UPDATED 12/03/10 1:01 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Legendary Cubs third baseman and broadcaster Ron Santo has died. He was 70.
A memorial was set up in front of Wrigley Field after sunrise, and his full name, Ronald Edward Santo, was emblazoned on the marquee.
Santo lapsed into a coma on Wednesday, and died around 1 a.m. Friday in Arizona. The cause was complications from bladder cancer.
Santo had also suffered from Type 1 diabetes throughout his life, and had been through a series of health setbacks, including the amputation of both legs below the knees.
“Nobody in 1959 when I was diagnosed at 18, nobody knew what diabetes was all about,” Santo once told CBS 2. “There had never been a player in the Major Leagues that played a full career with juvenile diabetes.”
But Santo had continued to broadcast the Cubs’ games on WGN-AM 720 radio alongside Pat Hughes, and had been expected to return for the 2011 season, according to the Tribune.
Santo was born Feb. 25, 1940, in Seattle, Wash., and spent 15 years in the Major Leagues. Most of his time was spent on losing Cubs teams, most famously the 1969 team that played through a stellar season before collapsing and eventually falling short of making the postseason.
When asked by former CBS 2 sports reporter Howard Sudberry what it would mean to see a World Series, Santo said: “That would be it. I would have lived a wonderful life.” That never came to be, but Santo still became, by far, one of the most beloved players in Cubs history.
Broadcast partner Hughes told CBS 2 Friday morning that Santo loved the Cubs to the end, and kept his passion for his work regardless of his medical challenges.
LISTEN: Former Cubs’ President John McDonough Talks About The Passing Of Ron Santo
“He was a tremendous guy. He had an amazing life,” Hughes said. “I feel like I’ve lost a partner and a good friend, and the Cubs have lost their No. 1 fan.”
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts also released a statement: “My siblings and I first knew Ron Santo as fans, listening to him in the broadcast booth. We knew him for his passion, his loyalty, his great personal courage and his tremendous sense of humor. It was our great honor to get to know him personally in our first year as owners.
LISTEN: Cubs’ Announcer Len Kasper Talks About The Passing Of Ron Santo
“Ronnie will forever be the heart and soul of Cubs fans,” the statement continued. “Our thoughts and prayers today are with his wife Vicky and their family and we share with fans across the globe in mourning the loss of our team’s number one fan and one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game.”
Mayor Richard M. Daley called Santo “not just a great baseball player and Cubs player, but most of all a fighter for life; for diabetes, and he had the strength to go and really encourage people about his illness. And at the same time, he always had a friendly smile, and really loved the Cubs and loved baseball. And he’ll truly be missed.”
Gov. Pat Quinn called Santo a “great guy” and a “man for all seasons.” He also called Santo a “great baseball player.”
Mayoral candidate and Cubs fan Rahm Emanuel also issued a statement.
“I fondly remember growing up going to Cubs games when Ron was third baseman,” Emanuel said in part. “Ron will be greatly missed and I extend my condolences to his family.”
In Wrigleyville Friday morning, mourners were coming out before dawn.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya Reports
“He was the face of the Chicago Cubs in my generation; I just found out,” one man said. “We live one block from Wrigley; I’ve been to every home game for the last five years, and it’s just sad.”
Cubs and White Sox fans alike were in mourning.
“It’s a sad day for people that are Cubs fans and baseball fans,” said White Sox fan Kevin Nedved. “He was a great ballplayer; deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, I believe.”
Cubs fan Christopher Hillas said he would miss Santo most for “his energy. He was one of us. You could listen to that game; you could be in traffic, you’d feel like you were right there.”
Santo’s run with the Cubs lasted from 1960 to 1973. He played one more season in 1974 with the White Sox.
During his career, Santo played for the National League in the All-Star game nine times. He batted .277 during his career with a total of 342 home runs, and 1,331 RBI, according to the Cubs.
Santo joined the WGN-AM radio team as a Cubs color commentator in 1990.
In 1992, Santo was a member of the first Cubs Walk of Fame class, and was named to the Cubs’ all-century team in 1999.
Santo hoped for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame for many years, but fell short on all 19 occasions he was up for election, much to the frustration of his legion of fans.
In an interview with CBS 2 Friday morning, Les Grobstein of 670 The Score said Santo’s record should easily warrant election to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a joke,” Grobstein said. “Compare (Santo’s) numbers offensively to those of Brooks Robinson (who is in the Hall of Fame) when you get a chance… There is no comparison.”
Some believe Santo’s heel-clicking celebrations, which ultimately became his signature, may have cost him a ticket to Cooperstown.
“Big deal. So he clicked his heels,” Grobstein said. “I hope those guys who kept him out sleep well tonight.”
But when his uniform number was retired on Sept. 28, 2003, the day after the Cubs clinched the National League Central Division in a season that took the team five outs away from the World Series. It was the closest they’d come since Santo was 5 years old.
Santo said it meant more to him than a Hall of Fame induction. Santo’s No. 10 now flies from the left-field flagpole at Wrigley Field.
Santo is survived by his wife, Vicki; their four children — Ron Jr., Jeff, Linda and Kelly; and their two grandchildren, Samuel and Spencer.