8:06 PM CDT, July 22, 2012
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Ron Santo had to die to get into the Hall of Fame. It shouldn't have happened but it did, and everyone knows it.
What we didn't know until Sunday was that in some ways it could seem better that Santo was inducted in the second person, not the first.
Randy Hundley, Santo's teammate on the Cubs from 1966-73, was happy to make the trip to upstate New York to honor his old friend. He would have loved to toast him in the flesh but celebrated him nonetheless.
"I feel wonderful for him, and I feel like he's here," Hundley said on Sunday. "I can feel him around everything here. This is something he always wanted. But I don't know if he could have handled it if he had been here. The way he is, he would have been so emotional. I'm glad we had the opportunity to be here for him."
Santo's passion for baseball, diabetes research and life in general was nicely recalled in a video tribute that included some of his most memorable calls of Cubs games, including Brant Brown's dropped fly and other notable late-inning misadventures. He was recalled in the wording of the plaque that was inserted into the Hall's gallery late Sunday afternoon.
It says "he was the grit and the glue of the Cubs lineups of the '60s" and proclaims that he "served as an inspiration to millions through a courageous fight with diabetes."
Vicki Santo, his widow, did a terrific job formally accepting the honor for her husband, who died Dec. 3, 2010. Her 15-minute induction speech spoke about his passion for the Cubs but focused more on how he battled Type 1 diabetes and on his tireless work with JDRF to try to find a cure for his disease.
"Ron always believed the Cubs would win (the World Series)," Vicki said. "He always believed we'd find a cure. We can't let him down."
Vicki used the occasion to urge others to join in the fight, praising Ron for raising $65 million for research through his annual walk in Chicago and other events. Had Santo been making the speech, she would have had to twist his arm to get him to be direct.
"He would not have stood up here today and bragged about what he has done to help others," she said. "But he can't stop me."
As she paid tribute to Ron, Vicki wore a powder blue dress and a look of confidence. Her voice rarely cracked and never broke.
She was filled with emotion but never lost control.
"Don't think I haven't cried reading it (as I wrote it)," she said. "I wrote it, read through it and said, 'That's not bad,' but I knew I had to read it to somebody. The first couple of times I did that, I cried … It's for Ron. I just wanted to make him proud, proud of me, proud of our family. I was thrilled to do this."
Pat Hughes, Santo's longtime partner on WGN-AM 720, did a similarly good job sharing thoughts on Santo at his televised funeral. He would have been challenged to be as composed as Vicki.
Hughes said the weekend was more emotional for him than he anticipated.
"I'm not a real emotional guy," he said. "It's affected me. I've done so many interviews all week, talking about Ron. Of all the figures in my career, he's one of the biggest. As a friend, he's one of the best I've ever had. If I try to think about people who have meant more to me than Ron, it's a short list."
Santo's beauty was that he impacted so many people in that way.
He should have gone into the Hall of Fame long before Sunday. He would have gone in long ago had he played two or three more years, raising career totals that just looked smaller as baseball became such an offensive game in the steroid era. He easily could have gone in years ago had the Hall not turned the Veterans Committee over to living Hall of Famers just as he was due his first review by the old group of executives and reporters, whose standards were flexible.
But there are seldom easy ways to explain Hall of Fame voting, the only lasting truth being that 75 percent is a crazy high standard. It seemed cruel that Santo was kept waiting decade after decade, until he had practically given up hope.
No question, Santo should have been able to stand with his wife, his children and grandchildren, and pose for pictures in front of his plaque. But in being remembered on Sunday, he demonstrated that a life well-lived builds its own legacy, whether or not you're there to tell it.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC