Truth be told, Ron Santo should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown decades before he finally got the honor in 2012.
At the time he retired, he was probably one of the top five third basemen in MLB history, perhaps even the top three. Of players who were retired (or near retirement) in 1974, when Santo hung it up, only Eddie Mathews and Brooks Robinson posted more bWAR than Ron did.
There are three primary reasons Santo wasn’t seen as the peer of those men. The first was the relative brevity of his career, which largely happened due to his battle with juvenile diabetes. Even so, at the time of his retirement only one third baseman (Mathews) had hit more home runs. Another was his failure to ever play in the postseason, which largely wasn’t his fault. But the biggest reason is likely that he hadn’t made many friends among the BBWAA writers who voted for the Hall. That shouldn’t happen, but especially five decades ago, it did. (Writer dislike was probably the reason Ted Williams didn’t win the A.L. MVP award in 1949, for example.) Santo received only four percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 1980. That would never happen to a player of Santo’s credentials today. Even today, Ron is probably one of the 10 best third basemen in baseball history.
Santo was a nine-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves in addition to his batting prowess, and his numbers look even better when you realize they were posted in a pitching-dominated era. From 1963-68 — the pitcher era when the mound had been raised to 15 inches — Santo hit .292/.379/.504 and averaged 30 home runs and 85 walks per season. Those numbers look good today; imagine what he could have done with a lower mound.
Anyway, Santo and a number of other players were restored to the ballot in 1985 when it was noted that he and a number of “overlooked” candidates should get a second look. His vote total did increase, but when he finally fell off the ballot in 1998, he had peaked at 43 percent of the vote.
Enter WGN radio and later, Pat Hughes. Santo took the job as color analyst in 1990, and at the time he came right out and said he hoped it would help his Hall candidacy. 16 years past his playing career, many had forgotten how good he was. Six years later, Hughes took over as radio play-by-play man and he and Ron became fast friends. The “Pat & Ron Show” became must-listen for Cubs fans. Santo was never much of a game analyst; instead, his die-hard Cubs fan persona became beloved by WGN radio listeners, and Hughes knew exactly how to gently guide Ron into great radio conversation.
Santo got back in the Hall conversation in Veterans Committee votes in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, but fell short each time. It really got to be almost ridiculous and this wound up getting the Hall to change its voting procedures for “veterans” to the system we have today. Santo would be next on the ballot in 2011, and it seemed he would be in line to be inducted.
Sadly, he passed away December 2, 2010. Hard to believe it’s been nine years since Ron died.
And of course, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in the 2011 vote and scheduled to be inducted alongside longtime Reds shortstop Barry Larkin.
Ron’s widow Vicki delivered a moving speech in Ron’s honor in Cooperstown July 22, 2012. If you missed it then — and even if you did see it — it’s worth watching:
Reportedly, that speech was at least partly written by the Daily Herald’s Barry Rozner. Regardless, it was delivered with class and love by Vicki Santo.
Ron Santo is beloved by generations of Cubs fans, by those who remember his 14 great seasons on the North Side, and by younger fans who only knew him as a voice of the Cubs on radio for 21 years.
The photo at the top of this post is from the ceremony where the Cubs retired his number at Wrigley Field September 28, 2003. In that ceremony, Ron said, “This flag hanging down the left-field line means more to me than the Hall of Fame. That is my Hall of Fame.” Here’s video:
He didn’t really mean all of that, I don’t think, he very much wanted the honor in Cooperstown and it’s sad he didn’t make it to celebrate in person. But he will be remembered forever on the North Side of Chicago.
You know, it’s funny. That last day of the 2003 regular season was raw, cloudy and windy and I believe it even rained a bit during the game, a 3-2 loss to the Pirates. But as you can see in the video, the sun was shining brightly during the ceremony. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.