BAYAHIBE, Dominican Republic -- Billy Williams was awakened Friday morning by the news he never thought he'd hear. His longtime teammate Ron Santo was gone.
"I thought he was going to live forever after all the tragedies and stuff he's gone through," Williams said. "It's hard to believe that all of a sudden you get a call this morning, a guy you've known for so long has passed away.
"In baseball, there's so many ups and downs. Man, it was sad to hear that."
Santo lapsed into a coma on Wednesday and died of complications from bladder cancer. He was 70.
Sitting on a white chaise near the pool at the Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus on the last day of a Cubs fan trip to the Dominican Republic, Williams reflected.
"This was really not a teammate," Williams said. "He's a friend -- it's like losing a family member. When I lost my brother, it's the same reaction. We became friends in 1959, and through those years, going back and forth to the ballpark, sitting on the bench, talking about the Cubs. It's just a sad day for the Cubs' fans and baseball.
"People who listened to Ronnie and Pat [Hughes on WGN Radio], they're going to miss that. [Santo] kept a lot of people laughing through his radio analysis. He and Pat were there every day at 1:20 [p.m. when the games started at Wrigley] listening to the game. When you listened to them, you didn't have to know the score. If he's in that mode [when he moans], you know we're losing."
The two first met in 1959 in the Minor Leagues in San Antonio and had been close ever since. They not only played for the Cubs, but they also spent offseasons together, participated on teammate Randy Hundley's fantasy camp and gathered at the Cubs Convention. Williams has been part of the Cubs' front office as a special adviser, and would catch up with his teammate each day in the dugout when Santo was broadcasting games.
"Today's a great loss," Williams said. "Not only for all the guys who played with him, but also the fans who listened to him, the people who have come in contact with him."
Santo was resilient. He lost his parents in Spring Training one year, had both legs amputated because of complications with diabetes and had heart problems.
"While he was going through all this stuff, he focused on other things that kept people happy -- the fundraising, the walk for [Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation]," Williams said. "He couldn't walk, but made it possible for other people to enjoy it."
For 32 years, Santo hosted the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, which raised more than $40 million to support diabetes research. Santo hid his diabetes from the Cubs. Williams remembers the trainer keeping some Hershey candy bars stashed in a black bag in the dugout for home games, and he and Glenn Beckert would sneak a couple during the game. The candy was to help Santo keep his sugar levels up, but his teammates didn't know that.
"Today's a great loss. Not only for all the guys who played with him, but also the fans who listened to him, the people who have come in contact with him."
|-- Billy Williams, on Ron Santo|
Santo hid his diabetes, but showed his passion for the game and the Cubs in his voice.
"This was great therapy for him," Williams said of baseball.
As far as Cubs fans are concerned, Santo is a Hall of Famer, even though he did not make it to Cooperstown either by the Baseball Writers' Association of America vote or the Veterans Committee. Santo's No. 10 was retired by the team. Williams and his wife, Shirley, talked about Santo's absence in Cooperstown on Friday.
"I always thought he would get in," Williams said. "With Ernie [Banks] and myself in the Hall of Fame and Fergie [Jenkins], he wanted to be the fourth guy [from the 1969 Cubs]. I would've loved to have seen him on that podium celebrating and talking about old times."
The way the 1969 Cubs are still celebrated, you would think they won it all instead of falling short in the final month to the Mets. There is no finger pointing; the teammates are incredibly close. Williams said there's something about playing at Wrigley Field in front of the Chicago fans that helps create that bond.
"A lot of people who never played for the Cubs don't know about that tie, that family tie," Williams said. "I tell all the guys, when you come to play for the Chicago Cubs, you should enjoy it. Take a moment to soak it in, because when you leave here, you're going to miss it."
When Santo arrived in San Antonio in 1959, right after he signed out of high school, he was 18 and driving a Chevy Impala.
"When they do that, we always call them 'Joe College,'" Williams said, laughing.
The two connected immediately, ignoring any possible racial divide between the outfielder from Whistler, Ala., and the infielder from Seattle.
"We were teammates," Williams said. "We didn't see color. We just enjoyed the game of baseball together.
"You look at two guys who have been together for so long -- I think we played together more games than any two people on any ballclub. There were just some great times."
Whenever Santo is not on WGN Radio, players like Beckert and Don Kessinger and others would check with Williams immediately to make sure their third baseman was OK. They all knew Santo wasn't going on any of the road trips to New York. Santo never got over losing to the Mets.
Santo was an emotional player, and Williams said every time the third baseman got into a fight with Leo Durocher, he'd get four hits in the game. What about when Santo clicked his heels after celebrating a win at Wrigley in 1969?
"It was just his excitement," Williams said. "To know Ronnie, his emotions were high and low. When he didn't get any hits, he was so low, and when he did some exciting things, he was so high. We were winning, and that day, we had come from behind, and as we were running to the clubhouse, he jumped up in the air and clicked his heels. WGN [TV] caught it, and Leo said, 'Let's continue doing that,' even though it made a lot of people unhappy."
Shirley Williams admits she usually mutes the TV volume and listens to the Cubs games on the radio, because Santo often shares a story or two about the good old days.
"He would laugh about himself and that's what made it nice," Billy Williams said, recalling Santo's self-deprecating nature in which he made fun of his hairpiece -- the best one is his "gamer" -- and took some shots because of his prosthetics. "'Beck' would say, 'Since you got your legs, you've gotten six inches taller.'"
And now, the voice of the Cubs is silent. Not only did Santo not get into Cooperstown, but he never saw the Cubs play in the World Series.
"Guys are always calling, saying, 'When are we going to do it? When are we going to win a World Series?' They're ready to celebrate," Williams said. "I'm so sad that all the stuff happened, not getting to the Hall of Fame and the Cubs not winning the World Series -- that would've been a great joy for him."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.