December 03, 2010
The year 2010 has been full of bad headlines for the Chicago Cubs, but this latest news is worse than everything else combined: Third base legend and radio broadcaster Ron Santo died on Wednesday night from complications due to bladder cancer. He was 70 years old.
Because his health was never the best — he battled diabetes for most of his life and later had both of his legs amputated because of the disease — we always kind of knew this gut punch might be coming soon. Still, it's hard to wake up to learn that the franchise's heart and soul has left us for a better place. It's a cold December morning here in Chicago and with a snowstorm approaching (and opening day at Wrigley Field still months away), the timing of Santo's passing seems to underscore the crushing news.
Also disappointing is the immediate realization that Santo really will never be around to see his beloved Cubs win the World Series or to deliver the Hall of Fame induction speech he long deserved to make in person as one of the best third basemen in baseball history. While both milestones may one day happen — especially with old No. 10 now being able to pull some strings up there in heaven — but it won't be nearly quite the same had he been here to experience both.
But while we mull over our disappointment, it should also be said that Ron lived his life with an unparalleled and consistent brand of optimism that made us such big fans in the first place. He came to the Cubs in 1960 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old rookie from Seattle and, apart from one year with the rival Chicago White Sox, never left. The only reason we're not calling him Mr. Cub today is that Ernie Banks already has a claim on that one.
Indeed, the closest thing that Santo had to a nickname was "Ronnie" and that was appropriate given how familiar he was to us. Pick a Cubs moment from the past half-century and Santo was never far away. Some of the most memorable of those were associated with the Cubs' trademark brand of doom (seeing the black cat at Shea Stadium during the 1969 collapse, Santo's groaning after Brant Brown dropped that ball in Milwaukee in 1998), but there are fewer pictures in Cubs (or Chicago) history that can bring a smile to my face like the iconic shot of him clicking his heels after a win.
In a town that beatifies our tough guys like Dick Butkus and Bobby Hull, Santo was one of the toughest. Playing with diabetes is a tough task today — just ask Bears quarterback Jay Cutler — but Santo played at a Hall of Fame level while 1) never using a glucometer (amazing) and 2) keeping his condition a secret from his teammates and manager at first. How much longer would his career have been if he were completely healthy? Santo wrote all about his experience for Guideposts and if you haven't had a chance to check out This Old Cub, make sure you do so when they start re-airing it soon.
On a personal note, Ron Santo was a man I truly admired. I had the great fortune to share a pressbox with him for a few years and it was a great thrill and privilege to start my work day with a smile and wave from Ron — how many of those did he give out a day? — as he traveled up the Wrigley Field ramps in his golf cart for another game at his favorite place on Earth.
Going to the Friendly Confines or HoHoKam Stadium in Arizona won't ever be the same, but we can comfort ourselves in knowing that his spirit won't ever be far away.
Rest in peace, Mr. Santo.