ST. LOUIS Before Ron Santo and Billy Williams had their statues facing each other at Sheffield and Addison, they were side-by-side at Double-A ball.
This was San Antonio in 1959 and Williams remembered Rogers Hornsby, a roving Cubs instructor, going down the line after watching workouts near the end of the season.
He looked at some of the guys and said, Listen, you better go get a job because you cant play this game of baseball, Williams recalled. He started to get to us and we didnt know what he was going to say.
He goes: William, you can hit in Chicago. You can hit right now in Wrigley Field and we want you to work on your defense. Santo, youre a good defensive ballplayer and youre going to hit some home runs. Both of you guys are going to be in the big leagues pretty soon.
Hornsby must have had a pretty good eye for talent, but theres no way he could have known that both players would ultimately join him in the Hall of Fame.
As part of the Golden Era committee, Williams lobbied for his old friend last December, and secured the spot in Cooperstown, almost exactly a year after Santo died from bladder cancer.
After years of frustration and disappointment, the induction takes place on Sunday in upstate New York, and theres no doubt which hat Santo will have on his plaque.
I dont know if the worlds ever seen a guy with more passion and care and love for a franchise, said former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Loved the players. Loved the fans. Loved the city. And gave his whole life through thick and thin, through good health and obviously horrible health the last decade to the organization.
Santo wound up hitting 342 home runs, and winning five Gold Gloves at third base. He never ran with the sabermetrics crowd, but he did finish among the league leaders in walks nine times during his 15 years in the big leagues.
But numbers dont tell the story of Santo, not even the more than 60 million he raised for juvenile diabetes research, because that doesnt even begin to account for all the sick kids and amputees he quietly found time for across the country.
Traveling secretary Jimmy Bank is in his 20th season with the Cubs. Santo had two legs when Bank took the job, lost them both fighting diabetes and to the end pushed to make as many trips as possible.
Heart of gold, Bank said. Every hotel, everywhere we went, he stopped and signed autographs. I even asked him a couple times: Ronnie, dont sign in the lobby, because then weve got security issues with the players.
Santo would raise his voice: These are our fans! Im gonna sign!
In good times and bad times, Santo became such a huge part of the Cubs brand, as the voice on WGN Radio for 21 seasons. Hendry, Bank and TV play-by-play man Len Kasper all essentially said the same thing: I think about him all the time.
When I got the job, he called and told me how excited he was for me, Kasper said. He basically said: Youre a Cub now. And thats kind of how he viewed the world. Once I was a Cub in his mind, I was in.
Santo didnt need to memorize the game notes. Pat Hughes, a great straight man with such a smooth voice, was there for that.
Santo was the one connected in the managers office and the clubhouse. The players saw what he went through, hobbling to get on charter planes and refusing to complain during the brutal travel schedule.
He was real, man. He was truly passionate about baseball and the Chicago Cubs, outfielder Reed Johnson said. The players really bought into that, (and) thats why he got so much respect, especially from guys in the clubhouse.
Johnson remembered the call when the Cubs clinched the division in 2008: You could just hear him in the background on the radio going: Yeeeeesssss! Yeeeeesssss!
On some level, even if you never met Santo, you still knew him if you just listened on the radio, and that connected generations of Cubs fans.
He was as himself on the air as he was off the air, Kasper said. That is what I think most broadcasters strive to be, but we all hold something back, under the guise of professionalism or whatever.
But I think in a pure sense of what people want especially Cub fans and people in the Midwest they want you to be genuine. They want you to be unvarnished and unfiltered and Ron brought that every single day.
If there was a player he had never heard of, he would tell everybody on the air, and there was something very charming about that.
Bank had lunch with some friends on Saturday in St. Louis and they started telling Santo stories. It doesnt really matter whats going on in Cooperstown. As Bank said: There are things in every city that remind me of him.
After Santo died in 2010, Bank got phone calls from bus drivers in a few cities, including the one the Cubs have had for years in St. Louis.
They used to hear us on the buses laughing and having fun and talking, Bank said. They called me (to say) were really gonna miss (you guys) on the buses.
That was the kind of magnetism at the core of Santos personality. Friends, strangers, it didnt really matter. They gathered to watch him play with maximum effort and listen to him moan and groan and cheer on the radio.
Thats why so many will be there in Cooperstown, as the Hall of Fame recognizes what the Cubs already knew a long time ago.