Friday, December 3, 2010

Ron Santo and the Hall of Fame

Ron Santo (10) made a habit in 1969  of clicking his heels
after a Cubs victory. Then came their famous September
fade; they finished second to the Miracle Mets.
Ron Santo — third baseman, broadcaster, diabetes patient/example — died Thursday night.

The subhed on the Chicago Tribune story linked above — Chicago Cubs icon failed to reach Hall of Fame — is both accurate and a reminder that for some players, not making the Hall of Fame is a bigger deal than being inducted.

Ron Santo led the NL
twice in on-base percentage
in an era when almost
nobody knew what it was.
Enos Slaughter, for example. A very good outfielder in the 1940s and '50s, his supporters finally got him inducted. But it was the exclusion that kept him remembered. Once he was in, nobody had much reason to talk or write about him.

Santo is, and has been, deserving of induction. About a decade ago Bill James ranked Santo as the sixth greatest third baseman of all time — ahead of Brooks Robinson, Paul Molitor, far ahead of Pie Traynor.

Santo's numbers are not so easily interpreted. Yes, his career was centered in the mid '60s-early '70s, a period in which conditions deeply favored power pitchers and worked against hitters. He also had the benefit of an outstanding hitters park for most of his career.

It wasn't all that long a career (15 seasons), and his walks — he led the National League four times in the category — weren't valued then as they would be today.

That's part of why he's not in. Also a factor, I suspect, is this: His Cubs teams also featured Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins at the top of their games and the fading Ernie Banks; all three are in Cooperstown. They had a Hall of Fame manager in Leo Durocher. They had top-flight regulars in Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley in the lineup, strong starting pitchers in Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman and Milt Pappas, good relief pitchers in Phil Regan and Ted Abernathy.

They never won the World Series, never reached the World Series, never so much as won a division title.

Durocher, in his self-serving but entertaining autobiography, puts a big part of the blame on Santo:

When I took over the club I looked upon Santo as one of my great assets ... But right from the first, other baseball men whom I respected began to tell me that I was never going to win a pennant with him. ... Five runs ahead and he'd knock in all the runs I could ask for. One run behind and he was going to kill me. They were right.

There's a limit to how much I trust Durocher, and his critique of Santo is very much like the current rap on Alex Rodriguez. Still, I have to wonder: If Santo's a Hall of Famer (and I'm inclined to believe he should be) that's three prime-of-career HoFers on that team. Where are the trophies?

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