December 03, 2010
Ron Santo passed away on Thursday and is the best third baseman currently not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, many believe that he is the best position player who has never delivered an induction speech in Cooperstown. He fell off the writer's ballot after the 1994 season, so his only hope of a posthumous induction is through the veterans committee in future years.
Third base is the most underrepresented position in the Hall: There are 16 catchers, 25 first basemen, 18 second basemen, 22 shortstops, 21 left fielders, 21 center fielders and 22 right fielders, but only 14 third basemen.
Of those 14, three are former Negro Leaguers, and four are relatively weak players from the dead ball era who were elected by a previous, much more permissive incarnation of the the veterans committee. (These include Frank "Home Run" Baker, whose most notable feature is his nickname, and Freddie Lindstrom, who was mainly elected because he was a member of John McGraw's dynastic New York Giants.)
Santo came close to getting in through the veterans ballot on several occasions, falling five votes short in 2007 and nine votes short in 2008. Santo was openly critical of the voting process that failed to elect him, and was outspoken in his belief that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. His fans have long agreed.
Is that wishful Chicago Cubs thinking? Or is he every bit as deserving of induction as the North Side faithful have always maintained? Below, we take a look at his case:
The Case for Cooperstown: Let's start with something Bill James said:
"To me it is clear and unequivocal that Santo is a Hall of Famer."
The key to Santo's candidacy is his position. As we mentioned before, fewer Hall of Famers played third base than any other position. This discrepancy suggests that Santo may have been hurt by his position — that the writers have not properly valued the offensive and defensive contributions of the men who manned the hot corner. It also means that the few third basemen in the Hall of Fame constitute an unreasonably high standard: Mike Schmidt is one of only seven third basemen elected by the writers to the Hall of Fame. But he's also an upper echelon Hall of Famer who might have set the bar too high for his demanding position.
While Santo's traditional counting stats — 342 HR, 1,331 RBI, 2,254 hits — don't stand out when compared to all hitters, they look better when compared to all third basemen. Considering that there are only 11 MLB third basemen in the Hall already, and every other position has 15 to 20 Hall of Famers, if you can prove that Santo's one of the top 10 third basemen ever, he has to be considered Hall-worthy.
Over and over, Santo's numbers place him directly in the middle of the pack of the men who have gone before him: He's generally behind the seven BBWAA inductees, but well ahead of the four veterans committee inductees. While 342 homers and nine All-Star games may look fairly run-of-the-mill, those numbers are all eighth on the all-time list of third basemen. (Chipper Jones(notes) is the only active player on most of those lists, and he's a surefire Hall of Famer himself.) Santo's five Gold Gloves are tied for the seventh-most among all third basemen.
Moreover, Santo was actually better than those counting stats indicate. He is hurt by his era — he debuted in 1960 and retired in 1974, meaning that his peak coincided exactly with the Era of the Pitcher. In an era when power was depressed, he had four straight 30-home run seasons and seven straight top-10 finishes in the home run race — his 31 homers in 1967 were actually third-highest in the league. What's more, he led the league in walks four times between 1964-1968.
He was also very durable while playing a very taxing position. For 11 straight seasons from 1961 to 1971, he played 154 more more games, and he played more than 160 games in seven of them. One reason that his homer and RBI stats are slightly depressed is that his career ended when he was relatively young, when he was just 34. But he played his entire career with diabetes, and while that shouldn't tip the scales on its own weight, it should be taken into account when considering his career length — and his remarkable durability during his 15 seasons.
The arguments against Santo ignore the context of his era, the context of other third basemen, and they ignore the disease that caused him to retire at the young age of 34. Santo is unquestionably one of the ten best third basemen ever.
The Case Against Cooperstown: Santo may have been a good third baseman, but he wasn't a historically great one, and he certainly doesn't stand out when compared to everyone who ever played. Just among his own peers, Santo's All-Star starts were bookended by a trio of well-known players who have also fallen short of the Hall: Ken Boyer, Dick Allen, and Joe Torre. In 1974, the year Santo traveled crosstown to the White Sox for his final season, the NL starter was Ron Cey, another man considered one of the best third basemen of his era, who similarly never came close to Cooperstown. Frankly, Santo's stats look a lot more like those of Boyer, Allen, Torre, and Cey than they look like Hall of Fame third basemen Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, Pie Traynor, Wade Boggs, George Brett, or Paul Molitor.
(Santo's offensive numbers may be better than those of HOFer Brooks Robinson, but Robinson was the best defensive 3B of all time. So the comparison is like saying that Edgar Renteria(notes) was a better hitter than Ozzie Smith. It's true, but also irrelevant.)
Santo's durability while dealing with diabetes is admirable, and he is rightly beloved in Chicago as a fixture in the city, a former player who remained with the team as a broadcaster and fan. But neither of those facts changes the numbers he posted are good, but not great. Moreover, his teams never won. Say what you want about the Billy Goat Curse, but his teams never finished higher than second, despite featuring Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ferguson Jenkins. (It's long been said that voters may feel trepidation at inducting a fourth member of a team that couldn't win.)
If inducted, Ron Santo wouldn't be the worst player in the Hall of Fame, but he'd probably be in the bottom half. His supporters tend to be supporters of an enlarged Hall in general; his opponents tend to like to restrict the Hall to the true legends of the game. Dick Allen and Ken Boyer both have their proponents. So does Dale Murphy, the player at the top of Ron Santo's list of comparable players on baseball-reference.com. Generally, a player should be judged by his peer group, and Santo's peers are Hall of Very Gooders rather than Hall of Famers. Maybe there's a reason for that.
The Verdict: The case against is overly harsh and we present it only to echo what has long been said by his naysayers. However, those people cannot deny Ron Santo is one of the top third basemen of all time. The only way to refuse his candidacy is to ignore context or to compare apples to oranges — to compare him to players who played in a more offensively-minded era, like Mike Schmidt and Paul Molitor, or more players at better offensive positions, like the first basemen and outfielders who populate the top of the homer and RBI lists.
In his era he was rightly considered the best third baseman in the National League. He shouldn't be penalized by the paucity of third basemen already in the Hall of Fame. The fact is, judged by his peers, he's one of the best third basemen ever to play the game. That makes him good enough to be a Hall of Famer, an honor he should have enjoyed when he was still alive.