There is something about the Baseball Hall of Fame -- all Halls of Fame, really -- that people don't really like talking about. Somebody has to the best player not in it. There's no way around this. It can be a big Hall of Fame or a small one. It can be an inclusive Hall of Fame or one as exclusive at Augusta National. Wherever you draw your line of greatness, there are remarkable people left outside.
For many years, Ron Santo's identity was wrapped up in being left outside. He was, simply, the greatest player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is not to say that he was a better baseball player than Dick Allen or Minnie Minoso or Bert Blyleven or Ken Boyer or numerous other terrific players who have not yet been elected and inducted. That is a matter opinion. This is not to say he was a more egregious oversight than any of these players or others. That too is opinion.
What I mean is that Santo carried the title as Greatest Non Hall of Famer. Nobody else really wanted it. Every year, his name came up for the Hall of Fame -- is this finally the year? And every year, he fell short. Fifteen times he was on the Baseball Writers ballot and needed 75% to be elected. He never once got even 50% of the vote. Three times he received the most votes from the Veteran's Committee, but never once got the percentage he needed to qualify for the Hall of Fame. He handled all this with great dignity. In so many ways, it was the story of his career. He had grown used to being under-appreciated.
There are usually easy-to-understand factors that make anyone underrated. There's no mystery about it with Ron Santo. He played baseball in a time when runs were especially hard to come by -- and so his numbers are not jaw-dropping. He played third base, which has long been baseball's vacuum -- when Santo retired in 1974 there were only three third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Many of his skills were subtle -- Santo twice led the National League in on-base percentage and four times led in walks -- and these were not especially appreciated talents during his playing days.
Santo also played for losing teams, year after year after year. He never played in a single postseason game. In 1967, Santo may have been the best player in the NL -- he hit .300 with 31 homers, he walked 96 times, he scored 107 runs, he drove in 98, he won a Gold Glove. The Cubs, in what would turn out to be one of their most successful seasons during Santo's career, finished a mere 14 games back.
He was as solid as oak, the captain of the Cubs, and he put up virtually the same numbers year after year after year. Consistency is boring is underrated. From 1963 to 1970, he ALWAYS hit 25 home runs, and he ALWAYS drove in 94-plus runs, and he ALWAYS played 154 or more games. He won five Gold Gloves in those eight years, and he led third basemen in assists just about every year, and he led the league in sac flies three times, and he was good for 90-plus walks. It is true that he took advantage of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where he did most of his good hitting. Over a career, he hit .296/.383/.522 in Chicago. And he hit .257/.342/.406 outside. He hit 216 of his 342 homers in Chicago. He scored 180 home runs and drove in 155 more RBIs at home.
But it is just as true that he played in a very low-scoring time in a very low-scoring league. Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement takes a pretty good measure of a player's contribution. In the 1960s, in the National League, only Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente had a higher WAR than Ron Santo.
Most Wins Above Replacement, NL (1960-69):
1. Willie Mays, 84.1
2. Hank Aaron, 79.8
3. Roberto Clemente, 59.2
4. Ron Santo, 54.4
5. Willie McCovey, 46.0
6. Eddie Mathews, 42.1
7. Frank Robinson, 38.9
8. Vada Pinson, 38.7
9. Dick Allen, 37.2
10. Orlando Cepeda, 36.7
Now, this might be a bit misleading if you put too much faith into it -- Robinson went to the American League, Dick Allen played 600-plus fewer games, and so on. But I'm not trying to make the point that he was the fourth best player in the NL during the decade but that his value was greater than his good numbers suggest and that whatever Wrigley Field gave, playing in an era of high mounds and high strikes took away. He was very good year after year after year after year.
And there was something else -- Santo was a Type 1 Diabetic. He had no easy way to monitor his blood sugar so according to his son Jeff he learned to do it by his mood. He did not share that he was Diabetic for many years, and he kept his struggle hidden from teammates, and he refused to come out of the lineup. He quietly visited hospitals to talk with children with diabetes. Later, he made his fight against Diabetes a public fight so he could inspire people. There are those who would say that while his quiet (and later public) triumph over diabetes is admirable, it has little to do with his Hall of Fame case.
I suppose it depends on what you believe the Baseball Hall of Fame means.
Santo was so under-appreciated as a player that when he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1980 he received exactly 15 votes. That was not even enough votes to get him on the ballot again in 1981. It was only in 1985 that a minor uproar reinstated him and a few other overlooked talents to the ballot*. This time around, Santo received 53 votes which hardly made him a Hall of Fame threat but did keep him comfortably on the ballot. And that's how it would go for 14 more years -- he never came close to getting into the Hall but he would always stay comfortably on the ballot.
*The reinstated players included Santo, Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, Harvey Haddix, Dave McNally, Ron Fairly (who had received zero votes the year before) and, most remarkably to me, Denny McLain.
Of course, he stayed around the game. He became an enthusiastic Cubs radio broadcaster. He remained a wonderful presence in Chicago. He was beloved. That's the overwhelming feeling Friday after Ron Santo died at the age of 70. He was beloved as few ballplayers are ever beloved. I have little doubt he would have loved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and my own baseball instincts tell me that it should have happened long ago. But when I was around him, when I listened to him, when I once interviewed him about the Hall of Fame, I never heard any disappointment or bitterness. I heard a man who loved the game and loved life.
And I look at this this way: Someone has to be the greatest player to not get into the Hall of Fame. Not everyone could handle that sort of thing. Ron Santo wore it beautifully.