ST. LOUIS Ron Santos body had betrayed him long before he wound up in an Arizona hospital in December 2010. But the news still felt like a shock.
Cubs director of baseball operations Scott Nelson received a phone call in the middle of the night from Jim Hendry. The general manager at the time was hearing rumors about the 70-year-old Santo. Their worst fears were about to be confirmed, complications from bladder cancer.
I never thought hed die, Nelson said. To me, he was like Superman. Everything would just bounce off of him.
I never thought anything would get him, because he was the toughest guy in the world.
Thats the image Santo projected to all those kids who were fighting diabetes, the disease that got his legs amputated.
Virtually everyone around the organization has heard some punch line to a Santo story, and thats why hes still so beloved. But there was a much harder edge to this Hall of Famer, who will be inducted on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Between 1960 and 1974, Santo was strong enough to hit 342 home runs, quick enough to win five Gold Gloves at third base and steady enough to make the All-Star team nine times. The grind was like oxygen, which was why he kept coming back year after year, 21 seasons as the voice of summer on WGN Radio.
Santo was addicted to Wrigley Field. Thats where Dusty Baker got to know Santo on a daily basis as Cubs manager from 2003 to 2006. Baker, now managing the Cincinnati Reds, paid Santo the ultimate compliment, comparing him to his old-school father, a military man who served in World War II and didnt believe in sick days.
(Santo's) about as tough a guy as I've ever met, but he's also a kind-hearted, sensitive man, Baker said. He never complained about anything. I knew he had to be in pain. I know there were times he'd fall down and he wouldn't let you help him up.
Nelson who began working in the Wrigley Field clubhouse in the mid-1970s and is in his 30th season with the Cubs still gets emotional talking about Santo.
It was because of him that I fell in love with baseball, Nelson said. It was because of him that I fell in love with the Cubs. He is the Cubs. I always say when you look at that team, the Hall of Famers Ernie (Banks) and Billy (Williams) and Fergie (Jenkins), even the manager, Leo Durocher (Santo was still) the captain of that team, and that tells you a lot.
As a player, there was nobody like him. There was such enthusiasm, spirit, just such heart. I know a lot of the clichs have all been said that he was the heart and soul but he was, and you just had to see him play to know that.
Growing up in the western suburbs, Nelson remembered Santo appearing at a Pontiac dealership in Naperville one day to sign autographs. Near the end of the session, they took a group picture: I like nudge every (bleeping) guy out of the way to be right next to him.
Nelson recalled riding his bike back there several times, waiting for the photos to develop, which never happened. Santo the player had captured the imagination of an entire generation of Cubs fans.
But Nelson eventually discovered that his hero was even better than advertised, and became a good friend over the years: How often can somebody say that?
Nelson watched someone who always had time to stop and chat with fans and sign autographs. This was a rainmaker who helped bring in more than 60 million for juvenile diabetes research. The way Santo carried himself isnt forgotten in the clubhouse.
The great thing about Ronnie is he didnt have an ego, pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. When youre that good for so long and you were on the cusp on the Hall of Fame and now in the Hall of Fame sometimes humble isnt necessarily part of the dictionary. And Ronnie was 100 percent humble and he knew where he came from.
On the field or on the air, that personality resonated in the city that works.
Ronnie loved to play and have fun, said Samardzija, who grew up in Indiana. He withstood a lot of things and I think Chicago fans appreciated that. Hes definitely not a pretty boy or anything like that. They just tend to agree with those kinds of players, and Ronnie was definitely the epitome of that, just a dirtball who loved to play every day.
Santos legacy was secure no matter what, with his retired No. 10 flying at Wrigley Field and a statue at Sheffield and Addison. But the timing of it all a Golden Ballot vote last December after being turned down 15 times by the writers and denied by the veterans committee is still bittersweet.
I only wished that he had gotten into the Hall of Fame while he was still alive, Baker said. He didn't enjoy it. His familys enjoying it, and I'm hoping that, indeed, hes in heaven smiling right now.