COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Barry Larkin almost seemed wistful as his mind traveled back through time.
“I think coming out of high school I was a better football player than a baseball player,” Larkin said. “I wanted to play football. That was my first real love at the time.”
Larkin, a two-sport standout in his senior year at Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, went to the University of Michigan on a scholarship to play football for coach Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines, opting for college life after being picked in the second round of the 1982 draft by his hometown Reds.
Larkin’s dream of becoming a standout defensive back was doused when Schembechler redshirted him as a freshman, and it didn’t take long for football to become an afterthought.
“That was really the first time in my life that I just played one sport, and I got a lot better at that sport,” Larkin said.
He rode his considerable talent to heights he never imagined as a kid – election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“This is kind of off the charts as far as something that I could even dream about,” said Larkin, who will be inducted a week from today along with late Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo.
Also to be enshrined in a separate ceremony the day before are former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and longtime broadcaster Tim McCarver, recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award, and Toronto Sun beat writer and columnist Bob Elliott, recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
Larkin won the Reds’ starting shortstop job as a rookie and two years later was an All-Star with a .296 average, 91 runs scored, 32 doubles and 40 stolen bases.
In 1990, Larkin hit .301 with 30 steals and 67 RBIs and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. The Reds won the NL West that year, beat the Pirates for the pennant and swept the Oakland A’s in the World Series, where Larkin hit .353 and scored three runs.
“The reason I played was to try to win championships, and we were able to do that,” said Larkin, who played his entire 19-year career with the Reds and was an All-Star 12 times.
Santo often thought about the Hall of Fame. And he wasn’t alone.
When former Cubs great Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, he ended his speech with this: “I know there are a lot of Cub fans here today. I feel like every Cub fan in the world is here with me today. And by the way, for what it’s worth, Ron Santo just gained one more vote from the Veterans Committee.”
Unfortunately, Santo didn’t live to experience what will be a special day for his family.
Plagued by health problems, Santo 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.
“It was unfortunate that he didn’t receive that award while he was living, and he so much warranted it,” said former Cubs star Billy Williams, elected to the Hall in 1987. “He won’t get the enjoyment (he would have if) he were living and walked up to that podium and received that award.”
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 exactly one year after his death.
“It was always his dream. It was always so important to Ron,” his widow, Vicki, said. “It’s been such a long time coming. It’s been so important to all of Chicago, Ron’s fans in Chicago. We feel that he was meant to be there. I can see him sitting on the sofa here as we did many, many times and he would just be pumping his fist in the air saying, ‘Yes! Yes!’ “
In 15 major league seasons, Santo compiled a .277 batting average, had 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 $50 million.
As a broadcaster, Santo was known for unabashedly rooting for the Cubs, a trait that endeared him to fans who never saw him play.
Santo fought 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 <0x2014> the right one in 2001 and the left a year later.
Working Cubs games on radio was an elixir of sorts for Santo. He could find comfort at the ballpark and a respite from his many health ailments. He even said once that he thought his association with the team probably prolonged his life.
Vicki Santo will speak on behalf of her late husband, and her message will be akin to the one that has endeared the late Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach, to millions of people fighting cancer: “To never give up,” Vicki Santo said.
“To have this come to him after his passing, it just shows you can’t give up, and that’s what Ron was all about.”