Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Cubs--and Chicago--Lose Their Biggest Fan

Chicago got its first significant winter snowfall today, one day after the death of former Chicago Cubs third baseman, Ron Santo.

Baseball is a summer sport, and Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, is a desolate place in the wintertime.  With today's snow, there seemed to be a hushed sort of disbelief at the passing of Santo, the quintessential fan, a man of unshakable faith in his team that has gone without a World Series championship in over 100 years. 

Santo, a legend around Chicago (even among non-fans), who was captain of the historic 1969 team which lost its bid to the New York Mets, who has spent the last two decades announcing the games on WGN radio, passed away from diabetes and bladder cancer in his home in Arizona. It was as though he waited to die so as not to interrupt the baseball season. Had Ronnie left us in the summer, in the midst of the madness and activity of the season, there would have been outpourings of emotion in the streets, tributes in the stadium and around the bars in Wrigleyville.

I don't write much about sports; I suppose of all major sports I can be considered mostly a fan of baseball. As a kid we went to many Cubs games at a time when Wrigley Field was smack in the middle of a questionable neighborhood, and safe parking was nearly impossible.  I took for granted that the heroes I watched almost daily on TV, and live at the park during Sunday double-headers, would be around forever. 

But when I heard of his death at age 70, I was stunned, silent, numb, like a part of my past was forever gone and never to be recaptured.  Mark (a rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan and Cubs rival), and even my mother, not a great sports enthusiast, reacted tearfully to the news.  

My sadness at his passing is as much for the loss of the man as it is for feeling an irretrievable loss of part of that happier, carefree aspect of childhood.

Santo had a colorful career and a solid record.  That he was never inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame defies understanding, and diminishes the honor for all involved.

Ronnie was not a seasoned broadcaster, but Chicagoans loved him because he was so free with his emotions, his innocent raw passion for his beloved team added genuineness, sincerity, so lacking in the generic patter of many professional sports announcers.  Many Cubs fans turned down the volume on their televisions during the games, turning up their radios to listen to the play-by-play of Ronnie and his on-air pal, Pat Hughes.  Every excited yelp, or dismayed groans of "aw geez!' said more than any in-depth analysis ever could.  We identified with that.  He sounded out what we felt.

I always remarked that Ron Santo would die happily the minute the Cubs won the World Series.  He made me believe that seeming impossibility was possible.  I am sorry that he never lived to see that moment of victory. 

During life's moves and changes, it hurts to lose an old photograph, a letter from a friend, an autographed baseball, or anything else that is a tangible reminder of how we once were.  Losing Ron Santo, and the promise of another season filled with hope, felt this way to me.  Even if you're not from Chicago, I know it is possible to understand this sense of loss...

At the end of the 1942 Gary Cooper biopic of Lou Gehrig, "Pride of the Yankees", as Gehrig finishes his famous farewell speech and walks off the field alone, soon to die, the yell of the umpire to "Play Ball!" gets me choked up every time.  There is nothing more poignant than the idea that life goes on.


  1. Yes, my heart sank when I heard of Santo's passing. He represented unabashed glee and unspoiled love for the Cubs and baseball. So, while I am indeed a Cardinal fan, I felt a great sense of loss hearing this news. I recall sitting in the stands in the mid 60s with my Dad ... watching the Cubs and Cardinals play a double header. Santo was a "what you see is what you get" throwback who know what they love and aren't afraid to stick with it -- we need more guys like him at a time in sports (and life in general) where no one knows who to trust or what to believe.

  2. Santo's death marks the end of something special for not only cubby fans but also for the game of baseball. He may not have been the most talented broadcaster, but he shared an unbridled enthusiasm for the cubs with every cub fan he talked to over the radio. His life embodied what being a cubs fan is---coping with continuous pain through the thoughts of hope. As a young adult, I was only exposed to Ronnie for a decade or so, but he was an exceptional human being and will be missed by many.