When someone successful and beloved dies there’s a natural tendency to perhaps overstate their greatness and at first glance it may seem as though people are doing that today in touting Ron Santo’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame after the longtime Cubs third baseman and announcer passed away yesterday.
However, in Santo’s case amplifying his greatness is completely justified and unfortunately serves as a reminder that the Hall of Fame voters have erred in leaving him out of Cooperstown for so long.
There are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any other position. There are several plausible explanations for that fact, but chief among them is that no one seems quite sure how to evaluate their performance.
Offensively they’re often lumped in with first basemen and corner outfielders, which short changes third basemen because they play a far more difficult and less offense-driven position. Yet at the same time third basemen rarely receive the type of defensive accolades reserved for middle infielders, center fielders, and catchers. They are usually caught in the middle, which underrates them on both sides of the ball.
Santo’s career has seemingly been viewed that way. His hitting stats can’t quite compete with contemporary slugging first basemen and corner outfielders like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, and Willie McCovey, yet among third basemen in the 1960s and 1970s only Eddie Mathews topped Santo’s production. And while Hall of Fame cases for players at up-the-middle positions are often based largely on defensive reputations, Santo’s five Gold Glove awards are treated almost like an afterthought.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s only 10 players accumulated more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Santo: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson. That’s nine Hall of Famers and the all-time hit king, and two more Hall of Famers (Rod Carew and Willie McCovey) are right behind Santo in the rankings.
Among all the players in baseball history to start at least half their games at third base, Santo ranks seventh all time in Wins Above Replacement behind Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones, and Brooks Robinson. That’s five Hall of Famers and one future Hall of Famer, yet as the No. 7 guy Santo failed to garner even 50 percent of the votes in 15 years on the ballot and died as a non-Hall of Famer four decades after retiring.
Unfortunate as that is, don’t let it keep you from knowing that Ron Santo has always been deserving of a spot in Cooperstown as a nine-time All-Star, one of the best all-around players of the 1960s and 1970s, and one of the 10 greatest third basemen of all time.