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Ron Santo was tortured by the call to Baseball Hall of Fame that came too late

For years, Ron Santo knew only anguish on Hall of Fame announcement days; it finally came a year after he died.

Chicago Cubs infielder Ron Santo is shown in

Chicago Cubs infielder Ron Santo is shown in Scottsdale, Ariz., 1971. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Robert H. Houston

“Bittersweet” does not begin to describe the emotion Vicki Santo experienced from her husband’s greatest honor. One year and two days after Ron Santo’s death, his widow received the call for which he had been waiting all of his life.

She was alone at their home in Arizona in late 2011 when she picked up the phone and heard, “This is Jane Forbes Clark calling from the Hall of Fame and I’m happy to let you know Ron is being inducted this year into the Hall of Fame.”

“I was thrilled,” Vicki said last week, “and saddened that Ron wasn’t here to get the call himself.”

Still, she chose then and still chooses to focus on the “sweet.” She never will forget how Clark, the Hall’s chairperson, handed the phone to Billy Williams, Santo’s longtime Cubs teammate and close friend, who was on the Golden Era Committee that finally elected the third baseman. There is joy in Mrs. Santo’s voice even now when she remembers Williams saying, “Vicki, we did it.”

And she is more emphatic than ever about the power of “the call,” the one that summons a baseball person to Cooperstown. That call, which arrived Tuesday for Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and the family of the late Roy Halladay, changes everything. It casts new luster on a baseball player’s past and dignifies his future, elevating him forever to the status of Hall of Famer.

“Oh, he knows,” she said of Ron, whom she envisions smiling about the Hall and about his beloved Cubs finally having won the World Series in 2016. “He absolutely knows.”

There was a bittersweet aspect to the announcement Tuesday, too. Halladay, the star pitcher who threw a postseason no-hitter, was killed in a 2017 plane crash. Like Vicki Santo, Brandy Halladay took the call that her husband had earned and relished.

“His goal was to be successful every day of his 16-year career,” Mrs. Halladay said in a statement Tuesday, speaking also for the couple’s two children. “Tonight's announcement is the end result of that effort. If only Roy were here to personally express his gratitude for this honor, what an even more amazing day this would be.

“ I would like to extend special thanks to the baseball writers for the overwhelming percentage of votes that Roy received in his first year on the ballot,” she said. “It means so much to me, Braden and Ryan."

For years, Santo knew only anguish on the Hall’s announcement days. He did not get selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America after a strong career that might have been much better had he not had to, in Vicki’s words, be “his own guinea pig.”

Santo had Type 1 diabetes in an era before glucometers. He just went by how he felt physically, some days trying to moderate his blood sugar with orange juice, some days with a candy bar.

Bottom line, he always was dejected about not getting the nod from the writers or the Veterans Committee. His chances had looked so good in 2003, Vicki said, that media people came to the house to capture the celebration. But the phone never rang.

“It was awful,” she said. “Ron even said after that, `I’m going to be out [on announcement day]. If it’s going to be, it’s going to be.’ That was his philosophy.”

She and Santo’s three middle-aged children tearfully considered it vindication when the call finally arrived.

Ultimately, the daughter and two sons were proxies for their dad at the pre-induction news conference at Cooperstown the following summer. Vicki gave the acceptance speech. It was a glorious weekend, as it always is in the little town that houses the Hall. The induction ceremony officially confers the honor. Plaques are unveiled, families are treated like royalty.

But it’s during the wintertime call when it all really hits home.

Tim Raines received the call last year, an occasion preserved and accessible on YouTube. The video shows him seated in his house, between his wife and two young children, when BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell called with the good news. When Clark got on the line to say how happy she was to have him in the Hall, Raines said, “Nobody could be happier than me.”

Recalling it last week, the former Yankee said in an email, “It was my last year of eligibility on the [BBWAA] ballot. I was nervous when the phone rang and had difficulty pressing the answer key. I felt immediate happiness, joy and relief, not only for myself but for my family as well. I was numb.

“This was my first time my agent came from San Diego to be with me,” he said of Randy Grossman, adding that his representative gave him “a big bear hug.”

“I called my parents to give them the amazing news,” Raines said. “The Hall asks you to keep it quiet until they announce it publicly on TV. They wouldn’t even tell me who else had been elected.”

What made it so profound was that, year after year, Raines knew that other players were having their names announced and enjoying the elation. There were times he never thought his call would come.

“I would be going about my usual life, playing golf, running errands. Randy would call and tell me the percentage of votes I received. Andre Dawson would call later and say, `Hang in there, Rock. You’ll get the call one day!’ ”

Even for players whose enshrinement seems inevitable, it never seems quite real until the moment of the call. Then it seems surreal.

“It was one of those once-in-a-million scenarios I personally never dreamed of,” said John Smoltz, Hall Class of 2015. “I had never thought about playing a sport and trying to enter a Hall of Fame. I was pretty skeptical that day, even though a lot of people around me thought the call would come.

“I almost missed the call, actually, because I don’t answer my home phone number. I just kind of assumed they’d call my cell. The house phone rang, I looked at it and I went, `Oh, shoot, I’d better at least check the area code.’ I saw `202’ and I said, `This is a very important phone call.’

“Honestly, it was beyond humbling. It was one of those things that kind of reiterated the amount of people whose hands helped me get where I did. I was very humbled but happy for a lot of people who impacted my career.”

Wade Boggs literally thought the call he received in 2005 was too good to be true. “I thought it was my friends, pulling my chain,” he said on a conference call that evening, adding that he insisted on getting verification over the phone. He believed it only when he heard the voice of Jeff Idelson, then a vice president on his way to becoming the Hall’s president, say, “Boggsie, congratulations. You’re in.”

The call always produces an instant welter of feelings. Vicki Santo can empathize as much as anyone can with the Halladay family. She knows how Tuesday was for them. But she can attest that the call from the Hall is beyond description, even when it comes too late.

 “I just believe the timing is as it’s meant to be,” Vicki Santo said, adding that she was honored to stand on that stage in Cooperstown. “It was beautiful be able to let people know the real Ron. If he were still alive, he would have talked about coming up, who he played with, which is what they all do and which is what they should do. But I was able to tell what a great person Ron was.

“I still miss him every day,” she said, nonetheless joyful that, because of that call, the Hall of Fame no longer has to miss him.


 

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