Posthumous honors like Santo's are the ultimate mixed blessing

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When George Harrison was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in 2002, his friend Eric Idle said: "I bet he won't show up."

Idle was right, so he spoke on Harrison's behalf at the ceremony, where the former Python said of the former Beatle: "I can hear his voice saying, 'Oh very nice, very useful, a posthumous award. Where am I supposed to put it?' "

That's no doubt what the late Ron Santo said on Monday, having been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame one year and two days after he died, in what is the epitome of a mixed blessing. The Cubs' third baseman-turned-broadcaster had repeatedly said that if he didn't go in alive, he didn't care to go in at all.

Some people feel that way about heaven, never mind the Hall of Fame. It's an almost universal human response. No one should have to die to join the immortals. "I want my flowers while I'm alive," is how Chubby Checker -- serially snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- put it. "I can't smell them when I'm dead."

They're nice for one's family, and for the historical record, and they do alleviate the pressure of speechwriting. But posthumous honors have few other benefits for the honoree, which is why almost nobody wants them. Santo wasn't even the first Cubs' broadcaster to say that he wouldn't attend if invited postmortem. "If they wait until I'm dead, I hope they don't name me," Harry Caray said of the Hall. He told his son Skip: "If I get elected after I'm dead, don't accept it." Harry, mercifully, lived to see the honor -- he was 75 at the time -- but others who didn't also forbade their families to attend.

Leo Durocher spent 40 years in the big leagues, retiring as the sixth winningest manager of all time, then waited for a call that never came. "I've told my family I don't want to be voted in after I'm dead," he said. "If they don't want me now, I don't care." Durocher died in 1991, aged 86, having yet to make the Hall. He may well have assumed it would never happen, given his unpopularity among some members of the veterans' committee.

For many years, Durocher was closer to induction into the Black Athletes' Hall of Fame -- he was nominated in 1974, for his contributions to the careers of Willie Mays and Roy Campanella, among others -- than to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn't voted into Cooperstown until he was dead for three years -- which seems an excess of caution by the veterans' committee, don't you think? His son Chris did accept on his behalf, but said, tearfully, of his father that day: "His last years were spent hoping he would get a call from the Hall of Fame." That he didn't get it still seems like an unnecessary cruelty.

Tony Oliva, another baseball near-legend, has spent the last 35 years since retiring from the Twins living out the Jimmy Buffett song, If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me. In 2005, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "You don't want to go to the Hall of Fame when you're dead. I told my wife, 'If I get into the Hall of Fame when I'm dead, don't go.' "

"This is the big drag about posthumous awards," Eric Idle said. "There's no one to give 'em to."

Because Halls of Fame are themselves a kind of death -- for athletes, induction means their career is over -- a few stars actually prefer to go in as a ghost. "I was hoping this day would be 20 more years, or [that I'd] actually go in when I'm dead and gone," Michael Jordan said of his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was very much alive. (It was his speech that died.)

As in the rest of his career, Jordan was a rare exception. Joe Paterno spoke for most when he said in 2008, of enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame: "If I had my choice, I'd rather do it now than when I'm dead."

Still, if there is an upside to posthumous induction, it is this. Receiving an award in the afterlife sure beats losing one. Spencer Tracy and James Dean both were nominated for Oscars after their deaths -- and both lost.

It comes as welcome news, then, that the U.S. Postal Service next month will drop its prohibition against honoring living people on postage stamps. Until now, you had to be certifiably deceased to be licked and affixed to a letter in the U.S. But in September, the USPS asked Americans to nominate five living people who deserve to receive this stamp of approval.

That leaves one remaining honor that requires its recipient to be deceased. The Catholic church still insists that all candidates die before becoming a saint. Or, as it's called in Spanish: Santo.