Tough and caring, Santo had it all

Ron Santo was the toughest human being I've met in sports.

He also was the most genuine and among the most caring and compassionate people I've been around.

Santo died late Thursday, but he gave death everything it could handle.

Really, Santo could have been gone many years ago and many times over. But he kept battling.

He played his entire Hall of Fame-caliber career with diabetes, but that didn't stop him from hitting 342 home runs, winning five Gold Gloves or making nine all-star teams.

He underwent heart bypass surgery and flat-lined in the hospital. He liked to relate the story of his nurse imploring him, “Ron, don't leave me.” He didn't. Not then, anyway.

Santo endured having both legs amputated below the knee because of the ravages of diabetes. He also gallantly fought bladder cancer in the last few years of his life.

There are just too many Ron Santo stories to tell. I was fortunate enough to work alongside him for 13 years as the Cubs beat writer for the Daily Herald. Ronnie always treated me as if I were someone special. I always liked wandering into the radio booth now and then as he and Pat Hughes were preparing for a game. “Hey, big boy,” Ronnie would shout, and we'd share observations about the Cubs.

And it was the Cubs who kept Ronnie going. Win or lose, playoff team or no playoff team, Ronnie's No. 1 passion was Cubs baseball.

We've all heard the “Oh, no!” cry when Brant Brown dropped that flyball in 1998. We've all heard Ronnie proclaim, “This is the year, believe me,” almost every spring training.

It was all heartfelt.

“I think it kept him alive the last 4-5 years, I really do,” Hughes said Friday. “He loved people, he loved Wrigley, he loved Chicago. He loved the Cubs, and I like to think he loved the broadcast he was a part of.”

There was a lot to admire about Ron Santo.

He major-league baseball from 1960-74, finishing up with the White Sox (a season he doesn't like to talk about) after 14 stellar seasons with the Cubs. He played the game with a passion.

Santo also was smart enough to get into business while a player, and he prospered for 15 years after his retirement until he joined the WGN radio booth in 1990, along with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly.

“I was so bad when I auditioned that I shook hands with Brenly and congratulated him on winning the job,” Santo recalled this year. “Then I got the call that they wanted us both.”

The rest is history, as the Pat and Ron show became as big as the games themselves.

Ronnie was generous with his time and his money. I never saw him turn down an interview request. During spring training, fans would line up after games for an autograph, and if it took an hour, Ronnie signed them all.

And don't even think about paying for a drink or a meal when you were out with Ronnie. He wouldn't have it.

I made a point of interviewing Ronnie in February of 2000 for his 60th birthday and again this past February for his 70th.

All he could talk about was how blessed he felt, despite what he had to overcome.

“There's no doubt in my mind after what I've been through,” he said while sitting on his golf cart and watching his beloved Cubs work out. “Diabetes at age 18 and to play through my career and not have any problems whatsoever other than low blood sugars on occasion.

“To go through what I went through, I was personally hoping to make 50, I'll be honest with you. I've beaten all odds. I'm very excited that I'm going to be 70.”

Ronnie may indeed have been blessed. But no more so than any of us who got to know him.

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