Ron Santo finally gets his day in Cooperstown
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Barry Larkin never dreamed of getting into baseball's Hall of Fame.
Ron Santo did, and often. And he wasn't alone.
When former Cubs great Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, he ended his speech with this: "I know there are a lot of Cub fans here today. I feel like every Cub fan in the world is here with me today.
"And by the way, for what it's worth, Ron Santo just gained 1 more vote from the veterans committee."
Unfortunately, Santo didn't live to experience what will be a special day for his family as he is inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday along with Larkin, the longtime all-star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds.
Plagued by health problems, Santo died Dec. 3, 2010, at the age of 70. His long battle with diabetes cost him both legs below the knees, but he ultimately died of complications from bladder cancer.
"It was unfortunate that he didn't receive that award while he was living, and he so much warranted it," said former Cubs star Billy Williams, elected to the Hall in 1987. "He won't get the enjoyment (he would have if) he were living and walked up to that podium and received that award."
A member of the Cubs organization for the better part of five decades as a third baseman (1960-74) and broadcaster (1990-2010), Santo was selected by the veterans committee exactly one year after his death.
"It was always his dream. It was always so important to Ron," said his widow, Vicki. "It's been such a long time coming. It's been so important to all of Chicago, Ron's fans in Chicago. We feel that he was meant to be there.
"I can see him sitting on the sofa here as we did many, many times, and he would just be pumping his fist in the air saying, 'Yes! Yes!'"
In 15 major-league seasons, Santo compiled a .277 batting average, had 2,254 hits, 1,331 RBI and 365 doubles in 2,243 games. He also was a tireless fundraiser for juvenile diabetes, raising more than $50 million.
As a broadcaster, Santo was known for unabashedly rooting for the Cubs, a trait that endeared him to fans who never saw him play.
Santo fought serious medical problems after he retired as a player. He underwent surgery on his eyes, heart and bladder after doctors discovered cancer. He also had surgery more than a dozen times on his legs before they were amputated below the knees -- the right one in 2001, the left a year later.
Working Cubs games on radio was an elixir of sorts for Santo. He could find comfort at the ballpark and a respite from his many health ailments. He even said once that he thought his association with the team probably prolonged his life.
Vicki Santo will speak on behalf of her late husband today, and her message will be akin to the one that has endeared the late Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach, to millions of people fighting cancer: "To never give up," Vicki Santo said.
"To have this come to him after his passing, it just shows you can't give up, and that's what Ron was all about."
Larkin, meanwhile, almost seemed wistful recently as his mind traveled back through time.
"I think coming out of high school I was a better football player than a baseball player," Larkin said. "I wanted to play football. That was my first real love at the time."
Larkin, an honor student and a two-sport standout in his senior year at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, went to the University of Michigan on a scholarship to play for coach Bo Schembechler's Wolverines, opting for college life after being picked in the second round of the 1982 draft by his hometown Reds.
Larkin's dream of becoming a standout defensive back was doused when Schembechler redshirted him as a freshman, and it didn't take long for football to become an afterthought.
"That was really the first time in my life that I just played one sport, and I got a lot better at that sport," Larkin said.
That sport was baseball, and much to the chagrin of an incredulous Schembechler, Larkin walked away from football, became a two-time all-American who appeared in two College World Series while at Michigan, and rode his considerable talent to heights he never imagined as a kid -- election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
"This is kind of off the charts as far as something that I could even dream about," he said.
Larkin, who retired after the 2004 season with a .295 career average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases, starred during the Steroids Era, which has cast a long shadow over the selection process for the Hall of Fame.
Larkin received 51.6 percent of the vote in 2010, his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, 62.1 percent in 2011, and made the grade this year with 495 votes (86.4%).
"It was a great run. I was really happy how I was able to stay there (in Cincinnati)," Larkin said. "I thought about being good, I thought about being an all-star, thought about all that kind of stuff, but I never thought about the Hall of Fame."
He made his major-league debut for Cincinnati under player-manager Pete Rose after being picked again by the Reds -- this time with the fourth selection in the 1985 draft.
Despite playing just 41 games his first year, Larkin finished seventh in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1986. And with a host of older players such as Eric Davis, Ron Oester, Buddy Bell and Rose to guide him, Larkin's major-league career quickly took off.
Larkin won the Reds' starting shortstop job as a rookie and two years later was an all-star with a .296 average, 91 runs scored, 32 doubles and 40 stolen bases.
"Those guys showed me early in my career that they were going to share with me the things that they thought were important, things that were representative of Cincinnati," said Larkin, who was introduced to baseball by his dad, Robert, at the age of 5. "Those guys helped me out immensely. They were a huge part of my success."
In 1990, Larkin hit .301 with 30 steals and 67 RBI and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. The Reds won the NL West that year, beat the Pirates for the pennant and swept the Oakland A's in the World Series, where Larkin hit .353 and scored 3 runs.
At 6-feet and 185 pounds, Larkin began to develop power the next season, hitting 20 homers. He won the first of three consecutive Gold Glove awards in 1994, took National League MVP honors in 1995 after hitting .319 and leading the Reds to the NL Central title, and in 1996 became the first major-league shortstop to post a 30-homer, 30-steal season (33 homers, 36 steals).
"The reason I played was to try to win championships, and we were able to do that," said Larkin, who played his entire 19-year career with the Reds and was an All-Star 12 times.
Larkin also was a role model off the field, winning the Roberto Clemente Award in 1993. It's given annually to a player who demonstrates the values the late Pittsburgh Pirates star displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.
•AP Sports Writers Andrew Seligman in Chicago and Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.