December 3, 2010
The Snubbed Cub: Ron Santo (1940-2010)
It's with great sadness I heard the news of Ron Santo's passing. He died on Thursday due to complications from bladder cancer at the age of 70, having waged a courageous battle with diabetes for his entire adult life, enduring dozens of surgeries and ultimately losing both legs to the disease.
I'm too young to have seen Santo play during his 15-season career (1960-1974), but I have heard his work in the broadcast booth (he worked as a color commentator for the Cubs since 1990). More notably, as Baseball Prospectus' resident Hall of Fame expert, I've written about him countless times, campaigning on his behalf as worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown. A nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner during his 14 years with the Cubs, Santo was an outstanding two-way player who hit .277/.362/.464 with 342 homers in a career that was played during an era when offense was at its nadir. He led the NL in walks four times in a five-year span, led the league in OBP twice (1964 and 1966), and bopped 30 homers in four straight years (1964-1967). He ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, and in the top five twice, though he never won an award.
That he did all of this in a time before insulin pumps and other means of treating his disease — which he took great pains to conceal until 1971 due to fears he would be forced to retire — is remarkable. Following his career, he established the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, and ultimately raised over $50 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
At times, Santo has ranked as the single best eligible hitter outside the Hall of Fame according to JAWS. The adjustments to our metrics have bumped him down a bit; he's the best eligible third baseman, sixth among eligible hitters, behind Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Roberto Alomar and Bobby Grich according to last December's build, with pitcher Bert Blyleven topping the list and the ineligible Pete Rose ranking third. Nonetheless, he's still well above the positional standard:
* BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer, ** VC-elected Hall of Famer
Despite Santo strength as a candidate by both traditional and sabermetric reckonings, both the BBWAA and the various iterations of the Veterans Committee repeatedly bypassed him in the Hall of Fame balloting. In his first year of eligibility (1980), he received just 3.9 percent, not enough to stay on the ballot. Five years later, he was among a handful of players whose eligibility was restored by a review committee following widespread complaints about overlooked candidates. Allen, Curt Flood, Harvey Haddix, Denny McLain, and Vada Pinson were among the others who received second chances, though nearly all fell off the ballot soon enough. Santo stuck around, but he didn't even clear 40 percent of the vote until his 15th and final year on the ballot. Since then, he's fallen short in four VC votes as well, most recently receiving 60.9 percent in the 2009 VC balloting.
There appear to be many reasons for those snubs. Both voting bodies have shown a repeated tendency to underrate players whose value is enhanced by high walk totals and strong defense; Raines, Trammell and Grich are all similarly left out in the cold despite being well above the standards. Furthermore, the Cubs' perennial failure to win a pennant — particularly in 1969, when they blew a nine-game mid-August lead — appears to have been held against him, though teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins are all enshrined.
Santo's early demise as a player hurt him as well. The Cubs tried to deal him to the Angels in 1973, but he became the first player to invoke his Ten-and-Five rights, a Collective Bargaining clause which said that a player with 10 years of major league service, including the last five with his current team, could refuse a trade. At 33 and coming off an All-Star season, Santo didn't want to move to the west coast, so the Cubs arranged to trade him across town to the White Sox. Because the Sox already had a solid third baseman in Bill Melton, Santo was shifted to second base, a position where he had just a few games of major league experience. The move was a disaster; he hit just .221/.293/.299 and then hung up his spikes, leaving his career hit total (2,254 hits) a bit light for the tastes of those who don't properly appreciate his walks and other value-enhancing traits.
The real issues for Santo's repeated snubbing may be more personal. He was a fierce, emotional competitor who apparently rubbed some people the wrong way, particularly with his 1969 postgame ritual of leaping and clicking his heels together, which may have particularly alienated New York-based BBWAA voters. The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers quotes Nolan Ryan, who was a 22-year-old swingman on the upstart Mets team which surpassed the Cubs, and who as a Hall of Famer would have had the opportunity to vote for Santo as part of the expanded Veterans Committee (since abolished), as saying, "We didn't think much of that. In those days, people just didn't do those kind of things.'' If that's what's keeping him out, it's a horse**** excuse, hardly worse than Reggie Jackson admiring his home runs, to say nothing of the celebrations of today's players.
By all accounts, Santo was a boisterous, positive person who took life's disappointments — including the Cubs' repeated failure to win a pennant even after his playing days — in stride. As Rogers eulogized:
Santo isn't on the current Expansion Era ballot whose voting results will be revealed on December 6, but he will be eligible next year, as part of the so-called Golden Era ballot covering the 1947-1973 period. It will be a bittersweet day if he gets elected given how badly the grumpy old men have repeatedly blown it.
That said, today it's more important to remember the positive achievements in the man's life, both on the field and off. He was a stellar ballplayer and more importantly, a courageous human being who shared both his love of the game and his battles with life's challenges with the world. He will be greatly missed.