Santo died of complications from bladder cancer at his home Thursday night. He leaves a legacy that is a key part of the long history of the Chicago Cubs franchise.
Santo was diagnosed with diabetes at age 18 and fought a lifelong battle with the illness. Both of his legs were amputated. Despite all of his health problems, he continued to work as a Cubs radio analyst and was expected to return for next year's season. He said the work was like therapy.
During his 15-year, Major League career, Ron Santo was a nine-time All-Star. He was nominated for baseball's Hall of Fame 19 times but was never inducted, despite a career that made him one of the greatest third baseman of all time.
Over the summer, Santo spoke to the media about his long career in baseball.
"My flag being retired without being in the Hall of Fame was the biggest thing. To me, it is the Hall of Fame. This is my life for 50 years. I mean, you think about it, I wouldn't be around. What I went through with the diabetes and all the operations, and every time I walk into Wrigley Field and walked in the booth, I don't have a problem in the world other than moaning and groaning a couple of times when the Cubs weren't doing well. But the fans, the organization, you, kept me alive. I believe that very strongly," he said.
Santo used to take the elevator down from the press box to sign autographs for disabled children to ensure none of them left without a keepsake. He was loved by many Cubs fans and was one of the biggest Cubs fans himself. He made no secret about that and never held back when the Cubs made mistakes.
"Well, you know, as a broadcaster he was great, too. You were waiting for him to get upset, you know. 'How could they do that?' or 'Geez! What are they thinking?' I remember that as a broadcaster and as a ball player he brought enthusiasm to that club everyday," said Cubs fan Joseph Kolb.
Chicago's Mayor Daley paused to reflect on Santo's death before the start of a North Michigan Ave. prayer breakfast Friday morning.
"Understand, he was not just a great baseball player and a Cub player, but most of all, a fighter for life and for diabetes. He had the strength to go on and really encourage people about his illness. At the same time, he always had a friendly smile, and he really loved the Cubs and baseball, and he'll truly be missed," Daley said.Fans bid fond farewell to Santo
Baseball fans all over the city expressed their sorrow over Santo's passing with a makeshift memorial outside the Friendly Confines.
"He was so special because he was a good man," said Arthur Bailey, Cubs fan.
"I just felt so bad because he's not in the Hall of Fame, and they should've put him in, and it's terrible," said George Passi, Cubs fan.
As news of Santo's death spread, fans descended upon Clark and Addison and the flag bearing his retired number 10 was raised in his honor. Fans left roses and tokens on top of Santo's name, which is forever etched into the brick sidewalk.
"He's in a better place right now, in a field of dreams. If we all remember the movie, you'll see Ronnie coming out of the cornfields someday, too," said John Sullivan.
Erik Quinones wrote a message on the cap he's had since childhood and offered it in tribute to a man who gave so much.
"I've had this hat for a while, and now it belongs to him. It's my way of saying thanks for all the good times. I'm really going to miss you," said Quinones.
At Harry Caray's restaurant on the Near North Side, fans gave a stirring tribute to a legend and friend.
"He was so resilient and such a fighter. I just thought he really had a great personality, and he was fun to be around and really a nice man," said Dutchie Caray, Harry Caray's widow.
Cubs fan Don Scott nodded when asked if he thought Santo and Caray are hanging out in the big broadcast booth in the sky.
"I'm sure they are, and they deserve it," said Scott.
But Santo was more than just a voice of the Cubs. He was also the team's heart. Fans loved him not because he called the game, but because he lived it.
"Ron Santo was the biggest fan of his former team of any star player in the history of American sports," said Pat Hughes, Cubs broadcaster.
Like the Cubs themselves, Santo had his ups and downs. He was the living embodiment of the bittersweet franchise.
"There was frustration, but there was always optimism. And there was that combination of pain and joy, and I think that's another reason he was loved," said Hughes.
Santo leaves long legacy of charity work
During his lifetime, Ron Santo raised millions of dollars in the fight against diabetes. Since he retired, he was a powerful spokesperson for Juvenile Diabetes Research.
Santo's health battles loomed large in shaping the public's perception of the man. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 18 but played with the potentially fatal illness in an era when support for diabetics was light years from what it is now. He didn't even tell the Cubs he had it until his eleventh season.
After that, finding a cure to juvenile diabetes became as important to him as his work in baseball.
"I've dealt with a lot of young diabetics. It gives me an opportunity even when I was a player, and I didn't announce I was a diabetic, I would get letters about their child having diabetes, and I would see them and talk to them about it," Santo said this past summer.
Santo ranked his battle with diabetes, which through complications claimed both of his legs and subjected him to several surgeries, as equal to his baseball exploits.
"One of his greatest strengths was being able to put a positive spin on just about anything, including his own health," said Patrick Reedy, executive director, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Illinois.
The staff at the Illinois chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation were rocked with news of Santo's death. Since 1979, Santo led the JDRF's annual Walk for a Cure and raised over $60 million. Reedy says Santo's ability to connect with children facing the potentially fatal disease, where the body loses its ability to regulate blood sugar, was magical.
"Within an instant once he started speaking their language, he'd say, 'hey are you on a pump? What technology are you using? How are your numbers? You know you are doing a good job, are you listening to Mom and Dad?' He would reinforce the messages that the parents are telling them in a way that made it clear he knew what it meant to live with Type 1 diabetes," said Reedy.
The charity, whose best-known campaigner is actress Mary Tyler Moore, credits Santo with more than just raising money. He raised awareness of Type 1 diabetes - a far cry from the days when the third baseman hid his affliction.
"I saw him give himself an injection and he was hitting 335 or 336. I was hitting 210, and that was my first year and so I says, 'I'm not going to be here too long. Ron, I don't know what you're taking, but I need one of those!' And he laughed, then sat down and told me about the diabetes," said Glenn Beckert, Santo's Cubs roommate.
"There's a volunteer we work with who likes to say Ron Santo is in the human being Hall of Fame," said Reedy.
Santo played for the Chicago Cubs from 1960 to 1973 and wrapped up his career with the White Sox in 1974.
The Cubs honored Santo by retiring his number 10 in 2003. Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released the following statement Friday:
My siblings and I first knew Ron Santo as fans, listening to him in the broadcast booth. 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 the heart and soul of Cubs fans. Our thoughts and prayers today are with his wife Vicki and their family and we share with fans across the globe in mourning the loss of our team's number one fan and one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game.
As a nine-time All-Star, a five-time Golden Glove winner, Ronnie was one of the best Cubs ever and a Hall of Famer in our book.
In the days and seasons ahead, we will honor Ron and celebrate all he has meant to our team and our fans. Ron's number 10 will always be close to our hearts and Ron will forever be a member of the Cubs family.
Visitation and funeral arrangements for Ron Santo
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Holy Name Cathedral
735 N. State St.
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Friday, December 10
Funeral service for Santo (limited public seating available)
Holy Name Cathedral
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Santo's memory to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation - Illinois chapter (see address below) by visiting www.jdrfillinois.org and clicking on "Donate Now" or by calling 312-670-0313.
JDRF Illinois Chapter
11 S. LaSalle Street
Chicago, Illinois 60603-1344