CHICAGO — Ron Santo’s love for the Chicago Cubs stretched from his days as a standout third baseman who one season even jumped and clicked his heels to celebrate victories to the two decades he spent unabashedly pulling for his team as a broadcaster.
As much as his passion for the Cubbies soothed their long-suffering fans, his play and work in the broadcast booth helped him, too, through tough times and serious ailments, including a bout with diabetes that cost him both legs below the knees. He called the Cubs, simply, his therapy.
Santo, who had finished his 21st season broadcasting the Cubs in September, died Thursday night in Arizona from complications of bladder cancer, according to the team and WGN Radio, his longtime employer. He was 70.
“Ron was an inspiration to everyone as his life was defined by overcoming obstacles. It is a sad day for all of Chicago and everyone in the sports world,” said Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, who spent 24 years in the Cubs organization as a marketing guru and later as president. “His incredible passion for the Cubs was unmatched. …Although we collectively are grieving over his passing, we should also celebrate his incredible life.”
A nine-time all-star in his 15-year career, Santo hit .277 with 2,254 hits, 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in. He also won the Gold Glove award five times.
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.
“What a great loss for the Cubs and Cubs fan everywhere. Ron was such a wonderful person and friend. It is so unfortunate that he never became a Hall of Famer, as he should have long ago,” Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman said.
Don Kessinger, who played shortstop with the Cubs from 1964-1975 and perhaps saw more of Santo’s play at third base than anyone, said what he remembers most is how hard his teammate played every single day. He said Santo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, and cannot understand why he was never voted in.
“It would have meant so much to Ron Santo to be elected,” he said.
The Cubs’ new owner, Tom Ricketts, praised Santo for his loyalty, courage and sense of humor. Commissioner Bud Selig called Santo a “magnificent, consistent ballplayer” — and a friend.
“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 in a statement.
Santo never got to see his beloved Cubs win a World Series, something they haven’t done since 1908, and their last appearance came in 1945, when Santo was 5. Yet he 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.”
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 shouting, “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.”
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.
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, who spent 14 years with the Cubs and his final season across town with the White Sox. He hit .300 or better four times, had the best on-base percentage in the National League in 1964 and 1966 and led the league in walks four times.
As he starred, his team generally struggled. One of the few times the Cubs didn’t wind up near the bottom of the standings 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, is Santo, a bat on his shoulder as a black cat scurries past. That was also the season that Santo clicked his heels after victories at Wrigley Field.
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.
Santo battled 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. He showed up in spring training in 2003 with one of his protheses wrapped in Cubs’ colors.
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 had been active in fundraising for diabetes research, with his Walk-for-the-Cure raising millions of dollars.
“Ronnie has been a friend of mine for more than 50 years and is like a brother to me,” Banks said. “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.”
There will be a public visitation for Santo on Thursday at Holy Name Cathedral Parish in Chicago. The funeral will be next Friday at the Holy Name Cathedral Church.
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.