I still remember the look on Tom’s face. He had something important to tell me, but, I couldn’t read if it was good news or bad. I recall him waiting a few seconds, then saying “Ron Santo has diabetes”.
It was 1971 and it was big news. The popular Chicago Cub’s baseball player had just announced that he had what was then called juvenile diabetes (now called Type I). He had been diagnosed when he was 18 and had hidden his condition for fear of being retired. That day in 1971, he told Chicago, the world of baseball, his fans, and Tom that he was diabetic.
The look on Tom’s face was one of validation and relief. At least that was how I read it. We were college students then. Tom had been diagnosed a few years earlier, as a teenager, with JD. It wasn’t easy – it still isn’t. A high-profile athlete and celebrity having diabetes was a very big deal then. This was long before the age of the internet and instant information. One couldn’t just click on a laptop, hit a few buttons, and find all there was to find about the pancreas and insulin. The blood glucose monitor and insulin pump were space age fantasies and it was a lonely row to hoe for any young person struggling to keep their condition in check.
Tom met Ron Santo once. Tom was walking in the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, an ambitious fundraiser for JDF. Santo’s name and presence was a boon to the cause and helped raised millions of dollars for diabetes research. Santo was also great with young kids; urging them to take good care of themselves, to persevere, admonishing them that maintaining good sugar levels now would help them later in life, assuring all that someday there would be a cure. Tom came home from that walk, another look on his face, and proceeded to tell me of his chat with Ron Santo as they shared their experiences of laser surgery and diabetic retinopathy. Ron and Tom, you see, were pioneers of sorts in new treatments. Tom, like others that day, asked Ron Santo to sign his shirt. When Tom said that he, too, was diabetic and mentioned how many laser burns he had endured, Ron pulled him aside and the two talked for some time.
We heard the sad news that Ron Santo had passed away this morning. Tom told me as I walked into the kitchen, a look, this time of grief, on his face as he said “Ron Santo died”. Ron was a baseball legend, a sportscaster, a spokesman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, but, to Tom, I know he was someone more. A hero? A role model? A fellow traveler on a very arduous journey in life? There will be testimonials and accolades, especially here in Chicago where Ron Santo went on to become a most beloved sportscaster after he retired from baseball. Ron was THE Cubs fan, his voice on the radio truly the voice of millions of often beleaguered and long-suffering fans, root-toot-tooting for the Cubbies, Ron’s groans at bungles and his gravelly voiced jubilation at home runs. Who can forget hearing about his toupee accidentally catching on fire during a game, his repartee with fellow announcer Pat Hughes or his long, public battle with diabetes, where he picked himself up and kept going, never bitter and always positive.
Ron Santo died of bladder cancer, not diabetes, though we know that his condition would have made his cancer battle all-the-more-difficult. His talent, presence and courage made this world a little easier, especially for the men, women and children for whom he gave so much hope.
Thank you, Ron.
Rest in peace.