COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — On a day that Vicki Santo wished had come sooner, sadness that it hadn't never showed as she spoke of the greatness of her late husband.
"Words cannot express my sorrow that Ron Santo didn't live to see this day, that he's not here to give this speech," she said Sunday as her husband, a star third baseman with the Chicago Cubs and later a beloved broadcaster for the team, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum along with former Cincinnati Reds star Barry Larkin. "Believe me when I tell you I'd rather have Ron up here than me, but rest assured that he's laughing at my expense to see me squirm a little bit.
"This is not a sad day, not at all. This is a very happy day," Vicki Santo said. "It's an incredible day for an incredible man, a man who lived an extraordinary life to its fullest. Indeed, he had a wonderful life."
From Bill Mazeroski's amazingly short, tear-filled acceptance speech to Phil Rizzuto's rambling recollection of his life on and off the diamond, baseball's highest honor always seems to produce a special impression on those directly involved.
This day was no different.
"This is unbelievable — un-stinking believable!" the normally reserved Larkin said as he took the podium for his induction speech after fighting back tears watching his teenage daughter, Cymber, sing the national anthem.
Ron Santo didn't live to experience the day he always dreamed of. Plagued by health problems, he 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.
A member of the Chicago Cubs organization for the better part of five decades as a player (1960-74) and broadcaster (1990-2010), Santo was selected by the Veterans Committee in December, exactly one year after his death.
Vicki Santo said she cried a lot while practicing her speech. Her poise was remarkable when it counted most.
"It just feels right, a perfect ending to a remarkable journey," she said. "I'm certain that Ronnie is celebrating right now."
So, too were his beloved Cubs. They paid a tribute of their own to Santo, clicking their heels as they jumped over the third-base line to start the bottom of the first inning at St. Louis.
In 15 major league seasons, all but one with the Cubs, Santo evolved into one of the top third basemen in major league history while hiding his illness for a decade because he thought somebody might take baseball from him if they found out.
Even though he monitored his condition in warm-ups before games and never told his teammates about his daily injections, Santo excelled, compiling a .277 batting average, 2,254 hits, 1,331 RBIs and 365 doubles in 2,243 games. He also was a tireless fundraiser for juvenile diabetes, raising more than $65 million before his death.
"He fought the good fight, and though he's no longer here we need to find a cure for juvenile diabetes," Vicki Santo said. "He felt he had been put here for that reason. He believed in his journey. He believed in his cause. We can't let him down."
Santo fought more 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 and the left a year later.
As a broadcaster, Santo was known for unabashedly rooting for the Cubs, a trait that endeared him to fans who never saw him play.
"I want you to know that he loved you so much, and he would be grateful that you came here to share this with him," Vicki Santo said to a sea of fans clad in blue and red. "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."
Plenty of good things happened in Larkin's life, and he delivered a litany of thank-yous to the people who helped him along his journey. None were more important than his mom, Shirley, and father, Robert, who were seated in the first row.
"If we were going to do something, we were going to do it right," Larkin said. "Growing up, you challenged me. That was so instrumental."
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Larkin was a two-sport star at Moeller High School and thought he might become a pro football player after accepting a scholarship to play at Michigan for Bo Schembechler. That changed in a hurry.
"He (Schembechler) redshirted me my freshman year and told me that he was going to allow me just to play baseball," Larkin said. "Occasionally, I'd call him while I was playing in the big leagues and told him that was the best decision he made as a football coach. He didn't like that too much."
Drafted fourth by the Reds in 1985, despite playing just 41 games his first year Larkin finished seventh in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1986.
Two years later, Larkin was an All-Star with a .296 average, 91 runs scored, 32 doubles and 40 stolen bases. And with a host of older players to guide him — Eric Davis, Ron Oester, Buddy Bell, player-manager Pete Rose, a Cincinnati native, slugger Tony Perez, and even star shortstop Dave Concepcion, the man he would replace — Larkin's major league career quickly took off.
"I played with some monumental figures in the game," said Larkin, who was introduced to baseball by his dad at the age of 5. "They helped me through some very rough times as a player."
After giving special thanks in Spanish to the Latin players that also helped mold him, Larkin heaped special praise on Rose and Concepcion.
"I wouldn't be in the big leagues if it weren't for Pete," Larkin said, eliciting stirring applause from the fans, two of whom were holding a placard inscribed with "Cincinnati's hometown heroes, Larkin and Rose."
"And Dave Concepcion, understanding that I was gunning for his job, understanding that I was from Cincinnati, he spent countless hours with me preparing me for the game," Larkin said. "I idolized Davey Concepcion as a kid. Thank you, my idol. My inclusion in the Hall of Fame is the ultimate validation. I want to thank you all for helping me along the way."
Larkin, who played his entire 19-year career with the Reds, retired after the 2004 season with a .295 career average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases.
Two inductees were honored Saturday in a ceremony at Doubleday Field. Former catcher Tim McCarver received the Ford C. Frick Award for his contributions in broadcasting, while Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for sports writing.
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- Ron Santo