Ron Santo was of that rare ilk that you had to acknowledge his shortcomings in order to recognize his greatness. Most great athletes are self-evident—Jordan, Gretzky. Not Santo, certainly not in his later career as a baseball announcer, which is how most fans knew him when he died Thursday at the age of 70.
As a baseball analyst on the Cubs’ radio broadcasts, Santo offered little analysis. He lost track of outs, misread pitches, and generally echoed the points made by play-by-play man Pat Hughes. Santo would have more accurately been described as a color man, and the color was always Cubbie blue. He was an unabashed rooter for his longtime team, but because of that he served as an evocative on-air barometer. Tune in the Cubs, and within moments you knew how they were doing by Santo’s demeanor. His cries of “Yes!” and “All right!” were infectious, his moans of disgust and disappointment full of pathos. In this, he served the same role Dick Butkus served in the Bears’ old three-man radio booth. Santo’s “Oh no!” when Brant Brown dropped a fly ball in a key late-September game in Milwaukee in 1998 remains as much a part of Chicago’s sports history as Butkus’s “He’s open!” when William “Refrigerator” Perry slipped out of the backfield for a pass during the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl campaign. Just as the Bears’ Wayne Larrivee and Hub Arkush covered the “normal” call in their play-by-play, allowing Butkus to provide emotional texture, Hughes carried the water, and more, in the Cubs’ broadcasts. Not only did he provide the play-by-play, verbal pictures, and occasional analysis, he also played the George Burns straight man to set up Santo’s ditsy non sequiturs, making Santo seem funny even when he wasn’t trying to be.
For this daft-uncle quality, Cubs fans loved Santo, but everyone else disdained him for the same reason: Santo epitomized what made the Cubs the Cubs, their cheap sentimentality and loser mentality—not to mention his involvement in the Cubs’ storied 1969 collapse. His broadcast career kept him in the spotlight, but probably weighed down his long and very open campaign to be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. This did not sound like a self-confident and self-assertive Hall of Famer, along the lines of Joe Morgan (as unlistenable as that blowhard could be).
Although Santo had a long and very successful playing career after joining the Cubs in 1960 at the prodigious age of 20, the last of those years didn’t help either. The diabetes he played through in the 60s caught up with him in the 70s, and his decay was rapid, especially after he was traded to the White Sox in 1974. My Daily Herald colleague Mike Imrem once boasted in a column of not voting for Santo on his last opportunity to do so; he argued that Santo never seemed a Hall of Famer to him, that he was prone to slumps, sulks, and grounding into double plays. Imrem never saw Santo in his prime, however, and never went back to examine the record he left behind in those years.
“There was nothing subtle about Ron Santo,” the Cubs’ TV announcer Len Kasper quoted a friend in mourning Santo on the radio on Friday. But Kasper and his friend are wrong. Santo’s skills as a player were so subtle it took decades—and a new sort of statistical analysis that came to be known as Sabermetrics—to decipher them. Although power, defense, and the ability to draw walks have been valued throughout baseball history, Santo’s offensive stats were diminished because he played in an era of great pitchers—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, and Juan Marichal, to name just a few in the NL—and in stadiums such as the big, dead-air Astrodome and Dodger Stadium, as well as the Mets’ Shea Stadium, with its notoriously poor lighting. His 342 lifetime homers were especially impressive given the era.
When Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, it seemed to reflect a new respect for the base on balls brought on by the research of Sabermetrics founder Bill James. Yet that new-found respect—which had always burnished Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, and would be acknowledged in the makeup of Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas—was never extended to Santo. Plainly put, he walked like a beast, leading the National League four times in bases on balls in the mid-60s, and twice in on-base percentage, another metric James later championed that was never mentioned at the time.
Santo was also a marvelous fielder, skilled at turning the double play, and the equal of Brooks Robinson in the bare-handed fielding of bunts down the third-base line. Fielding stats also improved after his playing days, and the Baseball Encyclopedia, by stats whiz Pete Palmer and co-writer Gary Gillette, has found that Santo led NL third basemen in range seven times. James and the Encyclopedia have tried to put all statistical analysis together in batting-fielding-base-running wins and win shares in recent years, to determine how many wins a player was responsible for over the average in a season. The Encyclopedia has found that Santo led all NL players in wins three times in the mid-60s.
Let me restate that. In an era when Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were still in their prime, Santo was a better overall player in three of those years. In fact, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James ranks Santo ahead of Aaron in win shares every year from 1964 through 1967. James ranked Santo sixth all-time among third basemen, ahead of Robinson at a position that has always been underrepresented in Cooperstown, mainly because voters didn’t understand its critical defensive demands, combined with its traditional emphasis on power as one of the corner slots. In The Politics of Glory, James writes that, if given the power, he’d make Santo the first person he’d place in the Hall of Fame, and in his Historical Abstract he concludes his entry: “Ron Santo towers far above the real standard of the real Hall of Fame.”
Many have fought Santo’s induction by suggesting that, if he were elected to the Hall of Fame, that would give the ’69 Cubs four players in Cooperstown—he’d join Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins—for a team that never really won anything. Yet that’s just the thing, and it’s something their fans take a perverse pride in that Santo was a part of: those Cubs probably were the best baseball team to never win anything.
Santo will no doubt be chosen for the Hall of Fame at the next opportunity, now that the Veterans Committee— which has been restrictive rather than inclusive since Bill Mazeroski was elected—can’t take pleasure in the schadenfreude of his pitiful moaning on not being inducted, but somehow that will make Santo even more of a Cub, a loser who insisted he deserved better and probably did, but who was a great player regardless. His death leaves everyone—the lovers and the haters—to recognize that for the fact it is.