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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.