it was easy to forget how athletic he once was.
But the numbers are sturdy and show that he performed at an elite level. Between 1960 and 1974, only four players had 2,000 hits, 300 home runs and 1,300 RBI: Hank Aaron; Frank Robinson; Billy Williams; and Santo.
That resume didn't convince the Baseball Writers Association of America, which never gave Santo more than 43.1 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, or the Veterans Committee. Santo will next be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2012, though the new "Golden Era" ballot (1947-1972) hasn't been compiled yet and won't be revealed until next fall.
The snub lingered as a tremendous disappointment, but Santo's second act was unforgettable. For 21 seasons he was a color commentator in every sense of the word. Who else has a toupee catch on fire?
In an age where announcers try to be slick or prove they're the smartest guys in the room, Santo simply couldn't hide the fact that he was rooting for the Cubs. It was the organization that signed him as a teenager out of Seattle. It was an unapologetic, improvisational style that couldn't be copied.
"I can't plan what I do," Santo said last summer, on a night where the Cubs celebrated the 50th anniversary of his big-league debut. "I get embarrassed sometimes when I hear what I said: "Oh, no! What's going on?" It's an emotion and it's being a Cub fan. I didn't realize it to be honest with you."
The bonds with the audience grew strong enough that Graham Warning, a Lakeview resident running errands Friday morning, felt compelled to stop and light a candle where Santo's name is engraved on the Addison Street sidewalk.
"He was the greatest," said Warning, a tear streaming down his face. "There's not a lot of stars that we can look up to anymore."
The baseball schedule can be absolutely brutal, even when you're traveling on charter flights and staying in luxury hotels.
Santo was hospitalized on Memorial Day after working a game in Pittsburgh and left the team the next week in Milwaukee. He had cut back on road games, but there was a sense that he would be behind the microphone next season.
"He enjoyed every moment until the last day of his life," teammate Billy Williams said in a statement. "You never had to look at the scoreboard to know the score of the game. You could simply listen to the tone of his voice."
Not a problem in the world
Santo used his platform to become the booming voice and smiling face of a cause. This wasn't just lending a name or checkbook activism.
Patrick Reedy, the executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, remembered a towering figure that stood on artificial limbs and disarmed volunteers with his warmth.
Santo's walks for charity generated millions in donations, and his presence screamed at those young children with diabetes. They too could dream about playing for the Cubs.
"He brought a massive amount of joy and urgency," Reedy said.
It seems Santo did everything that way, and he was certain that he'd be there to make the call when the Cubs finally won the World Series. He shared the same optimism and frustrations as his listeners. He had to come to work to see what might happen next.
"This has been my life for 50 years," Santo said last June. "I wouldn't be around (without it). All I went through -- the diabetes and the operations -- and every time I walk into Wrigley Field, (I) don't have a problem in the world, other than moaning and groaning a couple times when the Cubs aren't doing well.
"The fans, the organization -- you kept me alive. I believe that very strongly."
Stay tuned to Comcast SportsNet and CSNChicago.com for more on this developing story.
Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.