As a player, later as a broadcaster, Santo was as closely identified with the Cubs as any single person this side of Ernie Banks could be. That meant being identified not only with the joy, but with the heartache.
Santo died Thursday night at age 70 from complications of bladder cancer. As popular as Santo was as a player, he had become even more admired during his broadcasting career for his battle against the effects of diabetes. He lost both legs from the knees down, but he continued to work as a color commentator. With his broadcast partner, Cubs radio play-by-play man Pat Hughes, he had become an essential part of the day-to-day Cubs experience.
Santo's on-air reactions were those of a supreme Cubs fan. If he groaned when a Chicago hitter failed in a crucial situation, he was simply giving voice to the frustration of millions of Cubs fans. This was who Ron Santo was, and he was always genuine. His devotion to the Cubs never wavered.
He had been an outstanding player for the Cubs, spending 14 seasons with the club, from 1960-73, before finishing his career with a final season with the White Sox. He was both a top-shelf run producer and a distinguished defender at third base.
One of the iconic images of Cubs history, which summed up both the promise and the disappointment, was Santo clicking his heels during the 1969 season as a terrific Cubs team won and won and won, and built up what seemed to be an insurmountable lead. That episode, of course, didn't end well, but the image of Santo, with boyish exuberance in victory, reflected his pure joy in playing the game.
Later, part and parcel of the disappointments for Cubs fans became Santo's near misses with the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame. He was always a serious candidate for Cooperstown, but never quite an inductee. His repeated heartbreak on this issue was shared by millions. There should have been a place for Santo in the Hall of Fame, and if for some arbitrary reason the rest of us had difficulty grasping, it couldn't be the conventional place, then it should have come in the form of a lifetime achievement/contribution award.
Even without that ultimate individual honor, Santo's place in the game is more than secure, based on the respect and affection that is held for him throughout the game. In a statement issued Friday, Commissioner Bud Selig said:
"I am truly saddened by the loss of my dear friend Ron Santo, who represented all the goodwill of baseball and the Chicago Cubs franchise. He was a magnificent, consistent ballplayer -- a nine-time All-Star, a great power hitter and a five-time Gold Glove winner. Ron's playing and broadcasting careers shared a common thread: in both capacities, he was a staple of the Cubs' experience every single day.
"Ron, who overcame so much in his life, was always there for me during challenging times. I will forever cherish his friendship and marvel at his remarkable work in the fight against diabetes. On behalf of all of Major League Baseball, I send my deepest condolences to his wife, Vicki, their four children, their grandchildren, and to all the fans of the Cubs."
Those of us who had the privilege of seeing Santo play, and later, simply seeing him smile in the Wrigley Field press box, will never forget what he meant in both roles. Ron Santo rose above some very serious obstacles to carve out a playing career and then a broadcasting career.
And that example, carrying with it a built-in offer of hope and inspiration, may have been what was best of all about Ron Santo. The standard line, "he will be missed," in this case turns out to be a gross understatement. For fans of the Chicago Cubs, Ron Santo was the definition of a beloved figure.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.