Hall of Fame Cub Ron Santo’s Family Does Him Proud


COOPERSTOWN–The guest of honor was absent, but his excuse is that he is dead. Ron Santo’s three adult children acted as proxy Rons at Saturday’s National Baseball Hall of Fame pre-induction ceremony press conference and if all their emotions were rolled together they added up to a glimpse of what would have seen and heard from the most beloved of Chicago Cubs players.

Some tears were shed, some pride expressed, some gestures of thanks and gratefulness pronounced. But above all, there were a lot of laughs accompanying wistfulness that weighed in by the pound. Ron Santo Jr., 51, who looks just like his dad, Jeff Santo, 48, who made an inspirational documentary about his father, and Linda Santo Brown, 42, who wore #10 — her dad’s old retired Cubs number — on a blue baseball cap, said at one time they were angry their father was voted into the Hall just after he passed away and bitterly said they would not come here.

Yet that mood passed and they brought a feeling of poignancy and joy to this occasion. Sunday, Santo’s widow Vicki was his stand-in with an acceptance speech in front of an estimated 18,000 adoring fans. Remarkably poised, she did not tear up, although she said she cried many times while rehearsing.

“It’s for Ron,” she said afterwards. “I just wanted to make him proud.” Her husband, she said, had “a gift” the way he embraced everyone, from big-league stars, to Cubs fans, to strangers on the street.

“It’s a little strange being here,” said Jeff Santo of being in Cooperstown. This Santo son made a moving film called “This Old Cub” that illustrated his dad’s tremendous fight to survive his variety of debilitating physical ailments. “We wish our father was here. It would have been very special.”

It has actually been pretty special to be Ron Santo’s family members here. As they walked through the crowded streets absorbing Hall festivities, hundreds of Cub fans stopped them and told a little story about their father and what he meant to them.

“It never ends,” said Ron Jr. “We never get tired of hearing it. That’s his legacy.”

Ron Santo told a million stories and made a million memories for Cubs Nation. Those fans can recite them as if they are tattooed on their palms. You know Ron fell in love with Wrigley Field via TV growing up in Seattle, they might say. Remember the time Ron lost his toupee? How about that time he set it on fire?

“Finally” is the undercurrrent message this weekend as applied to the one-time star third baseman who only burnished his All-Star playing image with his own emotions-on-the-sleeve broadcast rooting in recent years. For most of his 15 years in the majors Santo represented the Cubs on the field. For most of the last couple of decades he represented the Cubs fan on the airwaves. Santo groaned when rejected and sucked it up to handle the disappointments. In the end, the family did not let that affect their joy here.

“It doesn’t matter how long it took to get here,” Vicki Santo said. “I think there was a message in the journey.”

Maybe that is why bus loads of blue jerseyed Cubs fans made the bus trek halfway across the country from Chicago to honor a man who not only compiled Hall of Fame-worthy statistics as a player, but Hall of Human Race credentials as a man. Santo is the ultimate denied-gratification symbol of Hall of Fame waiting at the doorstep, a man who endured such heartbreak in oh-so-close votes that year after year left him with his nose pressed against the glass on the outside of the Hall peering in.

And then he went and died in December of 2010 from all of the ailments that ganged up on him from decades of battling diabetes, from the hardship of having both legs amputated, from the cancer that infected his bladder, and a year later Santo was propelled over the magic mark with the necessary 75 percent approval vote from the Hall’s Golden Era Veterans Committee.

It is never too late to be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it was too late for Santo to reap the full satisifaction out of this weekend, the Saturday-Sunday showcase that enshrines him with other greats of the sport. Because it is baseball we must discuss statistics. Santo, born Feb. 25, 1940, played in 2,243 games. He was a nine-time All-Star with a .277 batting average, hit 342 home runs and batted in 1,331 runs. He won five Gold Gloves and was a team leader in his career, spanning 1960 to 1974 (with the final season an add-on with the crosstown White Sox).

Santo was one of the Cubs’ Big Four of the era and Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, all Hall of Famers, lobbied for his inclusion in that exclusive club for years and all of came to pay respects.

“We were not only teammates, but we were friends,” said Williams, who said it is a shame Santo wasn’t alive to accept his honor in person. “It’s too bad. Everybody wanted him to be here. He is looking down on us.”

Lou Brock, another Hall of Famer, and briefly a teammate, said Santo should have been inducted long ago.

“I’ve been pushing for Santo for a long time,” said the former Cardinals’ outfielder. “On the Veterans Committee, he was my guy. I remember his courage. He gave himself a shot (of insulin) and played with the best of us.”

Courage is an overused word in sports, but not when mentioned in connection with Santo. When he played, treatment for Type 1 diabetes was limited. He couldn’t test his blood sugar with the same frequency or accuracy as those currently afflicted.

“No one will ever know what it took just for him to get out of bed,” said daughter Linda.

She revealed one Santo secret. When his legs were amputated, one painful deterioration at a time, and he replaced them with prostheses, he had them painted — one leg with a Cubs away uniform, one with a home uniform. And we all thought he only bled Cubbie blue.

The Hall of Fame is about what you do on the field, but in his seven decades of living, Santo did so much more for the game and for the Chicago community after he retired that it is does him an injustice to strictly compartmenalize his roles.

In 1990, Santo became a Cubs broadcaster and entertained his audience equally with his story-telling, shouts of encouragement, and occasional hair misplacement mishaps.

More telling than almost any other aspect of Santo’s life and accomplishments is the way he contended with insulin-dependent diabetes from the time he was a teen. He played with the secret (even from other Cubs) for several years, afraid that the team would find an excuse to cut him. He went public with his disease only after 11 years in the majors on Ron Santo Day. And then starting in 1979, through the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, Santo spearheaded raising of about $65 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in his lifetime. When he died, Vicky Santo said, $4.9 million was immediately raised, seemingly in direct tribute to him.

“This is going to be amazing for the JDRF,” Vicki said of Santo’s Hall of Fame induction.

When diagnosed at 18, Santo’s life expectancy was 25. He lived to be 70 as the disease whittled away at him, leaving behind a legacy of courage that so inspired his children. He was dealt a difficult hand and coped with it so maturely, so remarkably that his children, who saw him at his weakest and worst, said he was always joking about his ailments. Going to the doctor and gazing at his medical file about as thick a book as the Baseball Encyclopedia, Linda noted, Santo looked up at his doctor and said, “But I look good, don’t I?”

Ron Jr. said his father showed an amazing will to live and working Cubs broadcasts probably extended his life at least a decade.

“I never saw him cry until a few weeks before he passed away,” Ron Jr. said. “He had managed his illness from day one, but complain? No, it wasn’t in him.”

No, Ron Santo never did find that kind of why-me bitterness within his soul. He was a man who made a difference to so many through his own enthusiasm and love of baseball and as a symbol of encouragement to those who shared his illness. He could not be present in the field behind the Clark Sports Center Sunday for what would be his greatest baseball moment. But the ghost of Ron Santo surely hovered over the proceedings. They say those enshrined in Cooperstown are immortals. In Santo’s case Sunday was merely ratification.