In 1958, when Ron Santo was 18 years old, he left his familiar surroundings of his native Seattle for the first time and arrived in Mesa as a young Cub vying for a starting spot on the Chicago Cubs.
Just two years later, he became the starting third baseman for the Cubs, earning a spot with the team just in its eighth year of spring training in the city at Rendezvous Park, a relic of a ballpark with wooden fences and cups of ice-cold Coca-Cola for a dime.
And where players slept under the bleachers in a barracks-like environment.
“Mesa was mostly dirt roads then, but it was a lot of fun,” Santo said during an interview with The East Valley Tribune in October, days before the city honored him with a proclamation, designating Oct. 10 as Ron Santo Day. “Rendezvous Park was a Major League spring training park. I had arrived.”
“We had a curfew,” Santo added. “We all had to be in by midnight - that’s the time they locked the doors. I slept in the stands a couple of times, but that was OK. The weather was great, and didn’t have all the rain we had in Seattle.”
Over the next 50 years, Santo became one of the team’s most popular players to play in the cozy confines of Wrigley Field and after retiring from playing in 1974, he affectionately became known as “This Old Cub.” He will forever will be remembered for clicking his heels during the team’s victorious but bittersweet frolicking summer of 1969 and later for shouting “Oh Noooo!” in his gravelly voice for the lovable losers from WGN’s broadcasting booth as an announcer for the team.
It was a scream that also could be heard from Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium for 21 years, but now is silenced as Cubs fans again Wait ’til next year hoping to see the Cubs win their first World Championship since 1908.
Santo, a Scottsdale resident for the last 10 years, died Thursday night at an Arizona hospital of complications from bladder cancer as a result of diabetes, according to friends and former teammates. He was 70.
Santo’s hard-nosed play on the field and tumult and shouting from the press box will be gone, but not forgotten.
During his playing career, the nine-time all-star hit 342 home runs, amassed 2,254 hits, had 1,331 RBIs and collected five straight Gold Glove awards for his defensive play — all while playing with type 1 diabetes, a disease he had since he was 18, which caused him to be in fragile health, especially in recent years.
“He was kind of the voice of the team,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins, who was Santo’s teammate for eight years and lives in Anthem. “We were a tigh-knit ballclub, and whenever we weren’t happy about something, or wanted something done, we all went to Ron. He was a hard-nosed player with leadership qualities who wanted to be in the lineup every day. He’d always play 150-160 games a year. Today, these guys play 10 or 12 games in a row, and they’re off four days. His condition hampered him from doing some things, but never wanted to be out of the lineup. He was what baseball was all about.”
Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who was voted the Most Popular Cubs Player of All-Time and known as “Mr. Cub,” served as co-captain of the Cubs with Santo in the 1960s, also was saddened to hear about Santo’s passing and described his former teammate someone who gave his best “all the time.”
“He was a remarkable person, and we’re going to miss him,” Banks said from his home in Los Angeles. “He was a strong competitor who hated to lose and we all gained from him. Although we both were captains, I just followed him. I learned so much from him and the strength he had in his competitiveness and kindness. He was a loving person who had a true love for the Cubs. Me, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins all support him being in the Hall of Fame, but he hasn’t made it, yet.”
Santo’s accomplishments battling diabetes, which eventually caused him to lose both legs and ultimately his life, are as legendary as his accomplishments on the field. Since its inception in 1979, the Ron Santo Walk for the Cure held every year in Chicago has raised more than $40 million for diabetes research with $5.6 million being raised in 2006 alone.
Like the Baseball Hall of Fame Santo badly wanted to be a member of, he won’t get to see the Cubs new spring training facility city voters approved during the November general election for the city to spend up to $99 million on for the 2013 season, a measure he campaigned for. In fact, when the team was being courted by Naples, Fla., for a new spring training facility there, Santo said, “If the Cubs go to Naples, I won’t go!”
Santo, who loved horses, also had fond memories of the nightlife in nearby Scottsdale where he frequented the Pink Pony Steakhouse and Saloon — once named the best baseball bar in America — and JD’s, where he saw a young Waylon Jennings perform country music.
“The Pink Pony was a special place,” Santo said. “I remember it had those hitching posts for horses, and the swinging doors to the bar. I remember when I walked through the doors, I used to picture myself coming in, carrying two guns like the new guy in town. Mesa and Scottsdale were real Western towns to me.”
The weekend of Oct. 9-10 held a special meaning for Santo, who served as the best man at his son, Jeff’s wedding, on Oct. 10 the tenth day of the tenth month of the tenth year, a day after he received the proclamation proclaiming Oct. 10 as Ron Santo Day from Mesa Mayor Scott Smith in front of about 300 fans at Hohokam Stadium. Ten was Santo’s uniform number and was retired by the Cubs.
Robert Johnson, a political consultant for Highground in Phoenix who is the project leader for the Mesa Historical Museum’s Cactus League’s History Museum project and oversaw the Keep the Cubs campaign, said he remembered talking to then-Cactus League President Robert Brinton about holding a day to honor Santo in Mesa during Major League’s Winter Meetings two years ago, but it didn’t come to fruition then.
“When we held the event in October to honor him, a lot of things intersected just right for it to happen, and come to find out, it was held just in time,” Johnson said. “Ron Santo was someone we appreciated, respected and admired. When you’re in these situations and helping to plan events such as Ron Santo Day in Mesa I think they are special or very special. It proved to be the latter.”