Please don't call it a bittersweet day, his daughter said, because Ron Santo didn't abide bitterness.
Please don’t call it a bittersweet day, his daughter said, because Ron Santo didn’t abide bitterness.
Focus on the sweet, urged Linda Santo, because — this is trite, but oh so true — Ron would have wanted it that way.
Santo, the best baseball player ever produced in Seattle, finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday — belatedly, and posthumously (or, as he once said in one of his endearing malapropisms, post-humorously). But he made it.
After so many false alarms, so many past election days in which Ron, against his better judgment, allowed himself to get his hopes up, only to have them come crashing down, the Veterans Committee finally came to its senses.
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The composition of the committee kept changing over the years, until finally, this time it was down to 16 members, including his old Cubs buddy, Billy Williams, who served as an invaluable advocate. And this time, the vote came down on the right side of Santo — 15 of the 16 voting in favor of immortalizing one of the greatest third basemen of his era, and one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever seen. He becomes the third native Washingtonian in the Hall of Fame, joining Ryne Sandberg and Earl Averill.
That’s wonderful news, and I’m particularly happy for his family, including his older sister, Adielene, who still lives in Auburn, and for Ron’s loyal group of friends in Seattle.
When she got the news Monday morning in a phone call from Ron’s son, Jeff, Adielene was hit with a wave of emotion.
“I was very, very sad that Ron couldn’t be here for this,” she said. “And I was very, very happy, because he deserved it.”
It’s impossible not to wish that Santo had gotten to experience this day, for which he had yearned so long.
“We’re all elated that finally, justice prevailed,” said Frank Savelli, one of those lifelong friends from Seattle who lived and died, along with Ron, with each ill-fated vote. “But it’s a darned shame he’s not here to see it.”
It’s especially cruel to think that Santo missed it by just a year, after suffering through so many near-misses. Santo died Dec. 3, 2010, of complications from bladder cancer. He was 70, and in some ways it was a miracle he lived that long, considering the lifelong battle he waged with diabetes, a fight that cost him both legs and necessitated dozens of operations (that’s no exaggeration).
And yet I’ve never met anyone as relentlessly positive as Santo, who was always convinced that the next season was when the Cubs were finally going to win the World Series, and the next election was the one that would get him into the Hall of Fame. And, most important, that a cure for diabetes — his mission in life — was just around the corner.
One of his closest Seattle friends, Bill Chatalas, told me Monday that Ron never wanted to make the Hall out of sympathy.
“He and I had more than one conversation, probably several, about this whole deal,” Chatalas said. “He was almost afraid they’d vote him in after he died because he died, rather than what he did on the field. He should have been in on his merits, not because he died.”
Ultimately, I think it was his merits that finally got him in, although maybe a little guilt was involved, too.
“I had the funniest feeling after he died that something would come out this year,” said Adielene Santo. “I knew if it didn’t come out this year, it wasn’t going to come out.”
And it all started here for Santo, growing up in the Rainier Valley neighborhood known as “Garlic Gulch,” hard by Sicks Stadium. In his definitive book, “Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers,” former Seattle sportswriter Dan Raley tells of how Santo spent his formative years as a Rainiers clubhouse boy, raking the infield, shining shoes, bringing hot dogs to sportswriters, picking up towels.
“He did that for four years. It was five minutes out his front door and into the park,” Raley said by telephone. “He crossed the street, crossed the parking lot, and he was inside.”
This is a happy day in Seattle, but it’s particularly meaningful in Chicago. Ernie Banks might have been “Mr. Cub” but Santo was right there with him, in the trenches, until the end. Tom Ricketts, the Cubs owner, said aptly of Santo’s selection, “I think this means a lot to a lot of Cubs fans. It was always a missing piece in the puzzle of Cubs history.”
Chatalas said that for Santo, making the Hall of Fame is “icing on the cake. He had his number retired, which was probably the most important thing to him. They have a flag up (on the flagpole at Wrigley Field in his honor), and a bronze statue, and now this. Maybe he’s turning for home. He was at third base with those three things, now he’s on his way home. I guess he is home.”
For Ron Santo’s baseball legacy, Cooperstown is the final resting place.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry.