MLB: Friends, family fondly recall former Cub Ron Santo |

MLB: Friends, family fondly recall former Cub Ron Santo

AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) – It didn’t take long for the tears to give way to laughter, and that figured, because smiles were never in short supply when Ron Santo was around.

It was only fitting that there were plenty even at his funeral.

The former Chicago Cubs player and broadcaster was remembered fondly Friday, with friends and colleagues praising his unbridled optimism in the face of health problems and the heartbreaking failures of his beloved team.

Santo embodied three virtues in particular – joy, hope and courage, Monsignor Daniel Mayall told a quiet crowd gathered on a cold day for the funeral service at Holy Name Cathedral. Mayall suggested most would remember Santo’s joy, from clicking his heels after those 1969 wins at Wrigley Field to his unabashed rooting during WGN Radio broadcasts of Chicago games over the past 21 years.

“Yes! All right! Oh, no! Ah, jeez! Unbelievable!” Mayall said to laughs, reminding everyone of the familiar Santo outbursts that could be expected to come crackling over the radio, depending on the Cubs’ fortunes.

“Joy was a virtue for Ron … joy was part of his life, every day and every season. … Ron Santo was a joyful man,” Mayall said.

Santo’s long battle with diabetes cost him both his legs below the knees, but he ultimately died of complications from bladder cancer at the age of 70 in Arizona on Dec. 3.

The service drew several hundred people, including Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Ferguson Jenkins, Randy Hundley, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Jesse Jackson Sr.

Santo’s casket was carried solemnly outside and the procession headed north on Michigan Avenue as fans and well-wishers gathered on the sidewalks. Many applauded as the procession passed by Wrigley Field, where the marquee read “Ronald Edward Santo 1940-2010” and the main entrance served as a shrine to the legend.

There were flowers, Cubs caps and T-shirts, pictures, candles, beer cans and bottles. There were signs that read “RIP” and “God Bless” and letters from fans recalling how he touched them, how he always had time for them.

“It’s really nice what people have done out here,” said Margie Taylor of Chicago, who grew up watching Santo and was carrying a red album with photos she had taken of him in his playing days.

Santo simply had that effect on others, whether they were fans or teammates.

“He just could inspire other people to play their best, do their best,” said Banks, a Hall of Famer who was one of the pallbearers.

A nine-time all-star in his 15-year career, Santo hit .277 with 2,254 hits, 342 home runs and 1,331 runs batted in. He also won the Gold Glove award five times.

Santo was widely regarded as one of the best players not to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, something his teammate Williams believes eventually will happen.

“It was unfortunate that he didn’t receive that award while he was living, and he so much warranted it,” said Williams, who got elected in 1987. “He won’t get the enjoyment (he would have if) he were living and walked up to that podium and received that award. But I think because it will happen, his family will say he was a Hall of Famer.”

The sadness with which Santo met the news year after year that he been passed over strengthened his bond with the fans, but nothing brought them closer than his work in the radio booth.

He never hid the fact that he was pulling for the Cubs right along with the listeners and feeling their pain whenever something went wrong. It was Santo who famously screamed “Oh, noooooooo!” after left fielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball to left against Milwaukee with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in September 1998 with the Cubs’ playoff hopes teetering.

The ball got by Brown, and three runs scored. Chicago, which was leading by two, lost that game and when it was over, Santo was distraught.

Longtime broadcast partner Pat Hughes remembered looking over and seeing his head “flat on the table.” In the clubhouse later on, Hughes found Santo in tears while sipping a beer in manager Jim Riggleman’s office, wondering, “How could he drop the ball in that situation?”

“Jim Riggleman, the manager, walks up to Ron Santo, the broadcaster, and says, ‘Hang in there, we’re going to Houston, we can beat the Astros, we can still make the playoffs,”‘ Hughes said. “Here is a manager cheering up a broadcaster! Do you think Mike Ditka had to cheer up Wayne Larrivee?”

The crowd roared in laughter at that story. Hughes also had them in stitches as he recalled Santo’s toupee catching fire at Shea Stadium from a ceiling heat lamp.

They were standing for the national anthem in the cramped booth when Hughes heard something “sizzling like bacon.” He turned around, saw Santo’s head on fire and quickly poured a cup of water on it.

“He said how does it look?” Hughes said. “I lied and said, ‘It doesn’t look that bad.’ It actually looked like a professional golfer had taken a pitching wedge and hit one off his head.”

In many ways, Santo was the heart of the organization.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts called him the ultimate “fans’ broadcaster” and Commissioner Bud Selig described how the Cubs – and specifically Santo – helped fill a void for his family in Milwaukee after the hometown Braves relocated to Atlanta.

Selig, quoting from an essay written by former Commissioner Bart Giamatti, said baseball “breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

“I’ve often said that baseball must provide hope and faith,” he said. “Ron personified that spirit with an array of challenges that would test the courage of the bravest amongst us. Ron Santo never lost hope, he never lost faith in himself, in the city of Chicago, in his beloved Cubs and in the game of baseball.”

Santo battled serious medical problems after he retired as a player, having surgery on his eyes, heart and bladder after doctors discovered cancer. On his legs alone, he underwent surgery more than a dozen times before they were amputated below the knees – the right one in 2001 and the left a year later. He showed up in spring training in 2003 with one of his protheses wrapped in Cubs’ colors, and he was active in fundraising for diabetes research, with his Walk-for-the-Cure raising millions of dollars.

Being in the radio booth watching his Cubs was soothing for Santo.

He found comfort at the ballpark, a respite from his various ailments, and he once said his association with the team probably prolonged his life – just not long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series. That hasn’t happened since 1908, and they last captured the pennant in 1945, when Santo was 5.

As painful as all the losses were for Santo, so was the Hall of Fame exclusion. In 2003, the Cubs hoisted his retired No. 10 up the left-field foul pole, just below Banks’ No. 14, and he said then that it meant more to him than the Hall of Fame.

“With the adversity that I have been through if it wasn’t for all of you, I wouldn’t be standing here right now,” he told the cheering crowd at Wrigley that day.

Mayall, the monsignor, said Cubs fans “breathe hope” and Santo was part of that.

“Ron was the voice of the Cubs, but he was also the voice of hope. … Ron was the poster boy for hope,” he said. “If you think we miss him now, wait until we turn on the radio for that first pitch in March.”