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Ron Santo remembered on eve of Hall of Fame induction

Roommates Glenn Beckert (left) RSanrelax their hotel room New York 1969. | AP

Roommates Glenn Beckert (left) and Ron Santo relax in their hotel room in New York in 1969. | AP

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Updated: August 23, 2012 10:55AM

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Glenn Beckert remembers his rookie year with the Cubs like it was yesterday. That spring training in 1965, players were pairing up for roommates when All-Star third baseman Ron Santo approached the young
second baseman.

Santo suggested they room together. Beckert was starstruck.

‘‘I was thrilled,’’ Beckert recalled Saturday. ‘‘Ron Santo wanted to room with me? Then 21/2, three years later, I found out nobody else on the damn team wanted to room with him.’’

Randy Hundley and Billy Williams nodded in agreement.

So many old Cubs — from Ernie Banks to Lou Piniella — converged on Cooperstown this weekend to honor Santo as he gets inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Wife Vicki will give the acceptance speech, son Jeff Santo confirmed.

It’s an emotional time for the old Cubs. They have waited years for Santo’s day to come. And now they wish he could be here to soak it all in.

Well, most of them feel that
way. Hundley, with his thick Virginia drawl, sees things differently, as usual.

‘‘Everyone says, oh, how they wish he was here,’’ Hundley said. ‘‘Well, I’m here to tell you Ronnie could not have handled it if he were alive. He is looking down on us, smiling and saying, ‘Kiss my fanny.’ ’’

Maybe, but there was a prevailing feeling this is where Santo longed to be.

‘‘This would have meant the world to him,’’ said Piniella, who forged a friendship with Santo during their spring-training playing days in the 1960s. ‘‘We talked about it many, many times. The amazing thing is, he thought he belonged, but he was never bitter.

‘‘He would have looked forward to this day forever.’’

Santo especially would have enjoyed the outpouring of love for him and the Cubs that was shown Saturday.

The Santo family was honored during a Cubs Fan Fest hosted by the Ricketts family. Hundreds of Cubs fans flocked to the lawn of the Fenimore Art Museum on the lakefront and crowded into a tent to honor Santo on a perfect Cooperstown afternoon.

‘‘It’s surreal,’’ said Ron Santo Jr., who is the spitting image of his father. ‘‘It’s overwhelming. It’s really paradise. To see all these Cubs fans is amazing.’’

‘‘I keep thinking about the line from ‘Field of Dreams,’ ’’ Santo’s daughter, Linda, said. ‘‘ ‘Is this heaven?’ No, it’s Cooperstown.’’

Linda said she felt her dad’s presence the instant they hit town.

‘‘We have some signs that he is here,’’ she said.

‘‘It’s strange,’’ Jeff Santo said. ‘‘You wanted him to be here because you know how much he wanted to be here.’’

Jeff stopped himself from breaking up.

‘‘It’s so sad,’’ he said.

Leave it to Santo’s old teammates to lighten the mood.

Banks, like most of Santo’s teammates, admitted he didn’t know the nine-time All-Star was battling diabetes during his playing days.

It was a secret even to Beckert. Until one day in San Francisco, when Santo slipped into the bathroom and gave himself an insulin shot — with the door open.

‘‘I was hitting .210, and he was hitting .360,’’ Beckert recalled. ‘‘I said, ‘Hey, Rooms, I don’t know where you got them needles, but give me a few.’ ’’

His former teammates marveled that Santo could perform at such a high level while battling such a serious disease. In 15 seasons, including one with the White Sox, Santo hit 342 home runs, hit .277 and won five Gold Gloves.

Yet Santo appeared on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for 15 years, and the closest he came to making
the Hall cut was when he was named by 43.1 percent of the voters in 1998 — far short of the necessary 75 percent.

Finally, thanks to a revamped Golden Era committee — and a strong push from Williams, who stressed Santo’s work for juvenile-diabetes research — Santo got in last December, a year and two days after he died at 70.

After a long string of stories about Santo’s days as a player and broadcaster, radio partner Pat Hughes tried to put Santo in perspective.

‘‘He was so emotional, so genuine,’’ Hughes said. ‘‘That’s what attracts people to him.’’

Then Ron Jr. put it best.

‘‘It’s that passion,’’ he said, ‘‘that brought him to the Hall of Fame.’’

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