It should go without saying that the true tragedy is the death of Ron Santo at the age of 70 after a brave and inspirational fight against diabetes and the amputations of both legs it necessitated.
But beyond the mourning of this day, is the shame of this day. The Cubs’ great third baseman is not in the Hall of Fame, and symbolizes that all-too-large group of players ranging from 19th Century stars to Gil Hodges to Buck O’Neil to Dale Murphy who are, by any means, considerably better than a huge percentage of those already in Cooperstown, but who are still excluded due to the enduringly searing reality that the Hall has never gone more than two years without one of its groups of electors screwing something up.
In “his” era, from his debut in June of 1960 through his rump year with the White Sox in 1974, Ron Santo led all major leaguers who didn’t play first base or the outfield with 342 Homers and 1331 RBI. The RBI total is by itself fifth among all players in that fifteen-year stretch. Santo also won five Gold Gloves in just thirteen full seasons as a third baseman, and he did so despite facing the formidable opposition of the brilliant Boyer brothers. Ken was at his peak with the Cardinals when Santo broke in with the Cubs, and as he faded, Clete arrived in Atlanta in 1967 to challenge Santo for four more seasons.
Santo isn’t just qualified for the Hall, he’s a shoo-in at one of the most underrepresented positions in Cooperstown. Yet when he was first eligible on the Writers’ ballot in 1980, he was named on less than four percent of ballots cast. Frankly, the 96 percent who did not vote for him should have been barred from voting for life, so obvious was their ignorance of the game. He dropped off the ballot, but was restored in 1985 in one of the constant corrections of the writers’ laziness and incompetence. These writers eventually achieved a kind of dim understanding, and, by 1998, he was up to 43 percent.
This underscores the fatal flaw of the BBWAA participation in the vote, especially in the days before inter-league play. Something approaching 50 percent of those who voted on Santo, and all his peers, would never have seen him play except on television or at All-Star Games. After 1998, Santo was placed in the tender hands of the Veterans’ Committee, which has only had to be reconstituted three times since then, including late last summer in order to give Marvin Miller and the late George Steinbrenner a chance. Things were shuffled so that the “Expansion Era” will be considered this winter, which naturally leaves Santo out.
The BBWAA system doesn’t work, the Special Negro Leagues Committee didn’t work, and any of the Veterans’ Committees hasn’t worked. It’s time for baseball to take back control of the election process and model it on something the NFL has long done: convene a miniature college of experts to advocate and debate the merits of each candidate and then announce its consensus. The current system, in which voters simply send in their opinions without any indication that they’ve done any research, has all the validity of mailing in box tops from cornflakes.
I mean, seriously: The statistic I quoted above – that between 1960 and 1974 Ron Santo led all major leaguers who didn’t play first base or the outfield with 342 Homers and 1331 RBI – how many people who ever voted for or against him, even knew that?