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Santo's peers happy their friend is now Hall of Famer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Ron Santo is home now, safely tucked into the loving embrace of a place he had always hoped to reach. Santo was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum posthumously on Sunday, ushered in by a loving speech from his widow Vicki.

Santo, who passed away in 2010, was remembered as a lifelong baseball fan and a tireless advocate for the cause of curing juvenile diabetes. Billy Williams, Hall of Famer and one of Santo's best friends, said that it really meant a lot to him to see his former teammate achieve the ultimate honor.

"We were not only teammates, we were friends. We spent so much time together in Double-A and Triple-A," said Williams. "We got a chance to play for a guy by the name of Grady Hatton, who was a good baseball teacher and a good manager. And we had one of the premier right-handed hitters in Rogers Hornsby as a teacher, and he said that Santo and I would be in the Major Leagues and have some good years. He predicted that one year I would win the batting title, and I was so happy I did it. He was happy also. It's great to be here. And it's great to have my friend here."

Indeed, Santo had a long wait before being elected to the Hall of Fame, and it didn't always look like it would happen. The former third baseman went through 15 years on the writers' ballot without getting elected, and he also endured a few unsuccessful spins of the old Veterans' Committee.

Finally, after years of dashed hopes, Santo was elected by the Golden Era committee in December 2011, just a year after he had passed away. The Cubs had retired his familiar No. 10 in 2003, and Santo said that honor meant more to him than the Hall of Fame, but Williams knew how he really felt.

"When he said in Chicago, 'This is my Hall of Fame,' when his number was retired, he didn't mean it," said Williams. "In his heart, he didn't mean it, and I know he wanted to be here where his teammates are.

"I've spent a lot of time with him, and I know he was disappointed the last couple years. I remember we were in Arizona and we had a party thinking the call would come. But it didn't. It's too bad. Everyone wishes he was here to receive this honor, but [his family], I think they're going to enjoy it."

Vicki Santo chose not to address that disappointment on Sunday, saying instead that it was a day of celebration and that Ron really would've loved to be here for it. This honor meant the realization of a lifelong dream, she said, and with it the dissolution over any hard feelings he may have had.

Santo hit 342 home runs during his career and was considered by many observers to be one of the best players who hadn't been inducted into the Hall, a backhanded honor that can now dissolve. And because of his odyssey, his Hall of Fame peers can better appreciate his candidacy.

"It's a shame Ron wasn't around," said Rollie Fingers, one of the game's all-time great relief pitchers. "I'm sure everybody has said that. He waited a while, but I'm sure he's watching."

"It's great," added Detroit icon Al Kaline of Santo's induction. "I didn't know him, being an American Leaguer, but I watched him on television a lot. I never got to know him really well personally. But being a great friend of Billy Williams and knowing how close they were, it's a huge honor. It's just unfortunate he's not here to receive the greatest honor a baseball player can get. I'm very happy for his family."

Fellow inductee Barry Larkin shared the day and the stage with Santo's legacy Sunday, and he said after the festivities were over that he was inspired by the tale of his peer's persistence.

"It's amazing that all these people come together and that everyone has their own story," he said of the induction. "Everyone has their own network. Everyone has their own passion and their own problems to deal with. We're all out there trying to win the game and get 27 outs. ... To hear his story and how he was able to get it done on the field, understanding the things he went through that were incredibly hard. I told Vicki it was an incredibly inspiring story and I thought she told the story very well."

Roland Hemond, longtime executive and a winner of the Hall of Fame's Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, remembered Santo not for his playing but as a man of "kindness, character and integrity." Hemond said Santo was a great ambassador for the game, citing his legions of adoring fans as a player and broadcaster and his selfless work in search of a cure for diabetes.

Hemond had worked with Santo during the player's final season, and he told an anecdote that he has held onto for decades. Hemond, the former general manager of the White Sox, said that he can recall Santo making a decision that underlined the kind of person he was on and off the field.

"His last year in uniform was with the White Sox. He had a two-year contract at the end, but not guaranteed," said Hemond. "He could've reported to Spring Training the next year, started the season and collected that final year. But he said, 'Roland, I've had it. Forget me. I can't help you.'

"That shows the character of the man. I've never had a case like it. He gave up a year knowing he couldn't do his best or go through the motions. He had analyzed himself and he had reached the end of the line. I kind of get the goosebumps telling you this, because that's how I remember him."