Ron Santo's Hall of Fame induction will be a bittersweet celebration
The Cubs great would have been indescribably happy at Sunday's ceremony. The fact he won't be there to experience his biggest baseball moment is sad.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
This should have been the most blissful week in the life of a joyous man.
I can just picture Ron Santo living it up in Cooperstown this weekend, hobnobbing with his fellow Hall of Famers at the stately Otesaga Hotel, high-fiving Cubs fans on Main Street. And then giving a heartfelt speech on Sunday, just overflowing with his love of the Cubs and his passion for baseball.
Santo earned all that — earned it by virtue of a fabulous career that clearly stamped him as one of the greatest third basemen in history (and, tangentially, the best player ever to emerge from the city of Seattle). He earned it for the grace with which he dealt with the ravages of his diabetes, and the zeal with which he threw himself into the fight for a cure.
He earned it by being one of the best ambassadors that baseball has ever seen. And he earned it, especially, by enduring so many Hall of Fame disappointments over the years, so many days waiting by the phone for the call that, for reasons he never could quite grasp, never came.
Until last Dec. 5, when the Golden Era committee finally did the right thing and, by a vote of 15-1 following an impassioned nominating speech by his old teammate Billy Williams, put Santo into the Hall of Fame — 31 years after he first became eligible.
But it came 367 days too late for Santo, who died Dec. 3, 2010, of complications from bladder cancer at age 70. Which is why this weekend, when Santo is inducted posthumously (or as he once put it, with a characteristic malapropism, "post-humorously") along with Barry Larkin, will be so bittersweet.
Santo's family wants to eliminate the "bitter" part, because Ron was the antithesis of a bitter man. And that was what made him so remarkable, because he had every right to lean in that direction after enduring dozens of operations and ultimately the amputation of both legs below the knee. All that on top of the enduring disappointment of not getting to experience the jubilation of finally getting the Hall call, and getting to make that festive trip to Cooperstown.
"He deserves this so much," says Santo's sister, Adielene, who lives in Auburn. "No one would be more ... "
Her voice trails off, the emotion overwhelming. "Oh, I could just see his face," she says finally.
Adielene has seen what baseball meant to her brother, what the Cubs meant, ever since he signed with them straight out of Franklin High School, class of '58 (many of his old Franklin buddies will be making the trek to Cooperstown).
Santo, who grew up in the Rainier Valley neighborhood known as Garlic Gulch, so close to Sick's Stadium he could see the lights from his window, had first attracted the attention of scouts during a high-school all-star game in New York.
There was no draft in those days, and all 16 teams sent representatives to Seattle to woo Santo. The Cubs' offer of $20,000 was the lowest of any of them (some teams went as high as $80,000), but Santo's stepfather felt the Cubs offered him the quickest path to the major leagues. And Santo felt a strong loyalty to the Cubs scout, Dave Kosher, who had long championed Santo's career.
"He always believed in me," Santo told me for a 2001 article when he was inducted into the Franklin High School Hall of Fame (joining an eclectic group that includes Fred Hutchinson and musician Kenny G).
"I'll never forget the time he said to me at Sick's Stadium, 'One day you'll be hitting the ball out of this park.' He felt strongly I'd make the major leagues, and he followed my career at Franklin very closely."
Santo's instincts in signing with the Cubs proved correct — he was up with Chicago within two years, at age 20, and quickly established himself as one of the best third basemen in the majors. Santo played for 15 seasons, all but the last one with the Cubs (with whom he never appeared in a postseason game, a reality that was most crushing in 1969, when the Miracle Mets overcame a huge Chicago lead to take the division title).
Santo's numbers are not overwhelming on the surface (which is one reason he never was voted in by the Baseball Writers' Association of America) — a .277 average, 342 homers, 1,331 runs batted in. But remember, most of his career was played in an era dominated by pitching, and he still managed four consecutive seasons of 30-plus homers, while making nine All-Star teams and winning five Gold Gloves.
Looking at his career through the prism of sabermetrics shows that his selection to the Hall is deserved: Santo had a 66.6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), more than Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, Carlton Fisk, Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar and Andre Dawson, among others.
But Santo was about so much more than raw numbers. His exuberance — both as a player and later as a longtime Cubs broadcaster who never tried to hide the fact he bled Cubbies blue — was legendary. His courage in the face of nonstop health issues was exemplary.
"Baseball was everything to this guy," says Adielene. "I mean, everything. That's what made him happy."
Santo would have been indescribably happy on Sunday. The fact he won't be there to experience his biggest baseball moment makes me sad.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.