Ron Santo managed to pack three careers into 70 years of life.
Santo, best known as a slugging third baseman for the Chicago Cubs, died late Thursday night in Arizona from complications of bladder cancer.
As a baseball player, Santo hit 342 home runs during a 15-year career, 14 of them with the Cubs. After playing the 1974 season with the White Sox, Santo retired to private business, where he enjoyed success with an oil company and with running restaurants.
It was in his third career, as a color analyst on radio broadcasts, that Santo gained more fame and cemented his place in team lore. Teaming with broadcast partner Pat Hughes, Santo was an audible stream of consciousness, reveling in the highs and suffering with the lows of Cubs baseball.
Although he never made the baseball Hall of Fame — a bitter disappointment to Santo and his admirers — he won the everlasting respect of fans and people around the team.
“I was pretty close to him the last 10 to 12 years,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Friday. “He was very, very good to all of us. He proved to be a great example of how to handle adversity. He was living proof that passion and character can take you a long way. It's just unfortunate that he's not in the Hall of Fame.”
Bladder cancer was the latest of many physical ailments to befall Santo. He was diagnosed with it in 2003, as the Cubs were winning the National League Central title.
For his entire adult life, Santo suffered from diabetes and still managed to put up outstanding numbers in baseball. After his playing career ended, Santo became heavily involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and he helped to raise millions of dollars in search of a cure.
The disease forced Santo to have both of his legs amputated below the knee. He also underwent heart bypass surgery in 1999.
As much as he could, Santo maintained a full schedule of broadcasts, but he cut back in recent years, missing several road trips to tend to his health.
Friends say Santo seemed in good spirits recently.
“No, I did not see it coming,” Hughes said of Santo's death. “But with all the problems he had, it was not a complete shock. The moment I found out, it was a shock, if that makes sense.”
“He never complained about his health,” said Cubs TV announcer Len Kasper. “The only complaint he had was when he couldn't travel, and unfortunately, that happened a lot this past season. Hindsight is 20-20, but if we had only known what was going to happen, I wish we could have spent more time with him. I told him how I felt about him, and I knew how he felt about me. I wish I had one last chance, I really do.”
Ron Santo was born Feb. 25, 1940 in Seattle. There was no baseball draft when Santo was playing high school ball, and he always said he signed with the Cubs because he enjoyed seeing Wrigley Field on game-of-the-week telecasts.
Santo made his major-league debut in 1960, and he quickly established himself as one of the top two or three third basemen of the 1960s. He won five Rawlings Gold Glove awards and made nine National League all-star teams. For most of his career, he was the Cubs' cleanup hitter, batting between Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ernie Banks.
A fiery player on the field, Santo never was afraid to argue with umpires or get into the faces of opposing players or even teammates.
During the fateful 1969 pennant race, during which the Cubs blew a large lead and lost out to the New York Mets, Santo had to apologize to teammate Don Young after Young misplayed a flyball in a game at New York's Shea Stadium.
Santo got under the skin of opposing players that year when he starting running toward the left-field clubhouse at Wrigley Field and clicking his heels after Cubs victories.
The Cubs never made the postseason while Santo played for them.
Santo made history of sorts in the winter of 1973, when the Cubs attempted to trade him to the California Angels. But Santo became the first player to veto a trade because he had 10 years of major-league service and five with one club.
“It was called the Santo clause,” Santo told the Daily Herald in July of this year. “First of all, I didn't want to leave Chicago. I had a couple offers, and a big one from the Angels at that time. I just didn't want to go to California and move my kids or anything.”
Santo agreed to be traded to the White Sox, but after spending one unhappy season on the South Side, he retired, despite having one year left on a then-lucrative contract.
Santo, who had sold pizzas during his playing career, went into business full time after his playing career and all but disappeared from the public eye, something that may well have hurt his Hall of Fame chances.
In 1990, Santo rejoined the Cubs as a radio analyst alongside Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly. He said that throwing out a first pitch before a 1989 Cubs playoff game moved him enough to want to get back into the game.
Hughes and Santo teamed in 1996, and the two men hit it off, developing a chemistry reminiscent of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“When you're part of something like that, I didn't analyze it all that much,” Hughes said. “I just wanted to keep it going. I knew it was popular, that was obvious. The audience seemed to like it. They promoted us a lot. It would almost be surreal because I was part of it, and yet, it's hard to explain. You're not perceiving it the way the audience does. You're actually part of it. It's a hard thing to explain.”
Hughes, a smooth play-by-play announcer, played straight man to Santo's malapropisms, jokes about Hughes' wardrobe and Santo's seeming to live or die with every Cubs game.
Santo's cry of “Oh no!” after outfielder Brant Brown dropped a flyball late in the 1998 season has become legendary. On the air, Santo would moan, groan, yell or scream, depending on how the Cubs were doing.
“I just react to the moment,” Santo said last February as his 70th birthday approached. “It's all I do. The moments I have on radio, I sometimes don't even realize I'm moaning like I am. Ever since I've been in the booth, every time I come to the ballpark, it's like being on the field. But I can't do anything about it. When I played, I could. That's the frustration.”
To anyone who knew Santo, the emotions were real.
“There was not one bit of shtick to it,” said current Cubs manager Mike Quade, who took over from Lou Piniella in August. “We'd do these interviews before the game, and he'd look me right in the eye and say, “Let's win one today.' You know it's a long season. There are 162 of these (games), and he wanted to win every day.”
Santo missed out on election to the Hall of Fame in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He has fared little better with the Veterans Committee, which is made up of Hall of Fame players, broadcasters and writers.
Although he expressed disappointment in the past over not being elected, he seemed to come to terms with it in later years.
“I'm not thinking about it like I've been known to do, but I've just got a feeling that it's not meant,” he said in February. “But you know what? It's not going to change my life. I believe myself I deserve it. I played the game the way it should be played. I put up numbers that diabetics today can't understand how I did it because they know what the ups and downs are.”
Santo also maintained that his own personal Hall of Fame moment came in late 2003, when the Cubs retired his No. 10 uniform number, an honor they previously gave only to Cubs elected to the Hall.
“He told me many times that when he got his No. 10 retired at the end of the 2003 season, ‘This is my Cooperstown; that was my Hall of Fame right there,'” Hughes said. “And knowing him like you do and I do, I honestly believe that meant as much to him, being honored by the Cubs in front of the fans at Wrigley Field, especially a day after we had clinched the division title, that meant as much as to him as Cooperstown would have. That was his Cooperstown. That was truly one of the best things that happened to him, having his No. 10 retired.”
Before last season, Santo signed a three-year contract to keep broadcasting Cubs games. In February, he said he was thinking well beyond that.
“I'm looking until I die. How's that?” he said. “That's long term. I hope it's long term. I take every day as it comes. I try to do the best I can to keep my health, and I think I've done a great job. I've been through a lot. Getting through everything I've got through, and there's been so many fans or people in general I've inspired, but I tell everybody, ‘Until adversity hits you, you do what you have to do, and you can't be feeling sorry for yourself.'
“Even when the cancer came, I wasn't worried because I got through so many operations — open-heart surgery, two legs. I'll be all right.”
Marty Maciaszek contributed to this report.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.