Luminaries on hand to honor Santo

Luminaries on hand to honor Santo

CHICAGO -- Ron Santo, the "No. 1 Cubs fan ever," was celebrated on Friday and honored for his passion, his joy and his courage.

Friends and family gathered at Holy Name Cathedral for Santo's funeral, appropriately held on Dec. 10 for the legendary No. 10. Santo died one week ago of bladder cancer. He was 70.

Tribute: Ron Santo, 1940-2010

"[Cubs fans] have known him since he was a baby here," former Chicago pitcher Kerry Wood said of Santo, who signed with the team when he was 18, played 14 seasons there, then spent another 21 years in the radio booth.

"People grew up with him in their house or their car. They spent summers with Ron Santo and Pat [Hughes]. Ron did a great job of feeling like he was part of your own family; he was that genuine a guy."

Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams were among the pallbearers, joined by Santo's teammates Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley. The casket was first escorted up the steps of the church by Cubs traveling secretary Jimmy Bank, WGN Radio engineer Matt Boltz, and some of Santo's radio partners, including Andy Masur, Cory Provus and Judd Sirott.

"It was our last pregame show together," said Masur, now a broadcaster with the Padres.

Hughes, who was Santo's partner for 15 seasons on WGN Radio, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts each delivered tributes. Selig said his daughter, Wendy, still has a cap that Santo signed many years ago when they shifted their allegiance to the Cubs after the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. At that time, he was Wendy's favorite player. Most fans nowadays remember Santo as the heart and soul of Cubs radio broadcasts on WGN.

"Ron was the fans' broadcaster -- he was the fan in the booth," Ricketts said.

Santo, Ricketts said, could describe what was happening in a game without using any words because of his tendency to grunt and groan at bad plays. But he never hid his joy of the game, as anyone who ever tuned in can attest to. How many times did you hear him shout, "Unbelievable," after a great play?

Santo is survived by his wife, Vicki, and their four children, Ron Jr., Jeff, Linda and Kelly. Vicki entered the church holding the hand of their grandson, Sam.

Among the other attendees were former NFL coach Marv Levy, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, and broadcasters Gary Matthews, Thom Brennaman, Len Kasper and Bob Brenly.

Several Cubs players, past and present, were there besides Wood, including Ryan Dempster, Sean Marshall, Koyie Hill, Tom Gorzelanny, Justin Berg, Ted Lilly, Kevin Orie, Dave Otto and Scott Sanderson. Cubs manager Mike Quade, general manager Jim Hendry and the rest of the team's front office also were present to pay respects.

But there weren't just celebrities in the crowd. There were people whom Santo had touched because of his efforts with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, or perhaps had come in contact with him looking for help on how to deal with life after losing a limb. Santo had both legs amputated below the knee because of complications with diabetes, an illness he hid from teammates. His annual Walk for the Cure has raised more than $40 million for JDRF.

"Ron was the poster boy of hope," said Monsignor Daniel Mayall, who delivered the homily.

Mayall had a personal connection with Santo himself. He admitted to being a Cubs fan and a diabetic, and said his first glove was a Wilson 2170 with Santo's name on the pocket.

Also in the crowd were people who saw Santo at every home game, such as clubhouse managers Tom Hellman and Gary Stark, or Kenny, who drove the golf cart that took him to the broadcast booth at Wrigley Field for seven years.

In his tribute, Hughes said Santo would read his fan mail in the booth before games, and often call someone who had written about losing a leg or the difficulties of dealing with diabetes. It always took some time to convince that person that yes, it really was Ron Santo on the phone.

"He lost both of his legs," Selig said, "but he never lost heart."

Hughes relayed the story about how Santo's hairpiece caught on fire before a game in April 2003 because of the overhead heaters in the press box at Shea Stadium. Santo also had a run-in with a yogurt machine in a press dining room that wouldn't stop spilling its contents onto the floor.

"He did what any mature seventh-grader would do -- he runs away," Hughes said, laughing.

The Santo call nearly everyone remembers came in September 1998. The Cubs were battling for the National League Wild Card berth in the last week of the season, and outfielder Brant Brown dropped a fly ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth, allowing three runs to score in Milwaukee. Santo's "Oh no!" is a part of Cubs lore.

Hughes recalled then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman having to console Santo in his office after the game.

"He's the No. 1 Cubs fan ever," Hughes said of his partner.

Santo's happiest moment, Hughes said, was Sept. 28, 2003, when the Cubs retired his No. 10. Wood recalls another day, Oct. 5, 2003, after the Cubs had beaten the Braves, 5-1, to clinch the NL Division Series in Atlanta. Santo did not make that trip because of health reasons, and the Cubs players hung his No. 10 jersey in the dugout. After the game, Wood called Santo, who was home in Chicago.

"Guys were starting to pop champagne, and I was in the hallway talking to him and he was very emotional and very excited, and I'll always remember being able to talk to him after that game," Wood said. "We felt at that time, 'This is for you.' It was a special moment."

Who took losses harder, Santo or the players?

"Probably him," Wood said. "Short term, we could look for tomorrow. That's why he was loved, because Cubs fans take it hard, and he was probably the biggest one and he took it the hardest."

Santo was a little forgetful. He called everyone, "Big Boy," and Wood recalled a pregame interview in which Santo couldn't even remember the right-hander's name. And this wasn't early in 1998, Wood's rookie year, but in 2007 or '08 in Houston.

"You don't have to wonder if he's thinking something or what did he mean -- he's going to say what he feels and say what he means, and you respect that," Wood said.

For Jenkins, it didn't hit him that Santo was gone until he put his hand on the coffin.

"It's tough, because you hate to lose people who were that close to you," Jenkins said. "Whenever you see him in the booth, he always had something nice to say."

Despite Santo not being elected into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America or the Veterans Committee, Williams is convinced the third baseman will get to Cooperstown.

"I have hope, because he was such a great player," Williams said. "If you vote for a guy who's been a good ballplayer and done a lot outside of the game of baseball, if you look at that, you'll say, 'This guy is a Hall of Fame individual.'"

After the service, Santo took one more ride to Wrigley Field. The procession left the downtown church, paused outside of Tribune Tower, which is WGN Radio's headquarters, and then headed north to the ballpark to do a lap around Wrigley.

"If you think we miss him now," Mayall said, "wait until we turn on the radio for that first Spring Training game from Mesa in March."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.