CHICAGO — Former Chicago Cubs player and broadcaster Ron Santo was remembered with smiles and happy memories Friday as friends and colleagues praised 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.
"He inspired other people to play their best, do their best," said Banks, a Hall of Famer Banks 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 despite playing with diabetes.
Santo was widely regarded as one of the best players not to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The sadness with which he met the news year after year that he been passed over strengthened his bond with the fans, but nothing brought them closer to Santo than his work in the radio booth over the past 21 years.
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 in the bottom of the ninth in September 1998 with the Cubs' playoff hopes teetering.
In many ways, he was the heart of the organization.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts called Santo the ultimate "fans' broadcaster" and Commissioner Bud Selig described how the Cubs — and specifically Santo — helped fill a void for him growing up 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 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.
Former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood was asked if he ever had to console Santo after a Chicago loss and he said: "All the time."
Santo never hid his disappointment over being passed over for the Hall of Fame. 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."
"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."