Ron Santo’s Legacy

An old Irish toast to the departed: “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

This seems written for a man like Ron Santo, who died last week at the age of 70. Cub fans cherished him, in part, because he was the consummate fan. Alongside Pat Hughes in the radio booth, Santo seemed to take each Cubs failure–of which there are multitudes — as a personal wound and each good moment as a personal uplift. When it came to his team, Ron Santo couldn’t hide much.

If you weren’t a Cubs partisan, then you admired Santo for his personal courage in the face of a lacerating and relentless disease and for his commitment to the vanquishing that disease. For so many reasons, he is missed, remembered and loved by many.

The other, lesser part of the story is how the gatekeepers of the Hall of Fame have terminally neglected Santo.

Why is this? Certainly, the era in which he played makes his offensive numbers look less impressive than they are in context, and there’s also the broader neglect of third basemen as a species. On the latter point, consider how the Hall of Fame breaks down from most- to least-represented position …

Position No. of Hall of Famers
Right Field 24
Shortstop 21
Left Field 20
First Base 18
Center Field 17
Second Base 17
Catcher 13
Third Base 10

So why is this happening? My best guess is that, in the minds of the voters, third basemen dwell in some sort of nebulous category. They’re not quite of the run-producing mold that other corner defenders are, and they’re also, obviously, not manning those key, up-the-middle positions. As such, I’m not sure voters know how to evaluate third basemen who don’t hit like a left fielder (e.g., Mike Schmidt) or field the ball like a shortstop (e.g., Brooks Robinson). In any event, Santo’s probably suffered because of this phenomenon.

But he shouldn’t have. Santo’s career WAR of 79.3 ranks seventh all-time among those who spent at least the plurality of their careers at the hot corner. Among all players, he ranks 47th. The Baseball-Reference flavor of WAR is a bit less charitable but still ranks Santo as the 75th-best position player in history. Take a gander at his career wOBA graph and you’ll see a conga line of good-to-great seasons.

One would think that the traditional-minded voter would note Santo’s place in the top 100 for home runs, RBI, walks, and sac flies, in addition to his five Gold Gloves and nine All-Star appearances. All this while, for a good portion of his career, battling Type 1 Diabetes at a time when we didn’t know much about it. Still and yet, Santo was never named to more than 43.1% of the ballots, and the Veterans’ Committee has passed him over on four different occasions.

Besides the structural bias against third basemen, some other factors could be at work, at least insofar as the mind of the typical voter is concerned. The Cubs of late 60s never made the postseason despite some impressive top-end talent, and some of the blame has rubbed off on Santo. As well, Santo’s longtime manager Leo Durocher was quite unsparing in his public assessments of him, and Santo had a bit of an complicated reputation as a player. These may sound like petty trivialities to you and me, but they may matter more than you’d think, particularly on the Veterans’ Committee.

Santo will have his next chance in the winter of 2012, and he’ll probably make it. The shame is that, first and foremost, Santo won’t be around to revel in his election. The other, lesser shame is that those who best know Santo as the Cubs’ “mascot in the radio booth” may think he’s an undeserving sort whose posthumous election was sentimental in nature. But Ron Santo was a hell of a ballplayer — one of the 10 greatest ever at his position — and he deserved Hall-of-Fame laurels years ago.

The Hall mattered a great deal to Santo, and his exclusion surely embittered him (though you’d barely know it). In the end, though, it means more to have lived a life worthy of a great old Irish toast.




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29 Responses to “Ron Santo’s Legacy”

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  1. BassmanUW says:

    One of the reasons a lot of voters give for not letting Santo in is that he was “the fourth best player on a team that never made the playoffs.” This is utterly false. The three players they are referencing are, of course, Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. We’ll toss Jenkins out of this because he was a pitcher, and just look at the position players.

    Santo was a very good to great player for a decade, from 1963 to 1972. Over those 10 seasons, Santo put up 72.1 WAR, with a high of 10.2 in 1967 and a low of 4.0 in 1971 (the only year that decade he had a WAR under 5.1.)

    Ernie Banks had an extended stretch of being a very good to great player as well, but that was nearly done by 1963. By that point, Ernie Banks had already put up 59.8 of the of the 74.1 WAR he’d retire with in 1971. He spent the rest of his career being an average at best first baseman.

    Billy Williams actually was a very good to great player at the same time Santo was. In fact, Williams’ best decade matched up exactly with Santo’s, but he wasn’t as good as Santo. Over the same 10 years Williams put up 58.1 WAR. His WAR for his entire career (69.7) wasn’t as high as Santo’s was for one decade.

    Santo was an all time great player. There were a number of people I saw on television over the past weekend who said, “I didn’t realize how good he was.” As a result, one of the greatest baseball players ever is not going to be able to give his own HoF induction speech. Which sports tragedies pale in comparison to the far more serious and terrible things that happen in the world, this seems to be pretty high up there as far as sports tragedies go.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      Yeah, Billy Williams was always considered the brighter light. At the time, in Cubs history, to HoF voters… and by Santo himself, who always said Billy was the real star of the team. Santo is really the picture of a player that would be overlooked for the Hall. I hope he gets in.

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    • joeiq says:

      My initial reaction was he was only good for 13 seasons, but I was one of those people that never realized exactly how good he was until early this year. Now I feel bad.

      Plus he had diabetes which definitely shortened his career.

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  2. walt526 says:

    The part of the underrepresentation of 3B in the HOF is that its somewhat of a transitional position. Some players who start there move to 1B or LF/RF; some players who finish there started at 2B/SS. If you were to compute some sort of “full-season equivalent” measure of HOFers by position, I suspect that it would not be as skewed as the simple count by primary position.

    That being said, no doubt that Santo’s exclusion was inexcusable.

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  3. baycommuter says:

    I grew up with that era’s Cubs and it seemed obvious that Billy Williams was the team’s best player, but we didn’t have WAR then… Everyone knew Ernie Banks was through, but he was the team’s most popular player ever and management had a hard time shoving him aside ala Cal Ripkin.
    While Santo belongs in the Hall, he may be getting dinged for a lack of maturity shown in 1969, as Dayn alludes. He was the team captain, clicking his heels after every victory to the delight of the fans. But he also ripped Don Young for misplaying fly balls and had a bad September when the team was reeling.

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    • BassmanUW says:

      Williams was a a slightly better hitter than Santo was (didn’t walk quite as much, but made up for that with power). Santo being a good fielder compared to Williams being a below average fielder at a less demanding position, though, made Santo more valuable.

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  4. BillWallace says:

    2 comments

    1) It’s perfectly believable that the quantity of 3Bs in the HoF accurately reflect the quality of talent over time at the position, and not a bias. Why assume every position draws the same number of elite level players to it? An analysis of WAR against HoF inclusion/exclusion by position is needed to shed light on this, if it hasn’t been done already. Certainly Santo is a data point in favor of bias, but not the only data point out there.

    2) I wasn’t around during that time period, but I can almost see just by looking at Santo’s stats why he’s under-appreciated.
    a) He’s getting a big WAR bump and deservedly so from being a good defender at a medium defensive position, but in order to gain HoF cred for defense you have to be a complete standout like an Ozzie Smith or Brooks Robinson.
    b) He walked a good amount but again you don’t get credit for that unless it’s at the extreme level.
    c) As mentioned before his batting stats get more value because of the era, but because he was in the very good but not standout 25-30 HR 100 RBI level he doesn’t get full credit for that.

    When you’re B+ in everything over a 10 year period it can add up to 80 WAR but you may have a rep as just a very good player.

    But if he gets in on the sentimentality vote, at least it will be a nice case of two wrongs making a right.

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    • Austin says:

      I think your second point is correct, but I have trouble believing your first point entirely. I do believe that talent is not evenly distributed around the diamond – for instance, I’ve seen the case made that catchers actually do have the comparative lack of talent that their generally mediocre career WAR totals indicate – but can you really say with a straight face that that really results in HALF of the number of Hall of Fame-caliber players there as compared with nearly any other position? walt526′s explanation of third base as a transitional position seems more accurate to me, as does Dayn’s postulation that voters don’t really know what to look for in third basemen when they come up for election, because they defy a single characterization.

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      • BillWallace says:

        I’m not sure I totally believe it either, I’m just saying it’s believable, as is the bias argument. In support of the talent argument, it is kind of an in-between position.

        If you take the spectrum of different skills makeups of all major leaguers, and said what is the ideal position for someone with each set of skills, I bet 3B would occupy the least space on the spectrum.

        A HoF caliber player who would be an elite fielding 3B would often be a SS or 2B instead, whereas a HoF caliber player who is an elite fielding SS will always play SS.

        A HoF caliber player who would be a very poor fielding 3B would often be a 1B or LF instead, whereas a HoF caliber player who is a poor fielding 1B or LF will always play 1B or LF.

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  5. My echo and bunnymen says:

    Probably a great man (never knew him personally) and definitely a great player deserving of the hall. On the radio personality though, I gotta say that when I heard his name announced to be in the booth, on that rare occasion I listened to a Cubs’ game, I turned my radio to a different game. I’ll toast his legacy as I see it, a ball player. If we include the radio gigs you’ll find a little hesitant.

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    I don’t completely understand ….

    If Santo put up a 10 WAR season, yet the one of the best baseball players ever (Pujols) has never topped 10 once (9 a couple of times), then maybe we need to look at WAR, instead of just assume Santo put up one of the greatest seasons ever.

    Is it possible that expansion, extreme eras, inflate the WAR of the top players? In other worse, a pitcher’s era may affect the lesser hitters to a greater degree than really good ones, or expansion helps the elite players more than it does the average, so you get guys that put up ridiculous WAR and it’s misleading. Is that possible?

    I think Santo could be in, and probably should be in, but some of the justifrication people give, doesn’t seem to make sense.

    Santo has similar WAR to Pujols over the time span given. Like 80 to 72. One is viewed as a sure fire lock to the HoF, one of the greatest players ever …. ever. The other is on the outside looking in.

    Either there’s something quirky with WAR, depending on year, or era, etc or our observations are out of whack.

    I think the comment about Santo being a “B+” at many things, but not an A at anything is likely true and a big factor. The jack of all trades, master of none thing. Sometimes being very good at one thing gets more attention that just being an all-around good, complete player.

    I like Santo as a player. In the booth he kills me. I’m not a Cub fan, but I get their affinity for him. In a bit of humor, Cardinal Hell, is watching WGN with Harry and Ron in the booth yucking it up. *grin* However, Uncle Ron is definitely the guy you want you and your family sitting next to at the game. You’ll make a friend for life.

    As far as his disease goes, unfortunately I know quite a few diabetics that do not pay attention to their diet, their alcohol, or their insulin, and it’s going to cost them later.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      You know what’s really crazy? In 1967 Yaz put up 12.1 WAR (12.2 per b-r). On b-r, Yaz’ 1967 is tied with Bonds’ 2002 for 10th all time (does FG have single-season leaderboards?). Yaz put up monster numbers at the plate (.326/.418/.622 for a whopping 198 wRC+) in a pitcher’s year. He also racked up +23 runs on D per whatever stat they use for that. He had a few years around that total, defensively.

      Santo picked up 18 runs on defense in ’67, way more than any other year of his career. So maybe the +18 attributed to Santo for D in ’67 was not reflective of his defensive skill. Knock 10 runs, or a win, off, and it’s closer to his normal performance, and it’s still a 9.2 WAR season (very close to Pujols’ peak). Why not? It’s 700 PA with a wRC+ of 159 playing 3B. That’s an elite season. At FG, it looks like he’s getting more than the normal 2.5 runs for positional adjustment in many years, so maybe 3B got a bigger adjustment back then.

      What happens if we toss defensive metrics entirely? Jumping back to b-r for its single-season leaderboards, Pujols’ best year for offensive WAR was 2003, with 9.5, tied for 61st all-time with many others… like Babe Ruth in 1919, A-Rod in 2005, Ted Williams in 1957, Bonds in 1993. Santo’s 1967, with 8.2 offensive WAR, is tied for 166th all-time with such seasons as Bagwell in ’96, Chipper Jones in ’99, Babe Ruth in ’29.

      So… WAR does claim that a +18 defensive 3B hitting for a wRC+ of 159 over 697 PA in 1967 is a tad more valuable than a +3.6 defensive LF/1B hitting for a wRC+ of 189 over 685 PA in 2003. The defensive component of that is huge — more than 14 runs in non-adjusted defense, plus almost 12 in the positional column.

      Pujols is a great hitter and a great player, no question, but is he so great that someone like Santo having similar peak years is enough to make us question the basis of WAR? Pujols’ best seasons aren’t statistically head-and-shoulders above the best seasons of many other players in his era, and I think many of the reasons we elevate Pujols are aesthetic ones.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        is he so great that someone like Santo having similar peak years is enough to make us question the basis of WAR?

        That’s what I was asking.

        Really what I was asking is whether the 10 WAR seasons of the 60s and now the 12 WAR season Yaz posted are due to the effect that pitcher’s era (or expansion eras) have on WAR (i.e. replacement level)?

        It’s very difficult for me to wrap my mind around what a 12 WAR season would actually look like given that I saw Bonds’s seasons … and Barry basically had to do things baseball had never seen before (73 HR, 232 BB).

        In other words, the great players will always be great, regardless of era. But some eras (pitching-dominant, expansion) may affect the replacement level at such magnitude that it skews the WAR of the elite guys.

        It’s not so much a question of whether Santo was *that* great but whether the replacement level was really *that* bad? There was no wartime, segregation, etc … just dominant pitching and parks/rules that favored the pitchers.

        I’ve never really dug into the Ron Santo case before, so I may be presenting things that have been addressed 100′s of times.

        Looking at Schmidt and Santo’s 10-year WAR: Scmidt (74-83), Santo (63-72)

        Schmidt: 8.2 WAR/y (81.6)
        Santo: 7.2 WAR/y (72.1)

        That’s not a big difference between the “best ever” and “not in the HoF”.

        Schmidt is consistently the better fielder, and sometimes by a lot.

        But, the BIG difference is in the counting stats. Simply put, playing in a pitcher’s era killed Santo’s HR totals. The single number of “342″ (career homers) is likely the number that keeps Santo out.

        Clearly the HoF voting does not look at WAR.

        Santo was top 5 in mvp only twice. The only things he led the league in in any seasons were, GP, 3B, BB, GIDP, and SF. That’s not going to garner much attention.

        Brooks Robinson’s numbers are also interesting.

        1960-69 = 6.5 WAR/y (65.2), and in some years half of his value is literally fielding and replacement level.

        Playing on winning teams + individual awards have played some role, and they likely should.

        Robinson was also a top5 in MVP 4 times, winning it once … and the difference between AS and GG from Robinson/Schmidt and Santo is huge.

        The more I look at it, it seems to be a case of a guy that is a “B” or “B+” in many areas is not as appreciated as a guy that is an “A” or “A+” in one or two highly visible areas … and that would be congruent with observations.

        I wonder what perceptions of Santo would be if he were simply the 3B on the Cardinals teams in the 60s. Certainly 2 WS wins in 3 appearances would have a dramatic effect.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        As to WAR of elite players being skewed, consider the numbers, compared to league-average or replacement-level, of the best pitchers through the 1990s and 2000s. In that era of tremendous offense there’s also been an extraordinary collection of all-time great pitchers.

        When you consider how badly Pedro and Maddux beat league-average in their peaks… Pedro in ’99 scored 12.1 WAR with a 1.39 FIP, when the league-average FIP was 4.71. In 1968 the league-average FIP was 2.98 — so you’d have to have a negative FIP to beat league-average by that much. Obviously that’s an extreme case, and a run is worth more so you don’t have to beat league-average by as much.

        Bonds in 2003 did something like the hitting equivalent of recording a negative FIP. Like a video game where you jump too high and the logic breaks.

        Maybe one way to state this whole question is whether Yaz’ 1967, with its totally plausible .412 OBP, can rightly be called “0.9 WAR below” Bonds’ 2003 when he broke the game. Surely they can’t be compared with a single number.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Are Scott Rolen and Ron Santo comparables in terms of HoF electability?

    When I try to envision what Santo was like as a player (since I did not see him play), I think of Scottie Rolen.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      Maybe. By the numbers, Rolen looks like a somewhat better defender and Santo a somewhat better hitter. Rolen’s 2004 is superficially similar to some of Santo’s best years — a wRC+ around 160, excellent 3B defense. Santo had four straight years of around this quality, from 1964 to 1967, while Rolen just has the one. As I mentioned in my other post, Santo seems to get a little more positional bonus than modern 3B, and played closer to full-time throughout his career, but Rolen will have a longer career and may still have some good years left.

      Other stuff… Rolen has a better body of postseason work. Like Santo, the best he ever finished in MVP voting was 4th. A lot of their counting numbers are pretty similar, though Rolen is not finished yet.

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  8. baycommuter says:

    . Looking at the numbers for each position, an axiom could be that it is virtually impossible for a position player to get to the HofF without near-HofF offensive numbers unless a player is a shortstop.
    Objectively, Santo was terrible in the booth, but Chicago fans have an odd tradition going back to Jack Brickhouse of judging announcers primarily by how enthusiastically they root for the home team, and Santo certainly met that standard.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    Semi-related question …

    How is Santo’s fWAR 79, bur his rWAR is 66?

    That seems like a BIG difference.

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  10. Bill says:

    With modern adjustments, the numbers are clearly there. The tipping point may have been reached on August 24, 1971, when Santo took a swing at Leo.

    I knew Leo; my grandfather (Stoughton, not Staughton) was his mentor. Leo was no saint by any means, but he had a number of allies with long memories. Santo will get in soon, now that he won’t ever be able to say he got the last laugh.

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  11. Doug says:

    Having met Ron Santo, I can say he’d never, ever say he got the last “laugh” on anything. If he got in while he was alive all he’d have done is said how much he loves Chicago and the Cubs and how proud he is to represent them in the Hall of Fame.

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    • Doug says:

      Met/Listened to him for years.

      Sidenote: He was an awful announcer, everybody knew it. Everybody just loved him despite it.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        When you love someone in spite of their flaws, you really loved them.

        Cubs fans genuinely loved Santo. I know this as a Cardinal fan.

        Cub fans take a lot of crap, especially from Cardinal fans. However, every Cardinal fans knows not to “go there” in regards to Santo. You might think it, but never say it.

        My best friend is a Cubs fan and broke down and asked him once “Is it just me or does Santo sound drunk at times?” He explained that Santo’s diabetic situation sometimes causes him to sound like that … and added, “but he also might be drunk.” and laughed.

        Every bar in town has a framed picture of Santo … and I live 1.5 hours away from Chicago.

        He is the Cubs version of Stan Musial, and that (from a cardinal fan) is a helluva compliment.

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  12. Garrett Hawk says:

    It’s funny to hear someone say that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as per Santo’s 10+ WAR 1967 season. (ie, WAR must be a wrong stat if it says that Santo had a year better than any Pujols ever has had.)

    The truth is this: he was an excellent player who had an a career year at a typical age (age 27), and he definitely should have won the MVP. (which would have helped his HOF cause, presumably, although it hasn’t helped the only slightly lesser Ken Boyer).

    Orlando Cepeda won instead because…wait for it…he led the league in RBI.
    His WAR was 3 wins lower than Santo’s that year, a huge difference.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      It’s funny to hear someone say that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as per Santo’s 10+ WAR 1967 season. (ie, WAR must be a wrong stat if it says that Santo had a year better than any Pujols ever has had.)

      Not at all what I implied or asked.

      What I was asking was whether an extreme era (such as the pitching dominant 60s) or expansion, caused the WAR of the elite to be inflated due to affecting the replacement level guys much more than the elite players.

      Granted Santo’s 10WAR season caused me to wonder this. Yaz’s 12 WAR season (comparable to Bonds who did unprecendented things) just made me wonder more.

      So, what I would be asking is if Santo’s 10 WAR season might more in line with say an 8 WAR season in a more balanced era? Not that Santo’s 10 WAR season needs to be discarded or ignored.

      The same question could/would apply to players putting up 10 WAR seasons in an expansion era, regardless of the year. It’s not so much about Santo specifically as is it knowing what Pujols seasons “look like” (I watched them) and Bonds seasons (I watched them too) and wondering how the heck Santo and Yaz could have comparable WAR to players/seasons who are basically viewd as among the top 10 players and/or seasons ever.

      I did not intend to slight Santo or suggest that WAR is bogus, but to see if anyone could quantify any inflation that an extreme era might have on WAR (namely in dramatically lowering the replacement level). For example, in wartime, if the best players were excused from service, but the lesser players were not … the replacement level might decrease, producing inflated WAR for players that would already/normally accumulate high WAR seasons.

      Hope this clarrifies what I was asking. I, of course, do not have the answers, nor the know-how to obtain them.

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  13. Anthony says:

    Cepeda is probably in the Hall of Fame for the reason Santo isn’t- the 1967 MVP vote. That is sort of sad, that their respective HoF chances hinge on one moment in their careers, and this one moment elevated one over the hump and hasn’t yet elevated the other. I think there are a few non-BBWAA eligible players from the last forty years worthy of election- Santo, Cash, Powell, Hernandez, Dewey, Reggie Smith, Simmons, Blyleven, and Tiant.

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  14. While Santo was turned down time and time again at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, his merits were appreciated by the esteemed voters at the Baseball Think Factory Hall of Merit.

    Santo was voted in on his first chance – 1980 – scoring nearly the same amount of points as Al Kaline and far exceeding Juan Marichal. – http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/discussion/1980_results

    Ron placed 7th in the all-time third basemen voting – one slot ahead of Paul Molitor and five ahead of Brooks Robinson.
    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/discussion/election_results_greatest_third_basemen_schmidt_mathews_brett_boggs/

    Santo was also ranked 2nd among non-hall of famers who played from 1943-1987 – behind only the criminally underrated Bobby Grich.
    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/discussion/election_results_grich_and_santo_are_tops_for_group_2/

    His discussion thread can be found here:
    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/discussion/ron_santo/

    Thanks Ron for your dedication to help fight Diabetes, for your passion for baseball, and for your kindness when I met you during the summer of 2005 in San Diego. You always could make a fan laugh.

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  15. It is amazing that arguably the best player from 1964-1969 has not been elected to the Hall of Fame:

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