Ron Santo was all Cubs, all the time
Player/broadcaster devoted most of his life to North Side and loved every minute of it
Ron Santo, the single nicest and most courageous person I've ever met in sports, is dead. He was 70, his toupee was 30.
Santo was baseball's equivalent of the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.'' (here's a YouTube clip -- you'll see what I mean.) He refused to admit defeat.
He was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 18. 'Tis but a scratch.
He had a heart attack and bypass surgery. I've had worse.
His difibulator accidentally shocked him. C'mon, you pansie.
He beat back cancer. Victory is mine!
He underwent eye surgery. Oh, had enough, eh?
His right leg was amputated. It's just a flesh wound.
And then his left. All right, we'll call it a draw.
To be honest, I don't know how Santo made it to 70. Or 60. Or even 50.
"Probably the toughest human being I've ever met,'' said Andy Masur, who spent eight seasons in the WGN Radio broadcast booth with Santo. "He had every excuse in the book to shut it down and go on living his life with his family. He didn't want to use excuses. He had that baseball mentality: If you're not in the lineup, you're hurting the team.''
Masur, now the radio play-by-play man for the San Diego Padres, was Santo's caddie -- and I mean that in a good way -- during those WGN years. He was there that cold, 2003 night in New York when Santo stood in the cramped Shea Stadium booth for the national anthem -- and his toupee caught fire from the ceiling heat lamp. Smoke began to rise from the fried hair and the booth smelled of burning rubber.
Several years later, during a road trip in St. Louis, Santo summoned Masur to his hotel room. It was only one of two times Masur had ever seen Santo without his fake lid.
"I can't find my toup,'' said Santo.
So they looked in the bathroom, the shower, under the bed, in the pillowcases. Everywhere. Then Masur noticed what looked like a dead animal attached to a FedEx box. It was Santo's hairpiece stuck to the box's adhesive strip.
Masur wouldn't touch the thing, so he handed Santo the box with the toupee attached like a chunk of sod. Santo laughed for minutes. Then he pulled the toupee from the adhesive and wore the toupee to the game.
Santo could laugh about anything, including himself. In fact, mostly himself. He gave names to his hairpieces. "No. 1" was his going-out-on-the-town toupee. "No. 2'' was his backup. "No. 3'' was only to be worn with a hat.
When you saw him at Wrigley, he was like a human rainbow. His default expression was a smile.
Cubs fans adored him because he was one of them. When the Cubs lost, he lost. When they won, he won. You could hear it in his voice during the game. You could see it in his face when he left the booth afterward, made his way down the narrow Wrigley Field press box hallway and down the two flights of stairs to the upper deck concrete concourse.
"He ate, breathed, slept, drank -- everything was the Cubs,'' said Masur. "He was the same off the air as he was on the air. That's why the fans knew him.''
Santo was both cursed and blessed. He was a great player who never reached the postseason during his distinguished career. He forever despised Shea after the Cubs' collapse in 1969. He endured Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS -- The Bartman Game. He suffered quietly and with mind-boggling dignity as his body was ravaged by disease.
He ate, breathed, slept, drank -- everything was the Cubs. He was the same off the air as he was on the air. That's why the fans knew him.” -- Andy Masur, a former WGN
Radio broadcaster, on Santo
But you should have been there the day they retired his number and raised his jersey flag on the left-field foul pole. He was so happy, he could have floated up to the WGN booth.
Santo should be in Cooperstown, of course. Why he isn't in the Hall of Fame is not only a baseball mystery, it's a cruel joke. Put his 15 years' worth of accomplishments and numbers in context (all done while battling diabetes) and it should have been a no-brainer. Instead, it was the voters who were brainless.
"To me it is clear and unequivocal that Santo is a Hall of Famer,'' Bill James, the godfather of baseball sabermetricians, told me once. "Putting guys like George Kell, Freddy Lindstrom and Tony Lazzeri in the Hall of Fame while you leave out Ron Santo is like putting Dalmatians, Palominos, and Siamese in the zoo while you let the lions roam the streets.''
I still hope Santo gets in, not because he died, but because he belongs. His legacy doesn't need the Hall of Fame, but it deserves it.
"To me, he's almost too good for them now,'' said Masur. "They had their chance. He was a Hall of Famer. And he was a Hall of Fame person.''
Masur got the call Thursday night about Santo's death. After he heard the news, he went directly to his laptop and clicked on all the audio he had saved of Santo during those WGN broadcasts.
"I've been a wreck today,'' he said. "I haven't slept. I've laughed. I've cried. I've done it all. It's going to be really weird when the Padres go to Wrigley and not be able to see him.''
It's going to be weird for all of us. That's because Santo was as much a part of the Cubs as the ivy, the brick outfield walls and the ancient scoreboard. He lived the Cubs. He died the Cubs.
I own exactly two signed jerseys. One of them is Santo's pinstriped No. 10, which he signed as a favor a few years ago. When I get home from this road trip, I'm taking a can of Old Style down to the basement, popping the top and raising a cold one to Santo.
He's going to miss the Cubs. We're going to miss him.
Like the Black Knight, we'll call it a draw.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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