He was a beloved figure in Chicago since his playing days in the 60’s, especially after he became a broadcaster for the Cubs and was made into a part of legend, part of the Wrigley experience. He did loads of charity work, especially for juvenile diabetes, a disease he battled his entire adult life, losing his feet in the process. Very few athletes become as loved as this player and the tributes pouring in are testament to lives he touched during his 50 years in Chicago. And yet while all of the praise is being heaped upon his memory, about his character and kindness I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Considering the pull such a player usually has on HOF voters, one would think he’d be a shoo-in. Talk of his fire, competitiveness and grit are legendary in Chicago, however none of it swayed the BBWAA to give him a seat in Cooperstown. It begs the question, why? Ordinarily a player of his ability who didn’t gain election was despised by the press, but everyone in the press is falling over themselves to praise this player. The saving grace of player snubbed by the writers was usually the Veterans Committee. Especially when the committee changed its membership to all living Hall of Famers, many thought surely this was his time to get in. Again the same qualities that sway the old guard seem to have even more of an effect on his former peers, those men like Joe Morgan who look down on statistics and metrics and insist they don’t need such things to measure a player’s ability. Surely, these men would make up for the error of the writers, who never played the game, and elect this Old Cub to the Hall of Fame. Alas, it was not to be, at least in his lifetime. Again it begs the question, why? What was it about him that made his former adversaries, even some of his friends, deny him entry?
Rumors have swirled to answer some of these questions. The hard-nosed attitude, the heel-clicking and later the homerism he never hid rubbed many people the wrong way. While people in Chicago said the heel-clicking and unprofessional style on the radio was part of his charm one former player was rumored to say, “The clicking was only one thing that bothered a lot of us.” What more was there? Was he a modern era Ty Cobb? Did he play dirty? Some whispers have come out in recent years that his not-so-subtle campaign to gain entry into the Hall was out of line. Some even have gone so far as to say that he purposefully milked public sympathy in an attempt to sway the voting. But surely it has to be more than that, doesn’t it?
Perhaps this is the wrong time to ask such questions? Perhaps I’m being heartless asking hard questions so close to his death. However, it’s because of the outpouring of love, respect and admiration for this man that makes me wonder about these questions even more. The disconnect is so glaring that it feels like a wrong note being struck repeatedly during an otherwise flawless orchestra
I thought for certain when I began asking these questions that ultimately, like in so many similar cases, the numbers would bear out the justice of his non-election. While the questions of what he was really like as a player may never be answered, the numbers would be the cold arbiter of the truth. Unfortunately, they only muddled the picture further. According to none other than the august Bill James, he was the sixth best third baseman ever. And if James is not your thing, compared to others at his position, including the 11 Hall of Fame third basemen, he ranks ahead of most of them. His isn’t a case of being on par with the lowest common denominator, but a very solid player by all counts. During most of his career he was the best third baseman in the National League and a strong argument could be made that he was the better of Brooks Robinson, de facto the greatest third baseman of all time, in many ways especially with his bat. Another blogger also brought up that he was a good hitter in possibly the worst era to be a hitter since the dead-ball era. So the numbers, which seemingly add to his case, only bring up more questions.
Some have remarked that he is being punished for the lack of success his team had. The belief is that 3 Hall of Famers from that team is enough and he just didn’t quite measure up. While the debate about the ‘69 Cubs is for another blog post it seems unbelievably unfair to keep him out of the Hall based on an arbitrary limit on the number of players from one team.
I know a lot of Cubs fans and I don’t doubt the affection they had for him nor do I doubt all of the good work he did around the city, especially for kids. Yet the lionization of Ron Santo has been going on for a long time, reaching a fever pitch this week, but it only leaves me with more questions.