By now you’ve likely read about the “Golden Era” ballot being considered by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee. The list includes some intriguing names, such as player/manager Gil Hodges, Negro Leaguer/major leaguer Minnie Minoso, and the colorful and infuriating Charlie Finley. But once again, the headliner on the ballot is the late Ron Santo, who remains the most deserving third baseman of those who are not already in the Hall of Fame.
Santo did many things well. He reached base (.362 career on-base percentage), hit with power (342 home runs) during a pitchers’ era, and defended his position with a high degree of skill (five Gold Gloves). Given his all-round brilliance, most objective analysts have called him a logical, perhaps even obvious choice for the Hall of Fame.
We all know the reasons to put Santo in Cooperstown. So let’s look at it from the other perspective. What is keeping him out of the Hall of Fame? Why has Santo been denied entrance to Cooperstown since his first year of eligibility in 1979, some 32 years ago?
Based on research and interviews I’ve done over the years, several factors may be at work here. Let’s consider the following theories. These five factors might all be playing a role. Perhaps they can help us solve the mystery of why Santo has never been able to gain the 75 per cent consensus needed to win election to the Hall of Fame.
Santo never played a postseason game in his life. Though it has sometimes been cited in Santo’s case, this complaint doesn’t hold much water under logical scrutiny. The lack of postseason exposure can affect a player’s chances of being elected, but it should never be the overriding factor in keeping someone out of the Hall of Fame. Players can control only so much; they cannot make non-contenders into pennant-winners.
It’s a particularly weak argument in Santo’s case, given that so many of his Cubs teams were poor to mediocre during the 1960s. Let’s also remember that three of Santo’s longtime teammates in Chicago—Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins—all made the Hall of Fame despite having the same amount of postseason experience with the Cubs as Santo—zero. Of the three, only Williams appeared in postseason play for another team, and that amounted to three consecutive losses with the Oakland A’s in 1975. So if Banks, Williams and Jenkins won election in spite of their team’s failures, then why not Santo too? Still, the criticism persists.
Santo lacked a “signature” to his game. This may be a bigger factor than postseason inexperience. Let’s look at some of the third basemen in the Hall. Brooks Robinson‘s his signature was his highlight- reel performance in the 1970 World Series against the Reds. Mike Schmidt‘s was his home runs and his power production. For Wade Boggs and George Brett, it was their batting championships and their inclusion in the 3,000-hit club.
In contrast, Santo did not stand out in any one area. His lifetime batting average of .277 was nothing spectacular. He did not hit 500 home runs or win nearly as many Gold Gloves as Robinson. Santo’s ability to draw 90 to 95 walks a season, along with his nearly 1-to-1 ratio of walks to strikeouts, has not resonated with the old-line voters. The writers want players to have some kind of sexiness to their careers, and they feel that has been missing with Santo.
Santo was a product of Wrigley Field. Some of Santo’s critics have pointed to a disparity between his home and road offensive numbers. Of his 342 home runs, 216 came at home, only 126 in road ballparks. He slugged .522 at home and .406 on the road. While the contrast is rather startling, it does not necessarily put Santo in a bad light compared to other Hall of Famers. Hank Greenberg, Mel Ott and Frank Robinson, among others, also had large power production disparities in their home/road splits.
Frankly, this criticism of Santo strikes me as nitpicking. It also should be counterbalanced against the context of the mid-to-late 1960s, an era that was dominated by pitching and not hitting. The bottom line is this: The totality of a player’s career should matter more than fractional splits.
Santo angered some of his teammates. Beyond statistics, Hall of Fame voters love story lines that involve clubhouse dynamics. Santo’s intense personality resulted in conflicts with some of his Cubs teammates. He simply hated to lose, a quality that led to a few postgame pop-offs with the press. After Don Young, an inexperienced center fielder, made two errors in a July 1969 loss to the Mets, Santo criticized his teammate through the media. According to some, Santo’s biting comments destroyed Young’s confidence, thereby stunting his development.
Santo also had two severe personality clashes with teammates, one that was famous and the other more obscure. The lesser-known squabble involved Rico Carty, who played for the Cubs briefly in 1973. Terming Santo a selfish player who had little interest in team goals, Carty predicted the Cubs would never win a division title or league pennant until they rid themselves of their longtime third baseman. And then, after being traded to the cross-town White Sox, Santo locked horns with Dick Allen. Santo criticized Allen for being lazy; Allen responded by calling Santo egotistical and presumptuous. Safe to say, it was a stormy season on the south side of Chicago in 1974.
Santo was a hot dog and a showboat. This might be the biggest factor working against Santo’s election. During the 1969 season, Santo jumped into the air and clicked his heels after a number of Cubs victories. He started the ritual on June 22, after Jim Hickman hit a walkoff home run to beat the expansion Montreal Expos. Santo jumped into the air three times, clicking his heels on each occasion. The next day, Leo Durocher asked Santo to click his heels after every home victory at Wrigley Field. Santo did so through early September, when the Cubs fell from first place.
This habit became a point of contention with some members of the media and Cubs opponents, particularly the rival Mets. During the 1960s and early ’70s, players were expected to conduct themselves in businesslike fashion, even after wins. There were no bunny hops after walkoff home runs, no shaving cream pies thrown into the face of that day’s hero. Santo’s “heel clicks” might have been considered acceptable in today’s flashier game, but not in 1969. In some ways, Santo never really lived down those heel clicks, especially after the Cubs collapsed in August and September and eventually lost the pennant to the Mets.
Taken in total, these five reasons might help to explain why Santo remains on the outside of the Hall of Fame. But when looked at individually, these reasons strike me as relatively insignificant, and in some cases petty. None of them seem like completely legitimate reasons to keep one of the 10 best third basemen of all time out of Cooperstown.
On Dec. 5, the voters will have a chance to put those issues aside, and make Ron Santo the newest member of the Hall of Fame.