Cubs great Santo dies at 70
CHICAGO — Ron Santo, one of the greatest players in Chicago Cubs history and a longtime WGN radio announcer whose devotion to the perennial losers was made obvious night after night by his excited shouts or dejected laments, has died. He was 70.
“Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement Friday. He praised Santo for “his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor.”
Santo died in an Arizona hospital from complications of bladder cancer, according to WGN Radio. Santo was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 18, and later lost both legs to the disease.
A nine-time All-Star in his 15-year career, Santo was widely regarded as one of the best players never to gain induction into the Hall of Fame. The quiet sadness with which he met the news year after year that he hadn’t been inducted helped cement his relationship with the fans.
But nothing brought fans closer to Santo — or caused critics to roll their eyes more — than his work in the radio booth, where he made it clear that nobody rooted harder for the Cubs and nobody took it harder when they lost.
Santo’s groans of “Oh, nooo!” and “It’s bad” when something bad happened to the Cubs — sometimes just minutes after he shouted, “YES! YES!” or “ALL RIGHT!” — became part of team lore as the “Cubbies” came up short year after year.
“The emotion for me is strictly the love I have for this team,” Santo told The Associated Press in August 2009. “I want them to win so bad.”
Santo played for the Cubs from 1960 to 1973 and wrapped up his career with the White Sox in 1974. He joined the Cubs’ radio team in 1990.
“Ron Santo was one of the finest men — and toughest men — I’ve ever known,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. “He was a credit to the game and a model of what a person should be like, always giving back to others his entire life.”
“For the last 10 years, I had the pleasure of sitting across the aisle from Ronny during all of our trips on the road,” Hendry added. “We talked a lot of baseball, and his passion for the game was obvious to anybody who knew him. Nobody enjoyed our wins more than Ron Santo. Nobody took the losses harder than Ronny.”
Photo Gallery: Santo
A look at Ron Santo’s life on the field and in the booth. Gallery »
Santo battled myriad serious medical problems after he retired as a player, having undergone surgery on his eyes, heart and bladder after doctors discovered cancer.
On his legs alone, he underwent surgery more than a dozen times before they were ultimately amputated below the knees — the right one in 2001, and the left a year later.
Don Kessinger, who played shortstop with the Cubs from 1964 to 1975 and perhaps saw more of Santo’s play at third base than anyone else, said what he remembers most is how hard his teammate played every single day.
Kessinger said Santo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, and cannot understand why he was never elected.
“It’s hard for me to believe he wasn’t elected, and I’m surprised the veterans committee didn’t see fit to put him in,” Kessinger said. “It would have meant so much to Ron Santo to be elected into that awesome hall.”
Commissioner Bud Selig called Santo “a magnificent, consistent ballplayer.”
“Ron’s playing and broadcasting careers shared a common thread: In both capacities, he was a staple of the Cubs’ experience every single day,” Selig said. “Ron, who overcame so much in his life, was always there for me during challenging times.”
Born Ronald Edward Santo in Seattle on Feb. 25, 1940, Santo was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 18. But he kept it from the team until he made his first All-Star Game in 1963, and fans didn’t know about his diabetes for years after that.
Even though the Cubs failed to win the World Series in his lifetime, Santo once said his association with the team probably prolonged his life.
“If I hadn’t had this when my troubles started, I don’t know if I would have survived,” he said in September 2003. “I really mean that. It’s therapy.”
Santo was a fan favorite on a team that included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. Many taverns near Wrigley Field include photos of Santo, including one in which he famously clicked his heels as he ran off the field.
By all accounts it was a tremendous career. In his 14 years with the Cubs and his final season across town with the White Sox, the third baseman hit .277 with, 2,254 hits, 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs. He won the Gold Glove award five times.
Ron Santo and the Playoffs
Ron Santo will go down as one of the great players who never made a postseason appearance. Since baseball’s postseason began in 1903, only four players had more games played than Ron Santo’s 2,243 without making the postseason.
Most Career Home Runs, But Never Played in Postseason
He hit .300 or better four times, had the best on-base percentage in the league in 1964 and 1966 and led the league in walks four times.
But the team routinely finished at or near the bottom of the standings.
One of the few times the Cubs didn’t was in 1969, when they finished second after leading the New York Mets by nine games as late as Aug. 16. That year, a photograph was taken of Santo that became synonymous with both the team’s failure and the supposed curses that have long haunted the team: There, in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium, was Santo, a bat on his shoulder as a black cat scurried past.
Santo’s disappointment with being passed over for induction into the Hall of Fame was well-known to viewers, who watched him receive the news on the phone in 2003, thanks to television cameras he allowed inside his house when he thought he would be getting in.
In 2003, he was honored by the Cubs, who retired his No. 10, hoisting it up the left-field foul pole, just below Banks’ No. 14.
“This flag hanging down the left-field line means more to me than the Hall of Fame,” Santo told the cheering crowd at Wrigley Field when his number was retired.
“This couldn’t be any better,” he said. “With the adversity that I have been through, if it wasn’t for all of you I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
Santo is one of just seven players to have his jersey retired by the Cubs, joining Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, likely future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, and Jackie Robinson.
Santo had been active in fundraising for diabetes research, with his Walk-for-the-Cure raising millions of dollars.