Sports

Inside Baseball: Is Ron Santo Deserving?

The amazing thing is how much Ron Santo improved over the past 37 years. Santo retired in 1974, and when he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1980, he garnered 3.9 percent of the vote. He returned to the ballot in 1985, stayed there for 14 years, and saw his support grow to 43 percent before his time ran out. Now, he’s a Hall of Famer.

Santo was elected to the Hall of Fame this week with 94 percent of the vote from something called the Golden Era committee. Apparently, those who vote for the Hall of Fame were just WAITING FOR HIM TO DIE! Goodness knows, they couldn’t have ELECTED HIM WHILE HE WAS ALIVE!

And while I long have advocated for Santo’s induction, I have mixed feelings about this.

The argument for: A couple years ago, I had Santo ranked as the sixth-best third baseman in history. OK, maybe he really wasn’t better than Paul Molitor, and maybe Chipper Jones has passed him by now, but I think Santo clearly is in the top 10. It would seem rather silly to keep somebody who is in the top 10 at his position out of the Hall of Fame. In terms of peak value, Santo probably ranks higher than that.

Santo had a relatively short career, due partly to health problems caused by diabetes. He hit 342 home runs, and led the league in walks four times and on-base percentage twice. His numbers were held down by the fact that his prime came during the most pitcher-friendly period since the Deadball Era, but were enhanced by the hitter-friendly park in which he played.

For context, his Offensive Winning Percentage of .652 (according to baseball-reference) is the same as Bob Allison, Kiki Cuyler, and Minnie Minoso. Cuyler is in the Hall of Fame, a marginal selection at best. But that OWP is better than many Hall of Famers. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, Santo ranks 105th all-time, which is clear Hall-of-Fame territory.

Santo won five Gold Gloves, but was not a great fielder. He was good, but the Gold Gloves are a classic case of winning the fielding award with his bat.

I think Santo is a worthy Hall of Famer, maybe the best player who was eligible but not in other than Bill Dahlen.

That said, I’m a little uneasy about his selection.

Santo is the fourth Hall of Famer from the Cubs of the 1960s, joining Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins. Four Hall of Famers, and they didn’t win a darn thing. Banks, Williams, and Santo were teammates from 1960-71; Jenkins joined them starting in 1967. Those Cubs were good, but they never won a pennant or even a division title.

To be fair, Banks was past his prime by the early 1960s. He made the Hall — deservedly so — based upon what he did in the late 1950s. Jenkins is clearly a deserving Hall of Famer. Williams made it before Santo because left fielders typically put up bigger numbers than third basemen. Billy Williams was one of my favorite players while I was growing up, but he’s a marginal Hall of Famer; Santo should have gone in first.

But the most disturbing aspect of Santo’s selection is that it really had little to do with his ability. No, he made it because he spent 21 years as a broadcaster for the Cubs. He remained in the public eye, was a nice guy, and engendered copious good will. He didn’t hit another homer or draw another walk or field another ground ball, but he managed to remake the public perception of his play.

Hey, it worked for Phil Rizzuto (retired 1956, inducted 1994). It worked for Richie Ashburn (retired 1962, inducted 1995). It worked for Ralph Kiner (retired 1955, inducted 1975). Apparently, if you’re a marginal Hall of Fame candidate, the key is to become an announcer or find some other way to remain in the public eye.

This is not a criticism of Santo. It’s not a bad thing to want to remain close to the game. But it is a criticism of the voters, or rather the process that keeps changing the rules. Santo once drew 3.9 percent of the vote from the voters who could remember him best, those who had been around during his prime and had seen him play. Now he gets 94 percent of the vote from the Golden Era committee.

It doesn’t quite seem right, but deep down I’m pleased about it.