Late Santo finally in Hall of Fame

After his playing days were over, Ron Santo, seen here interviewing Lou Piniella, became a Cubs...

After his playing days were over, Ron Santo, seen here interviewing Lou Piniella, became a Cubs broadcaster. (Reuters)

BILL LANKOFF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:30 PM ET

In baseball, as in life, there is no greater honour than the respect of one’s opponents.

And while it took 32 years, Ron Santo finally gets public recognition that the men he played with and against regard him as one of the all-time greats Sunday.

Too bad he never got to see the day himself.

When Santo is inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend, it will be his wife, Vicki, who accepts the honour on behalf of her husband.

Santo, who spent 14 years playing at Wrigley and 21 seasons broadcasting, taking every loss as hard as the Cubs’ fans in the bleachers, died Dec. 3, 2010, at age 70.

Santo battled cancer, diabetes and heart problems in the final decade of his life, but what beat him up the most was an emotional turmoil, believing he would make it to the Hall of Fame only to be disappointed time and again.

“I can’t explain that feeling,” Santo once told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s something that fills you up and completes your career. I’ve always said I wouldn’t want it to happen if I was dead, so I hope I live that long.”

He didn’t.

Santo was on the Baseball Writers of American ballot for 15 years and the closest he ever came to the required 75% was 43.1% in 1998.

Four times the Hall of Famers had a crack at electing Santo and he fell short: 56.8% in 2003; 65% in 2005, 69.5% in 2007 and 60.9 in 2008.

Finally, last December, almost a year to the day of his death, he was finally voted in by a Golden Era committee that included several of his peers, such as Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, Tommy Lasorda, Juan Marichal, and Brooks Robinson.

So this will be a bittersweet moment for Vicki Santo and children Ron, Jr., Jeff and Linda.

“It’s hard to explain exactly what it meant to him,” his son Jeff said recently. “I guess it was the fight to be accepted.”

In 15 seasons, including one with the Chicago White Sox, Santo hit 342 home runs, had a batting average of .277, won five Gold Gloves and was named to nine All-Star teams. He followed his playing career with 19 seasons as a beloved Cubs’ announcer.

Despite all that, he still felt it was a legacy unfulfilled.

“What he never got over was that he didn’t win a World Series,” Jeff said. “I think he felt like the Hall of Fame, because of that, was the only thing that would finally allow him to be acknowledged with the best who ever played.”

Sunday, that acknowledgement will come, perhaps allowing Santo to finally rest.

Billy Williams, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger and Ernie Banks are among the former teammates expected to share in the ceremony.

“We really plan to celebrate,” Hundley said. “A lot of people say that they wish this had happened sooner when he was still living, but shucks, I am proud that he was able to get in even now.

“I don’t know if he could have handled this (emotionally) if he had been living. His numbers have always been there, and he should have been in some time ago.“

Santo failed to get just one of the 16 votes on the Golden Era panel to join fellow 1969 Cubs Banks, Jenkins and Williams in the Hall of Fame. “I just believe this was meant to be,” Vicki Santo said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in his lifetime.”

CAUSING A FLAP

Ron Santo became an unexpected pioneer when he became the first player in major league history to wear a batting helmet with protective ear flaps.

Today, everyone wears them. But there were still players such as Norm Cash and Bob Montgomery who went helmetless into the 1970s.

But in 1966, Santo was trying to break Hack Wilson’s club record 27-game hit streak when he was beaned by the Mets’ Jack Fisher. He was sidelined for two weeks with a fractured cheekbone.

When he came back, he did so with an improvised ear flap and set a new record 28-game hitting streak.

Ear flaps have become standard equipment and have since saved many players from serious injury.

 


Videos

Photos