On Hall day, Santo honored for more than baseball
Third baseman's dedication to diabetes cure central to widow Vicki's speech
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- In 2001, Ron Santo had a leg amputated due to complications from his diabetes. That came after he'd had 10 operations in the previous 10 months. A year later, he discovered a sore on his other foot and, after weighing his options, decided to have that leg amputated as well.
"As the nurse was wheeling him into the operating room, I heard him telling the doctor that the timing was perfect for this operation because he could be back for Opening Day," his widow, Vicki, told a rapt audience at the Clark Sports Center on Sunday during her acceptance speech on the day her late husband was formally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Only Ron. That's what was on his mind, getting ready to broadcast Cubs baseball on Opening Day."
The speech was eloquent on its own merits, but even more remarkable for what it was not. It barely touched on a 15-year career during which he made nine All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves, hit 342 homers and drove in 1,331 runs, a career in which he was the "grit and glue" of the lineup in the words on his plaque.
It did not decry the fact that he was denied admittance year after year, only gaining enough votes from the Golden Era Committee after he passed away in December 2010. It was not bitter. It was not maudlin.
Instead, Vicki Santo used most of her 15 minutes on stage to deliver an upbeat and inspirational message about diabetes and urging continued diligence in seeking a cure.
"Words cannot express my sorrow that Ron Santo didn't live to see this day. That he's not here to give this speech. ... But this is not a sad day. Not at all. This is a very happy day," she said. "He had incredible lows and highs. But Ron's life was never about the lows. He always found a way to make it about the highs. Looking back, he believed he was given the gift of talent as well as the challenge of diabetes so that through his hardship, he could shed light on a cause, that he could help others though his story.
"But without the difficulties, what would have been the value of the gift? What meaning would have been the journey? It never held him back. Not even double [leg] amputations. Because Ron Santo believed it's not what happens to you in life that people may judge, but how you handle what happens to you in your life."
Older generations of Chicagoans remember his playing career. Younger people only knew him as a radio analyst. In both roles, his relentlessly positive attitude helped make him a local sports icon.
The hallmark of his on-air approach was unabashedly and unapologetically for the Cubs. In a tribute that aired as part of the ceremony, broadcast partner Pat Hughes told a story about outfielder Brant Brown dropping a fly ball. Santo can be clearly heard screaming, "Oh, noooo!" in the background. He was still so disconsolate afterward that then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman had to try to console him afterwards.
The Cubs did their part to honor Santo during their game against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Sunday. The players wore a No. 10 patch on their jersey sleeves. At the suggestion of manager Dale Sveum, they clicked their heels as they crossed the foul line while taking the field in the bottom of the first. That was a nod to one of Santo's signature moments in 1969. He did it spontaneously after a win, and manager Leo Durocher asked him to continue doing it at home.
They've also announced that their next home game, Friday against St. Louis, will be Ron Santo Day at Wrigley Field.
Back in Cooperstown, the theme of the day was how he handled his disease with grace, dignity and humor. Vicki Santo told a story about struggling while in the on deck circle one day at Wrigley Field.
"The low sugar came over him very quickly, as it sometimes did. And suddenly he found himself in the on-deck circle. Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert had already reached base. Billy Williams was at the plate, and Ron's sugar was really low. It was so bad that as Billy took his sweet time up there, working the count, Ron was just hoping Billy would strike out so he could end the inning and get back to the dugout for a candy bar," she related.
"But Billy walked to load the bases. Now Ron really had a problem. His vision was blurry and he was weak. His plan was to hit the first pitch, but he didn't count on seeing three balls coming to him. So he picked the middle of the three and swung hard. He did it. A grand slam. But as they ran the bases, Billy was jogging, enjoying the moment. Ron quickly caught up to him. Billy said, 'Don't pass me up. What's your hurry?' Ron said, 'You'd better get moving, Whistler, or I'm going right around you.'
"It wasn't until years later that Ron explained why he needed to get off the field. He hid his diabetes for a decade. He was afraid they might take baseball away from him."
Santo battled diabetes for 51 years.
"He never said, 'Why me?' He just moved on to the next challenge," Vicki said. "He did not complain. He did not want sympathy. He believed he had been chosen to go through these things so he could deliver a message of perseverance. To inspire those with problems of all types. And above all, he felt it was his job to try to find a cure for juvenile diabetes."
"He felt he was put here for that reason. He felt it was his reason for still being here when the odds were so stacked against him the last decade of his life. He embraced his gift and his hardship equally, believing that one would not have mattered without the other."
Almost as an aside, she noted that Santo helped raise $65 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"He fought the good fight. And even though he's no longer here, we must find a cure," she said. "We can't let him down. If you want to honor Ron Santo, there's nothing you can do more appropriate than in some way helping to find a cure."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Carrie Muskat contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.