Fun way to start the morning on Friday. In the few seconds between my alarm clock’s opening blare of radio and my turning it off, a news report announced that long-time Cub announcer Ron Santo had died at age 70 the night before after years of declining health due to a lifelong battle with diabetes.
He was one of the best position players in Cubs history. That sounds like a rather dubious distinction given chronic Cub futility, but he was a legitimate great. In The Politics of Glory, no less an authority than Bill James cited Santo as the player not currently in Cooperstown most deserving of enshrinement.
Santo, earlier this year.
Santo: the broadcaster
That said, if you’ve lived in Chicago over the last 20 years and aren’t old enough to remember things from before the mid-1970s, while you’re certainly aware of Santo’s playing career, you might think of him first as an announcer. After all, that’s how he stayed in the public eye, calling games as color man for the Cubs on WGN radio since 1990.
Santo as broadcaster was an odd thing. On a purely technical level, he may very well be the single worst on-air personality in America. Yet despite that, or in some strange way because of it, he could be downright endearing at times. When listening to Santo with the Cubs, it was a good idea to think of him not as the color man offering penetrating insights, but as the team mascot.
In that role, he served as the voice of the fan, living and dying with the Cubs just like many out there in listener-land. The Cubs could get away with it because they teamed Santo with an excellent play-by-play man in Pat Hughes who shored up Santo’s rather obvious limitations in the broadcast booth. They had a nice Head-and-Heart routine.
This allowed for the signature moment of Ron Santo’s broadcasting career. In late 1998, the Cubs desperately fought for the NL Wild Card, but they weren’t playing particularly well as the season ground to its conclusion. In one apparent must-win game on September 23 in Milwaukee, the Cubs took a 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, when the bullpen began to melt down.
Cutting to the chase, the Cubs narrowly clung to a 7-6 lead in the ninth inning with two outs when Geoff Jenkins bobbed a lazy fly ball to leftfielder Bryant Brown for what looked like the last out of the game. People listening to the game at home or in their cars knew something terrible had happened when they heard Santo’s call. He didn’t describe the ball clanging off Brown’s glove or the three runners scoring to give Milwaukee its improbable 8-7 victory.
Instead Santo let out a memorably emotional cry of “OH NO!” that contained all the anguish and despair many Cubs fans had felt watching the Cubs play for so many decades. It sounded like he had his innards torn from him with that call. Sometimes, it’s better to be the heart than the head in the broadcast booth. Ernie Banks may own the Mr. Cub nickname, but for the last 20 years Ron Santo lived that role.
Between his 14 years on the field and 21 in the booth, he was paid to watch (or be in) more Cub games than anyone else. His only competition is longtime broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, who called “only” 5,060 games for the Cubs.
A key to his appeal as on-air personality is that last word: personality. To make a comparison, Joe Buck is a perfectly competent announcer, but he often comes off like a pompous blowhard who doesn’t even enjoy sports. Santo was a terrible broadcaster, but a very root-for-able one, which helped the fans root for the team while listening to them on the dial.
Santo: the player
That said, he’ll never make or deserve entries into any kind of broadcaster Hall of Fame; he should have been into Cooperstown long ago. He was a tremendous offensive force in his prime with considerable career value. Let’s look at his prime for a second. He hit about 30 homers a year in his prime, which may not sound like much in the modern Silly Ball Era, but in the 1960s New Deadball Era it was a neat trick. Plus Santo did it while hitting at or around .300 most seasons at his peak.
Plus Santo had one little extra offensive edge, though unfortunately for him it was the most underrated aspect of the game during his time: he had a great batting eye. From 1964 to 1968, he led the NL in walks four times while coming in second place the remaining season. He never drew 100 walks in any season, but that was the 1960s for you—a time when pitchers dominated.
While Santo’s hits and homers could (rightfully) be seen as inflated by Wrigley Field, it’s a bit of a stretch to say park factor gave him a great batting eye. Parks can and do influence walks, but it ain’t going to create a league-leader. In fact, the Cubs have had very few men lead the league in walks. Santo is one of only two men to draw over 1,000 walks as a Cub. (The other is fellow third baseman Stan Hack).
Between his walks and his ability to hit .300, Santo was one of the best at getting on base. He twice led the league in OBP and came in the top 10 five other times.
And Santo did it while playing every day. From 1961 to 1969—his first nine full years in MLB—Santo played in all but 15 of the Cubs’ 1,441 games. And he wasn’t just making token appearances, either: twice he manned third base for every inning of the season (1963 and 1965—and the Cubs played 164 games in the latter year).
This isn’t a huge issue, as it gave him only an extra two or three percent edge in quantity over the course of a season. But he had that edge, and over a decade it added up. Anyone who played 150 games a year would be almost 100 games behind Santo for that stretch. Regardless of how old he was upon retirement, Santo left the game in third place all-time in games played at third and is still well within the top 10.
And that edge in quantity allowed Santo to accrue some impressive career numbers despite retiring from baseball at age 34 in 1974. He retired with 342 homers, which ranked 28th all-time when he left the field. His 1,331 RBIs placed him 39th on the leaderboard, and he was 83rd in hits with 2,254.
Obviously, he’s fallen since then with the passage of time, more players in our expanded major leagues, and the unprecedented power numbers of the modern game. But it’s worth looking at how he ranked in 1974 not only to not avoid era bias in things like comparing homers across periods but also because that’s what he could be compared against when he retired. Upshot: Santo not only had a heckuva peak, but his career value placed him among the top few third basemen in the first century of MLB.
That’s just his offensive game. Defensively, people thought enough of his fielding ability to award him five Gold Gloves. He led the league in assists at third base seven straight years and in putouts seven times in eight campaigns. Santo was second all-time in assists at third when he retired, trailing only human vacuum cleaner Brooks Robinson. He’s still fifth-best in that category.
Granted, the more advanced metrics are more mixed on him. Win Shares gives him a B- for his career at third, for instance. But he still had a great defensive prime. Total zone runs ranks him as the best third sacker in the league seven times, and among the top three 11 straight seasons.
Oh, and he did it all despite fighting through Type 1 diabetes. That has nothing to do with whether or not he should go into Cooperstown, but it is damn impressive, especially his iron man playing habits.
Santo: the Cooperstown candidate
Santo’s inability to gain admission has more to do with the process than the merits of his candidacy. First, the BBWAA has never quite known what to do with third basemen. They’ve elected only seven third basemen, fewer than any other part of the defensive alignment. Heck, they’ve elected almost as many relievers: five.
Third base is a curious position. Most positions’ value clearly derives either from the glove or the bat. Shortstops like Rabbit Maranville and Ozzie Smith don’t need much offensive contributions because their defensive ones are so large and widely known. Alternately, it didn’t matter how well Ted Williams could field, not with that bat.
Third base? It’s enough of a glove position so that it takes serious defensive chops to man, meaning its best hitters will rarely be as high and mighty as the game’s overall greatest offensive threats. Alternately, it’s enough of an offensive position that even if someone is a spectacular fielder at the hot corner, he won’t win serious accolades there unless he can hit. It’s the ultimate ‘tweener position.
It’s just easier to elect someone based on One Big Talent than trying to count up the multiple smaller little ones. Thus the BBWAA voters historically discount third basemen.
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that kept Santo out. There were already three Hall of Famers on that Cubs team that made it to the postseason: Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ernie Banks. How can you put four guys from one October-free squad into Cooperstown? Simple: because they deserve it. They weren’t the reason the team didn’t win it all. Besides, Banks was well past his prime by the time the Cubs were good so it wasn’t like all four were in their primes at the same time. Actually, Santo’s prime was in the mid-1960s, just before the Cubs really took flight.
It also didn’t help him that his career average fell down to .277. While he hit around .300 in his prime, he was under .230 at other times. Back in the day, batting average used to be THE stat, too.
Santo personally could rankle. He famously clicked his heels in celebration after Cubs victories back in the day, and many saw that as bush league. He was an emotional, rah-rah leader and that could rub people the wrong way. During the 1969 Cubs meltdown, Santo famously went ballistic on rookie outfielder Don Young for making a game-losing error. Leo Durocher noted in his autobiography that on another occasion Santo had the biggest clubhouse explosion of anyone he ever saw. A friend of mine named Anthony Giacalone studied the 1974 White Sox, for whom Santo played, and made a good case that Santo helped cause a lot of turbulence on that team.
Santo also got some flack in the press during the 1973-74 offseason. Marvin Miller’s players union had just won a new clause in the collective bargaining agreement that all players with 10 years in the majors and five for one team could veto a trade. Santo became the first person to exercise this right when the Cubs tried to move him to California. (The press thus dubbed the clause the “Santo clause”—a pun so brilliantly bad that it’s fitting Santo died around the same time as Leslie Nielsen).
Under normal circumstances, Santo would’ve gone into Cooperstown via the Veterans Committee years ago. His misfortune was to make it to the VC under very abnormal circumstances. Shortly after Santo became VC-eligible, Cooperstown blew up the old VC, and replaced it with the SuperFriends VC in which all living Hall of Fame players and honored broadcasters and writers would have a vote.
The old committee had its faults, but generally it did two things: induct the eligibles with the biggest backing on their behalf, and then induct random guys they thought were worthy. Santo, as a publicly visible broadcaster for a major market team and a good statistical case, would have been a guy with one of the biggest backings, and thus would have gone in.
Unfortunately, the SuperFriends never elected anyone. If you look at their vote totals, the same players always were near the top—Santo, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, and Gil Hodges—but none ever got over the hump. It was too hard to find a consensus from the BBWAA’s rejects. (Also, I’ll note the best nugget from Zac Chaefts’ Cooperstown Confidential: because Hall of Famers can charge more for their autograph once they get elected, they have a personal financial incentive to minimize the number of inductees. It’s more competition for autograph dollars.)
The SuperFriends are no more, and Santo will likely gain his plaque in the next few years, but it’ll feel a little hollow. While it’s nice to finally put him in, it should’ve happened when he was alive. It would be great to imagine the look in Santo’s eye and the sound in his voice upon the news of induction. Now we can only imagine, because he won’t be there for it.
On a bit of a tangent, this demonstrates why Cooperstown’s sins of omission rankle me (and many others) more than sins of commission. Including one person to Cooperstown who doesn’t really deserve induction doesn’t change things that much. People who opposed his candidacy just shake their heads and move along. But denying entry to one person who does belong rankles.
I suppose it’s somehow fitting that a guy who never played in the postseason, who never saw his team make it to the Series through the many years of his retirement, was unable to make it to Cooperstown in his lifetime. It’s cosmically consistent, but I’d rather we had the poetic justice (and just actual justice) of his enshrinement while alive.
Santo, celebrating a half-century since his MLB debut
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com, especially its Play Index, provided the stats about Santo.
Anthony Giacalone gave a presentation about the 1974 White Sox at the 2005 SABR convention in Toronto, in which he went into detail on the role of Santo on that team and its controversies. I also spoke with Giacalone on the phone last Friday for a refresher on his research.
Leo Durocher’s autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last has a chapter titled “The Santo Explosion” on a nasty clubhouse eruption by Santo.
Zac Chafets’ Cooperstown Confidential contains a nice nugget on the SuperFriends era VC noted toward the end of this article.