Legendary Chicago Cubs player and broadcaster Ron Santo died Thursday night in Arizona. He was 70.
Friends of Santo's family said the North Side icon lapsed into a coma on Wednesday before dying Thursday. Santo died of complications from bladder cancer, WGN-AM 720 reported.
"He absolutely loved the Cubs," said Santo's broadcast partner, Pat Hughes. "The Cubs have lost their biggest fan."
Hughes noted that with all the medical problems Santo had--including diabetes with resulting leg amputations, his heart and bladder cancer--"he never complained. He wanted to have fun. He wanted to talk baseball."
"He considered going to games therapeutic. He enjoyed himself in the booth right to the end."
"We were together for so long," said a mournful Billy Williams, who played alongside Santo for many years. "We formed a bond. It's just like losing a brother."
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released a statement: "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."
The former Cubs third baseman was best known to a younger generation for his work as an analyst on WGN, the Cubs' flagship radio station. He was expected to return for the 2011 season. He missed several road trips in 2010 but insisted he would return.
"What else am I going to do?" Santo said during this past season. "Doing the Cubs games is like therapy for me."
Former Cubs teammate Randy Hundley, who also worked in the broadcast booth with Santo, said none of Santo's teammates realized he had diabetes until one night in St. Louis when he made a bad throw to first base and went down on one knee in pain.
Later they found out Santo had had the disease for six years, Hundley said. "We kidded him about it quite a bit, made his life miserable at times," said the former catcher.
Former Cubs President John McDonough compared Santo to Harry Caray, the broadcasting legend who called games for both Chicago teams, noting neither had a filter, broadcast with unvarnished emotion and were enormously entertaining.
Santo mangled names, sometimes lost track of what was going on in a game and occasionally didn't realize a player had been on the roster for months, but none of that mattered because people loved it, McDonough said. "We almost thought he was doing it on purpose," he said. "It added so much entertainment value."
One of the rare times he saw Santo visibly upset, McDonough recalled, was after Frank Sinatra Jr. sang during the seventh-inning stretch years ago. As Sinatra left the booth, he turned to Santo and told him he thought Santo was one of the best pitchers he had ever seen. "Ronny lost it," McDonough said.
Santo was the quintessential Cubs fan and made no apologies for his on-air cheerleading or his utter frustration over a bad play.
On many occasions, when Santo was upset with the way things were going for the team, a simple grunt or moan sufficed.
"I'm a fan," he explained last summer. "I can't plan what I do. I get embarrassed sometimes when I hear what I said, like, 'Oh, no, what's going on?' But it's an emotion.
"This is being a Cub fan."
Santo never witnessed his longtime goal of election to the Baseball Hall of Fame despite career numbers that place him among baseball's all-time great third basemen. He finished with a .277 average over 15 major league seasons, with 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in.
Though Santo came close to Cooperstown enshrinement in the last decade in voting by the Veterans Committee, he always fell short. In 2007, Santo received 39 of the 48 votes necessary to reach the 75 percent threshold of the living 64 Hall of Famers to cast a ballot. His 61 percent lead all candidates and no one was elected to the Hall.
It was the fourth straight time the Veterans Committee had failed to elect a member, leaving Santo frustrated.
"I thought it was going to be harder to deal with, but it wasn't," he said that day. "I'm just kind of fed up with it. I figure, 'Hey, it's not in the cards.' But I don't want to go through this every two years. It's ridiculous."
Santo was up for the Hall of Fame on 19 occasions, and first appeared on the Veterans Committee ballot in 2003. He got his hopes up on every occasion.
"Everybody felt this was my year," he said after the last vote in December 2008. "I felt it. I thought it was gonna happen, and when it didn't. ... What really upset me was nobody got in again.
"It just doesn't make sense."
Santo was consistent that he did not want to make a posthumous entrance into the Hall of Fame. After being denied so many times, he was resigned to what is now the only possibility.
"(Induction) wasn't going to change my life," he said. "I'm OK. But I know I've earned it."
Santo was beloved by many Cubs fans and players alike. When he was ill during the 2003 playoffs and couldn't travel with the team, pitcher Kerry Wood hung a No. 10 Santo jersey in the Cubs dugout in Atlanta. The Cubs won Game 5 of the division series to capture their first postseason series since 1908. Wood made an emotional call to Santo afterward, dedicating the game to him
Wood once made a case for Santo's election to the Hall of Game in an article in ESPN the Magazine, writing: "When it happens, and if the schedule lets us, I'm going to be there for the ceremony. He's the epitome of Chicago baseball. He's still part of the team. He lives and dies with it. In fact, I think we've put him in the hospital a few times. He should get in just for that."
Santo got a laugh from Wood's words and denied the Cubs' play had ever put him in a hospital.
Santo began his major league career with the Cubs in 1960, and spent one season with the White Sox in 1974. He earned National League Gold Glove awards five straight seasons from 1964 to 1968 and was a nine-time NL All-Star. He was one of the leaders of the 1969 team that blew the division lead to the New York Mets, a season indelibly etched in Cubs' history.
Santo never forgot the hurt and hated going to New York thereafter. Before one of his final Cubs-Mets games as a WGN broadcaster in Shea Stadium in 2007, Santo told the Tribune: "I would come back here personally to blow it up. I'd pay my own way. Maybe even just to watch it."
Santo joined the Cubs' radio booth in 1990 and was teamed with Hughes six years later. Santo epitomized the long-suffering Cubs fan, frequently grousing about the play on the field when things went bad.
His most famous call was a simple two-word utterance -- "Oh no!" -- when outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a crucial game in Milwaukee in the final week of the 1998 season.
He also suffered through incidents along the way that could seemingly happen only to Santo.
His toupee caught fire in the Shea Stadium press box on Opening Day 2003 after he got too close to an overhead space heater. And last spring in Mesa, Ariz., Santo lost his front tooth while biting into a piece of pizza.
Though Santo never made the Hall of Fame, his number was retired by the Cubs and now flies on the foul pole at Wrigley Field. He said that was equivalent to being inducted in Cooperstown. Being a Cub, and playing at their iconic stadium, meant the world to Santo.
"When I got here, two years after my senior year, I'm walking out of the corner clubhouse with Ernie Banks and there's nobody in the stands, and the feeling I had was unbelievable -- walking with Ernie and walking on that grass," he said. "I felt like I was walking on air. There was an electricity and an atmosphere that I'd never experienced in my life. Any ballplayer that's ever played here can tell you about that great atmosphere, and anybody who's come here to watch a game feels the exact same way."