July 22, 2012: A day Ron Santo surely would have cherished

Chicago Tribune

Note: This story originially ran in the Chicago Tribune on July 22, 2012

In one of baseball's sweetest traditions, Stan Musial would play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on his harmonica for the so-called seventh-inning stretch of baseball's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Johnny Bench has stepped in for the 91-year-old Musial, doing a pretty good Harry Caray imitation.

On Sunday, in Ron Santo's honor, Bench put on a Cubs jersey before he went to the podium and slipped into character.

"Ron would have loved it," Vicki Santo, Ron's widow, said afterward. "He and Johnny were such good friends. He would have thought it was hysterical. He would have laughed hysterically."

There were tears in Cooperstown on Sunday, for sure. But with regard to the Cubs' third base and broadcasting legend, they were the kind that Santo's daughter, Linda Santo Brown, had said her father would have cried had he lived to see his induction as one of 297 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"He would say thank you over and over again and he would most definitely thank the (Golden Era selection) committee and just say how gracious and honored he is," she said. "He would be emotional. I know he would cry, and they would be really true tears of joy."

On a sunny afternoon in a pastoral setting on the edge of this quaint village, Santo's family and friends -- along with thousands of Cubs fans who considered him a friend even if they never met him -- came to pay tribute to the legacy of one of the toughest men to ever play baseball.

With former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin also being inducted, fans in blue and red filled the hillside behind the Clark Sports Center awaiting the afternoon's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Santo's No. 10 was being worn everywhere you looked, along with banners like the ones at Wrigley Field in the 1960s, when Santo was in his prime.

"It was a sea of red, a sea of blue, all intermingled," Larkin said. "It was awesome."

Only one thing was missing.

With Santo dying of complications from bladder cancer in December 2010, after a lifelong battle with Type 1 diabetes that caused him to have both legs amputated late in his life, the posthumous induction was certain to be a bittersweet event for many.

But in her acceptance speech, Vicki Santo spoke of it as a joyous occasion.

"This is not a sad day," she said at the beginning of the speech. "This is a happy day, an incredible day for an incredible man."

Vicki Santo nicely summed up the Hall of Fame career of a natural athlete who got to the big leagues at age 20 and played 15 years as a third baseman, 14 of those with the Cubs.

But he fought a daily battle against his disease, which was discovered in a physical after he had turned down many better offers to sign a $20,000 deal with the Cubs.

"It was a spectacular journey fraught with trials and tribulations, incredible lows and highs," she said. "Ron's life was never about the lows. It was always about the highs."

Pat Hughes, Santo's longtime broadcast partner on WGN-AM 720, referenced how the time since Santo's retiring after the 1974 season created generations of Cubs fans who know Santo more for his work as a broadcaster than a player.

"They don't know what a great ballplayer he was," Hughes said. "That's part of why it's so great he's in (the Hall). The guy was one of the all-time ballplayers."

Santo played in a golden era for the National League, a time when Hall of Fame pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal made life miserable for hitters. He was a career .277 hitter who hit 342 home runs and drove in 1,331 runs.

"This is such a deserving, overdue day," said Randy Hundley, who played alongside Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Santo on Leo Durocher's Cubs teams of the late 1960s and early '70s.

"This was a great day. It's hard to believe that we now have four Hall of Famers from that team."

Vicki Santo spoke about Santo's style as a broadcaster.

"He approached it from the standpoint of the world's greatest Cub fan," she said. "He had no emotional filter. When you listened you heard the joy and sadness of a real fan."

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts headed the franchise's delegation at the induction.

In addition to the Hall of Famers and Hundley, Glenn Beckert attended and got a call-out by Bench.

It was a sunny weekend in Cooperstown, which Williams found fitting.

"When the sun came out, we knew that Ron was looking down on us and smiling," he said.

Santo had endured three decades of disappointment in regard to Hall of Fame voting, first on the ballot for voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America and later the Veterans Committee, which at the time was composed mostly of living Hall of Famers.

"Dad really wanted this, but not for himself," Santo Brown said. "He wanted it for his family, his kids and his grandkids. He wanted it for friends. It's really a bonus in our eyes. Dad's real legacy is JDRF and the work he did there. That's bigger than the Hall of Fame."

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