COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Whistler stepped off the bus at the Clark Sports Center Sunday for the induction ceremony and said, "Let's celebrate," because he, Billy Williams, played so many years behind his friend and now fellow Hall of Famer Ron Santo.
But Williams paused. "I still feel a little mixed emotions," he said. "We all wish Ron were here. He'd have loved it. He'd have made everyone's day better."
Then Santo's widow Vicki rose to accept for him, and with a speech that may have been the most inspirational, emotional and courageous that many of us have ever heard at this annual passage through history, Ron Santo today is an even larger figure than a great baseball player, one of the 10 greatest third basemen of all-time. "Ron believed it was never about the adversity one faces," she said, "but how one deals with it." Few dealt with illness, in his case diabetes, better than her husband.
One of the most remarkable aspects to Santo's career was his durability and reliability. Remember, the Cubs only played home games in the daytime during his career, and in his first five full seasons he missed one game. One game. In the decade from 1961-70, he missed 18 games. And all the while he hid his diabetes from his teammates, who used to play pranks on him by hiding his candy bars.
Much of the story leading to Santo's election by the Golden Era Committee had been how he'd never made it on the writers' ballot. In his studies of the Hall of Fame, Bill James concluded that the two best players who never made it were Santo and Luis Tiant. I agree. In Chicago, Santo became the symbol of Cubs Nation, loveable and at times clownish, that is until Vicki rose and took him to a historic level in the baseball pantheon.
Santo was a great defender who won five Gold Gloves. He was a sabermetrician's dream, twice leading the National League in on-base percentage, four times in walks, twice hitting 30 or more home runs. He was in the top 10 in WAR six times in a decade. His OPS+ ranks sixth all-time among third basemen, behind Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, Frank (Home Run) Baker and Wade Boggs. This was accomplished while playing an underrated position -- before Sunday, 11 third basemen had been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
We learned through the years of his struggles with diabetes, and how he raised $65 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. We knew he lost both his legs.
But Vicki told of his heroism, and how he hid his disease from his teammates. How he'd inject himself at home before driving to Wrigley, how tired he sometimes got during games. She told the story of the day he was feeling faint and had blurred vision and had to bat with the bases loaded.
Santo had decided he'd just try to jump on the first fastball he could see. He hit a go-ahead grand slam. Williams had been on first, and he was slowly making his way around the bases when Santo almost passed him. Ron told him to hurry up, it was important, and while Williams didn't know why, he broke into a run, Santo got to the dugout and up into the clubhouse for his candy.
"Ron's life was never about lows," Vicki said. "He always found a way to make it about highs."
Vicki Santo's speech should be made available so that everyone who visits one of America's great museums can hear the Santo story. It should be made available to every young player in the Cubs organization so they can learn of what it means to deal with real adversity, and to learn what it means to be proud to be a Cubbie.
Many of us believed, like The Whistler, that it was about time one of the greatest third basemen who ever played was inducted, with Schmidt and Brooks Robinson and George Brett watching. What his widow Vicki did was elevate him to the iconic level of a model for dealing with adversity and riding it all the way to the Hall.