The lasting legacy of Ron Santo — aside from the 342 home runs and five Gold Glove awards, the millions he helped raise for charities and the laughter he provided with his inimitable grunts and groans during Cubs broadcasts — might be the way he lived his life.
"This year" was always the Cubs' year, in Santo's estimation. And when it turned out it wasn't, well, then "next year" would have to suffice.
"Ronnie was a completely unique character," said Pat Hughes, Santo's longtime partner on Cubs radio broadcasts. "There's no way we will ever know someone like him again."
"He always stayed positive, always plowed ahead, and that's why he was loved by Cubs people."
Santo died Thursday night of complications from bladder cancer. Friends of the family said he lapsed into a coma Wednesday at an Arizona hospital. He was 70.
Santo's long-running quests to see the Cubs win a World Series and to be elected to the Hall of Fame never came to fruition. But he firmly believed both dreams would come true, an optimistic outlook that helped him overcome health issues the last 50 years of his life.
What one word best described the Cubs icon?
"Persevere," former Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "What he went through … and you never heard a complaint, never heard a bellyache. He always took things in stride, always wanted to see how you were doing. He was a special man, an inspiration to everybody."
After being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 18, Santo overcame long odds by not only making it to the majors, but also excelling in a 15-year career. Afterward he survived a bevy of health problems, including cardiac bypass surgery following a heart attack in 1999, the amputation of both legs below the knee in 2001 and '02, bladder cancer surgery in '03 and an irregular heartbeat in '07.
News 720 WGN-AM producer Matt Boltz, who worked alongside Santo in the Cubs' booth and became one of his closest friends, said Santo jokingly referred to himself as "The Bionic Man." Despite all the setbacks, he never gave in.
"Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans," Chairman Tom Ricketts said.
Santo's lifelong love affair with baseball began at an early age. He grew up in Seattle and spent his teenage years working at Sick's Stadium, home of the Seattle Rainiers minor league team. He performed odd jobs every summer, from serving hot dogs in the press box to working on the grounds crew to shining players' shoes.
The Cubs signed Santo after his senior year in high school for $20,000, which was $60,000 lower than an offer he received from the Cincinnati Reds. It wasn't about the money for Santo, who said he wanted to play for the Cubs after falling in love with Wrigley Field watching games on TV.
Called up from the minors in 1960, Santo went 3-for-7 with five RBIs in a doubleheader at Pittsburgh on his first day as a Cub. He quickly bonded with second baseman Glenn Beckert, and the two would join first baseman Ernie Banks and shortstop Don Kessinger to form the best infield in Cubs history.
Along with his slugging and slick fielding, Santo was known for his fiery demeanor. In manager Leo Durocher's autobiography, "Nice Guys Finish Last," he addressed Santo's feistiness: "A very emotional kid. He'd get so mad that he'd come in and tear the bench apart. He'd hit the door with his fist. He'd pull the bat rack down, and we'd have to send for the ground crew and have them build us a new one during the game."
That attitude led to a much-publicized incident in 1971 in which Santo choked Durocher during a heated clubhouse meeting. Afterward, Santo went into Durocher's office and persuaded him not to quit. No harm, no foul.
Santo prided himself on playing almost every inning of every game, and he missed only 23 of 1,595 games during a 10-year stretch from 1961 through 1970. He made nine All-Star teams and helped revive a moribund Cubs franchise, but he always will be remembered for the dreamlike 1969 season that ended with a thud.
Losing out to the Mets fed into Santo's longstanding loathing of New York. In 2007, when the Mets were building a new ballpark, Santo told the Tribune he would pay his own way to the Big Apple to "blow up" Shea Stadium.
"Or maybe even just to watch it blow up," he added with a grin.
After retiring from baseball following a disappointing final season with the White Sox, Santo started a crude-oil company, invested in fast-food franchises, remarried and began the "Ron Santo Walk for the Cure" in 1974, raising tens of millions for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in the final four decades of his life.
Santo turned down three offers to become an analyst on Cubs radio broadcasts but finally gave in after feeling a buzz while throwing out the first pitch before Game One of the 1989 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. Fittingly, Santo's first words on the air on Opening Day of the 1990 season were unprintable. He swore after knocking over a cup of coffee on his scorecard.
When Santo teamed with Hughes in 1996, it turned out to be a match made in Cubs heaven. The combination of Hughes' smooth delivery and dry humor and Santo's blatant homerism and frequent malapropisms was infectious. When Santo screamed, "Oh, no!" after outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball to allow the winning runs to score in a crucial 1998 game in Milwaukee, it was the grunt heard 'round Chicago.
The duo instantly clicked with Cubs fans, forming a lasting relationship that will be difficult to replicate.
"We're both kind of quirky and eccentric," Hughes said. "The mix was unusual and, thankful to say, popular."
Santo's health problems became more of a concern over the last decade. His diabetes caused circulation problems that led to the amputation of his right leg in 2001, then his left leg a year later.
Despite having to learn to walk on two prosthetic legs, Santo rarely missed broadcasting a Cubs game until much later in his career. John McDonough, then the Cubs' vice president of marketing and broadcasting, told Santo, "It's your job as long as you want to do it."
Santo called it his "therapy," despite some terrible Cubs seasons.
In 2003, Santo's son, Jeff, a filmmaker, began making a documentary called "This Old Cub," which centered on Santo overcoming the second amputation, along with his quest to get into the Hall of Fame. When a new Veterans Committee process was introduced in '02, Santo felt like he had a better chance and invited reporters into his Phoenix-area home on selection day.
But the phone call from the hall never came, and Santo fell 15 votes shy of election, beginning a series of close calls that made the snub more difficult to endure. The Cubs retired uniform No. 10 in his honor in 2003, which eased the pain for Santo, though he admitted he never would "get over" the Hall of Fame snub.
After a roller-coaster 2003 season in which the Cubs came within five outs of their first World Series since 1945, Santo underwent surgery for bladder cancer in late October. He had other health issues over the last seven years but always rebounded.
"Today should be a celebration on the robust life of Ron Santo," McDonough said Friday. "He was really an inspiration to me and to millions of people. … I think every day for the last 15 years was probably extra innings for him."
Santo is survived by his wife, Vicki; two sons, Ron Jr. and Jeff; two daughters, Linda Brown and Kelly Reed; and two grandchildren.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times