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December 5, 2011

BP Unfiltered

Overdue Justice: Cooperstown Finds Room for Santo

by Jay Jaffe

One of the creepier truths of the music industry is that death is a good career move. The attention surrounding the passing of an artist brings new attention to his or her body of work, offering not only a chance for critical reassessment but also commercial gain — at least for whomever is left behind to enjoy its benefits. Such a parallel may be the most charitable way to assess what happened to Ron Santo, who one year and two days after his passing, and 37 years after the end of his career was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame via the Golden Era ballot, whose voting results were announced on Monday morning at the Winter Meetings in Dallas.

The nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover and Cub icon was unjustly snubbed by the BBWAA, receiving just 3.9 percent of the vote when he debuted on the 1980 ballot; he was dropped for failing to reach the minimum five percent, but granted a second chance five years later when he was among a handful of candidates whose eligibility was restored by a review committee. He never came close to election via that route, topping out at 43.1 percent in 1998, his final year of eligibility. He had been the top vote-getter in various iterations of the Veterans Committee balloting in 2005, 2007 and 2009, receiving 60.9 percent of the vote the last time around, when the voting body consisted of all living Hall of Famers.

This time, Santo received 15 of 16 votes from a smaller committee of Hall of Famers (conspicuously including teammate Billy Williams this time around), executives and writers, one that bore more resemblance to the Veterans Committees prior to 2003. Twelve votes were needed to reach the requisite 75 percent; he was the only one of the 10 candidates to gain entry, with Jim Kaat receiving 10 votes, followed by Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso each with nine, and Tony Oliva with eight. Of the other five candidates, worhty executives Buzzie Bavasi and Charlie Finley both received fewer than three votes, as did Luis Tiant, Allie Reynolds and Ken Boyer.

As with Bert Blyleven, my JAWS system has consistently recognized Santo as a top candidate for election since I first turned my attention to him, back in March 2005; at times he has ranked as the single best eligible hitter outside the Hall. In the most recent iteration, the system recognized him as the third baseman with the fourth-highest peak in history, behind only Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs, a whisker ahead of Eddie Mathews. He falls a bit short of the position average in term of career WARP and JAWS score, but still ranks seventh among all third basemen. Considering that just 11 hot cornermen were in the Hall, the fewest of any offensive position, and that the JAWS standard is significantly higher there than at all but one other position, there's a good argument to be made that the standards need a bit of tweaking to correct for the smaller sample size; given the feedback I've received, I believe that I will go forward with the changes outlined last week when I turn my attention to the BBWAA ballot.

Nonetheless, that Santo is not around to enjoy the honor personally does make his election a bittersweet moment; who wouldn't have wanted to hear his acceptance speech? When combined with the snub of Minoso — who exceeds the peak standard in left field by a good margin and falls just short in career and JAWS despite losing prime years of his career to matters far beyond his control (first the color line, then an Indians team which stashed him in the minors for two seasons before his blazing 7.2-WARP rookie season at age 25) — the results prompted BP alum Christina Kahrl to quip, "This is an example of when the process works?"

Despite the tardiness of the result, the overdue justice should provide some amount of relief and closure to his family and friends, not to mention a Cubs fan base so inured to disappointment. This was clearly an honor that Santo wanted, to the point that some of his critics accused him of campaigning for the honor. I've gone into detail for the potential reasons behind his slight more than once among the links above, so I won't crowd this piece further except to say that anything not focused upon his dominance of his position over a span longer than a decade was a horse**** excuse for excluding him from Cooperstown. That he accomplished what he did while battling diabetes in a day before insulin pumps — to the point of hiding it, out of fear he would be forced to retire — only makes his accomplishments even more amazing.

As sad or even heartbreaking as it may be that Santo didn't live to hear the official news, he had to know in his heart that he was worthy of the honor, as all of us who have supported his candidacy have for so long. We all head the way of dust eventually, ballplayers and nonballplayers alike. Few of us are lucky enough to have a bronze plaque detailing our top accomplishments left behind for posterity in the museum of record, even posthumously. Ron Santo will get his bronze plaque in Cooperstown now, and for that we can be thankful. I look forward to hugging a Cubs fan or two as we raise a glass of strong beverage in his honor this evening at the Winter Meetings.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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