Beloved Cubs icon Santo dies at age 70
Nine-time All-Star, longtime broadcaster was Chicago legend
Ron Santo played his last of 15 Major League seasons for the crosstown Chicago White Sox, but he was always a Cub. A star third baseman and part of the Cubs teams of the 1960s with Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, many believe Santo should be in the Hall himself. Then he became a heartfelt broadcaster who couldn't help cheering his team from the radio booth for 21 more years.
He wasn't Mr. Cub -- that title belongs to Banks -- but Santo was the next best thing. So it was with great sorrow that Cubs fans around the world reacted Friday when they learned Santo had died from complications of bladder cancer. He was 70.
"It certainly is a sad day for everyone who knows and loves Ron Santo," Banks said. "Ronnie has been a friend of mine for more than 50 years and is like a brother to me. Ronnie's entire life was dedicated to his wonderful family, the Chicago Cubs and their outstanding fans.
"On the field, Ronnie was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen. Off the field, he was as generous as anyone you would want to know. His work for diabetes research seemed unparalleled. Ronnie was always there for you, and through his struggles, he was always upbeat, positive and caring. I learned a lot about what it means to be a caring, decent human being from Ron Santo."
Santo passed away in Arizona, where he makes his offseason home. He had battled health issues for a number of years, including diabetes, a disease that cost Santo both of his legs from the knees down, and slipped into a coma Wednesday, according to the Chicago Tribune. He died Thursday night.
The Santo family announced a public visitation will be held Thursday, Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. CT at Holy Name Cathedral Parish, 735 N. State St. in Chicago. A funeral service will be held the following day, Dec. 10, at 10 a.m. at the same address, but only limited public seating will be available.
In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made in Ron's memory to the Illinois chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a group for which Santo raised more than $40 million during his life. The foundation's website is www.jdrfillinois.org.
"I am truly saddened by the loss of my dear friend Ron Santo, who represented all the goodwill of baseball and the Chicago Cubs franchise," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Ron's playing and broadcasting careers shared a common thread: in both capacities, he was a staple of the Cubs' experience every single day. I enjoyed our many phone conversations and all the times when I visited him in the booth at Wrigley Field and during Spring Training.
"Ron, who overcame so much in his life, was always there for me during challenging times. I will forever cherish his friendship and marvel at his remarkable work in the fight against diabetes. On behalf of all of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to his wife Vicki, their four children, their grandchildren, and to all the fans of the Cubs."
Most young Cubs fans know Santo as the team's color commentator on radio broadcasts, and he certainly was colorful. Santo was a fan first and a broadcaster second, cheering a big hit as heartily as he groaned and sighed after a big strikeout. He never apologized for that.
"People who listened to Ronnie and Pat [Hughes on WGN Radio], they're going to miss that," said Williams. "[Santo] kept a lot of people laughing through his radio analysis. He and Pat were there every day at 1:20 [p.m., when the games started at Wrigley] ... When you listened to them, you didn't have to know the score. If he's in that mode [when he moans], you know we're losing."
More seasoned Cubs fans know Santo as an All-Star third baseman, a fourth-place finisher in 1960 National League Rookie of the Year balloting who went on to hit .277 with 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs in 15 big league seasons, all but one with the Cubs.
He hit at least 30 home runs in four straight seasons from 1964-67 and drove in at least 100 runs four times, including a career-best 123-RBI season in 1969, when the Cubs lost a nine-game lead in the NL East to the eventual World Series-champion Mets.
Santo won five consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1964-68 and made nine All-Star teams. He holds the NL record among third basemen for consecutive games played (364, from April 4, 1964, to May 31, 1966), most games played in a season (164 games, 1965) and most seasons leading the league in fielding chances (nine).
And he played all of those games as a Type 1 diabetic. Santo was diagnosed at age 18 but didn't reveal his condition to teammates for years.
"Today, a diabetic knows a lot more about it," Santo told MLB.com in 2002. "When I played, they didn't even know if I could play baseball."
Santo annually hosted a walk-a-thon to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. At the time he was diagnosed, shortly after he had signed his first pro contract, life expectancy of someone with Type 1 juvenile diabetes was 25. To some, he was a hero for his resiliency.
"I can't tell you how much it means to me," Santo said. "I'm very proud to be able to be an inspiration to a lot of people. I get a lot of letters, and my son opens them. When I get one from somebody who has lost a leg and is a diabetic, instead of me writing back, I call them. It means so much more to them. I've helped a lot of people who have lost limbs."
Santo's health had deteriorated in recent years. In addition to the diabetes and the amputations, he also suffered from heart disease and cancer. But he planned on returning to his broadcasting duties in 2011.
"I love what I do, and it keeps me alive, as far as I'm concerned," Santo told MLB.com last Christmas.
"He absolutely loved the Cubs," Santo's broadcast partner Hughes told the Chicago Tribune. "The Cubs have lost their biggest fan. ... He never complained. He wanted to have fun. He wanted to talk baseball. He considered going to games therapeutic. He enjoyed himself in the booth right to the end."
Santo was long a strong Hall of Fame candidate for his resume as a player, coming especially close to election in 2007 via a Veterans Committee vote, but he never realized enshrinement.
"I thought if you compared his numbers to other people who played that position, he was deserving of the Hall of Fame," said Rangers president Nolan Ryan, a 1999 Cooperstown inductee. "He was always a tough out and a good competitor."
His last chance came in 2008. After falling five votes short the previous season, Santo fell nine votes shy of enshrinement.
"I was on the [Veterans] Committee for a long time and the real crime is they'll probably put him in Cooperstown now that he can't enjoy it, when he should have been in there five, six, seven, eight years ago," said Hall of Fame broacaseter Milo Hamilton. "Some of the excuses are 'Ernie Banks is in there and was a teammate, Ferguson Jenkins is in there and was a teammate.' Well, that didn't hold water for me."
The Cubs honored him last June on the 50th anniversary of his Major League debut. More tributes are planned in the wake of his death.
"My siblings and I first knew Ron Santo as fans, listening to him in the broadcast booth," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement. "We knew him for his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor. It was our great honor to get to know him personally in our first year as owners.
"Ronnie will forever be in the hearts and souls of Cubs fans. ... In the days and seasons ahead, we will honor Ron and celebrate all he has meant to our team and our fans. Ron's No. 10 will always be close to our hearts and Ron will forever be a member of the Cubs family."
On the day he was honored last June, Santo recalled his first game. He had flown in the day before from Houston and roomed with pitcher Don Elston. He'd never been in a Major League ballpark, and he sat in the stands to watch the Pirates before he got into uniform, watching Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski.
When he made his first trip to the plate, the first pitch Santo saw was a curveball that buckled his knees.
"[Catcher] Smokey [Burgess] threw the ball back and said, 'That's a big league curveball, kid,'" Santo said. "Then I hit a line drive up the middle and it was like the world came off my shoulders."
Santo was 20 years old, playing in front of 40,000 people for the first time. He was scouted by all 16 Major League teams, but had developed a love affair with Wrigley early after watching the Cubs on the "Game of the Week" television broadcasts.
"When the Cubs played, there was something about Wrigley Field and Ernie Banks," Santo said.
The Cubs didn't make him the highest offer but he signed anyway, in 1959.
"Money wasn't the criteria for me," he said. "It was to get to the big leagues."
After he was finished playing in 1974, Santo was away from the game for 16 years. He came back in 1989 to throw out the first pitch for a Cubs playoff game. In 1990, he joined the broadcast team.
"I said, 'I'd love to be here when the Cubs win it,'" he said.