Few athletes become part of the fabric of their community the way Ron Santo did
CHICAGO -- It matters not at all if you are a Cubs fan. The scene of hundreds of people filing into the public viewing of a former ballplayer and broadcaster was reason to pause this week.
And the sight of five men wiping away tears as they wheeled their teammate's casket down the aisle of Holy Name Cathedral on Friday, should touch us all.
You think Jay Cutler will one day settle into the team's broadcast booth, be a Bears' fan for life, become a beloved Chicago icon? This is not to indict Cutler specifically. By all accounts, he participates willingly in charitable causes. But it will be rare indeed if Cutler or any of his Bears' counterparts wind up living in Chicago 20 years from now, if they adore the Bears' teams of the 2030s, if they can remember the names of all their teammates.
Ron Santo spent the winter months in Arizona. But he was eulogized Friday. Forty years after he played third base for a team whose greatest accomplishment was competing hard and entertaining its fans, his life was remembered and celebrated not just because he was a great Cub, but a great Chicagoan and, as team owner Tom Ricketts called him, "the beating heart of Chicago Cubs' fans everywhere."
Many will remember Santo best for that, for his years as the team's broadcaster when his most famous call -- perhaps fittingly for the Cubs -- was one of raw anguish at another missed opportunity.
Santo's broadcast partner Pat Hughes impersonated Santo's "Oh no," from that fateful day in Milwaukee in 2003, of Santo's head dropping face first to the desk.
"I thought I lost him right there," cracked Hughes.
He told of then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman having to console a tearful Santo in his office afterward. "Hang in there, Ron," Riggleman said. "We're going to play the Astros, we can still make the playoffs."
Hughes also told of Santo reading his fan mail in the booth on the road, then picking up the phone and calling "complete strangers. He would say 'Hi, this is Ron Santo, could I please talk to Larry Smith?'
"There would be a pause," Hughes recalled. "Then Ronnie would kind of chuckle and say, 'No, this really is Ron Santo. I'm calling for Larry.'
"He did this all the time," Hughes said.
Of all of Santo's accomplishments, baseball commissioner Bud Selig chose to speak of the time Santo gave his mother a signed cap for Selig's daughter, Wendy, on a golf course in Arizona. It was a move, Selig said, that cemented Wendy's love of the Cubs' third baseman.
Santo was lauded for bringing awareness as well as millions of dollars to research for Juvenile Diabetes. But his countless private pep talks with people affected by the disease resonated just as deeply.
Santo was a diabetic, a double-amputee and a cancer patient, a symbol of courage for working at all, much less in a job that required the physical stamina of a major league broadcaster, and among those he inspired was the man was who presided over his funeral service, Holy Name's Monsignor Daniel Mayall, a fellow diabetic.
"One of my heroes," said Mayall, "while I was learning to live with the disease. Ron was the voice of the Cubs but he was also the face of hope. Ron was the poster boy of hope."
Those attending Friday's service nodded at one or both interpretations.
Mayall and Hughes urged everyone to smile, to be happy, to celebrate Santo's life for that is what he would have wanted. But you couldn't tell that to Santo's buddies.
They paused outside the church pondering the loss, former second baseman Glenn Beckert choking up as he spoke.
"We were the Magnificent 7, that's what we called ourselves, after the movie, seven guys who were together seven years," Beckert said of himself, Santo, Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Don Kessinger.
"And now we're six," he said softly.
Among those at Friday's service were those on various Cub teams and eras, Ryne Sandberg, Kerry Wood, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster.
"He played here, he was loved as a player, he became more loved as an announcer," Wood said of Santo. "I don't know if we'll see that again."
The first person Wood called, before popping the champagne after Game 5 in Atlanta in '03, was Santo, who had not been able to make the trip.
"I'll always remember talking to him after that game," Wood said.
Fans flooded the Internet with expressions of sympathy for Santo this week. They placed flowers at Wrigley Field. And a couple hundred lined up on a workday to see his hearse take him on a few last laps around the ballpark.
"This expresses what Chicago is," said Ernie Banks, referring to the city's outpouring for Santo. "It's family. We all pull for each other and we stick together. It's what makes it such a wonderful place."
At least it always did.
Many of the '85 Bears played here and stayed here, working and doing good deeds for the community. It's something to hold onto as tightly as their Super Bowl trophy. It is something that is not going to exist forever.
"This might be the end of it," said Cubs' Hall of Famer Billy Williams. "Guys move to other organizations now and to other cities. For so long, Ronnie and I couldn't afford homes in different cities and so we stayed in Chicago. This was our home. It is our home."
But it's more than that, of course. It is about a man who was remembered Friday for his simple acts of kindness, a man who came from an era when autographs were carefully inscribed and thoughtfully handed out.
You shouldn't have to be a Cubs' fan to appreciate that.
"It doesn't take long to stop and make somebody happy." Santo said in a WGN interview aired Friday. "I love it."
And why they loved him.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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