Thoughts on Santo, Palmeiro and the HOF
I was just getting ready to write a blog post about Rafael Palmeiro and Cooperstown -- my Hall of Fame ballot having arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon, with Palmeiro appearing on it for the first time -- when I heard the news that Ron Santo had died last night at the age of 70.
There were few more colorful characters in baseball, and few people I enjoyed talking to more than Santo. Barely two months ago, I sought him out in the home dugout at Wrigley Field to pick his brain -- which is to say, the brain of the Cubs Fan, because Santo essentially spoke for them every night on TV -- about the team's opening for a new manager. As always, he gave me just what I needed -- in this case, a solid grasp of the notion that the next Cubs manager needed to be someone who understood the northside culture. He had effusive praise for interim manager Mike Quade -- a Chicago-area native and longtime minor-league skipper -- and it was Quade who ultimately got the permanent position.
As I contemplated the loss of this Wrigley Field icon, I realized the example of Santo's playing career helps crystallize my stance on the Hall of Fame. It is an evolving stance, as is that of most voters, as we gain new perspectives, learn new information, become more informed. (Per newspaper policy, I don't actually vote for the HOF, but each year I fill out a ballot that I simply file away.)
My stance, outlined in this space several times before, essentially comes down to a question: Was this particular candidate the dominant player of his era at his position? It is an elitist stance, and I'm comfortable with that. If it were up to me, I'd kick dozens of players out of Cooperstown before I put anyone else in.
And it leads me to this somewhat contrarian conclusion: In my book, Palmeiro is not a Hall of Famer (regardless of whether he used steroids or not), but Santo is. My reasoning is simple: Palmeiro was not even close to being the premier first baseman of his era, while Santo was quite clearly the premier third baseman of his. (Of course, in Santo's case, this argument is too late, as he has long since disappeared from the writers' ballot, with his fate now in the hands of a Veterans Committee that, so far, has not looked kindly upon his career.)
Since his retirement, Palmeiro, for me, has loomed out there as a formidable threat to the foundation of my HOF stance. How can you possibly not vote for one of only four players in history (joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray) with both 500 homers and 3,000 hits? Most voters, of course, will leave him off because of his failed steroids test. For me, that's not as much of a knock as the fact Palmeiro doesn't fulfill my definition of a Hall-of-Famer.
I'm simply not as impressed by longevity as I am by sheer greatness. And Palmeiro doesn't pass my greatness taste-test. He never finished higher than fifth in any MVP vote. He never won a batting title or a home run crown, and never led his league in RBI, on-base percentage or slugging percentage. He was rarely, if ever, the best player on his team. Although he was a good fielder, I largely discount the three Gold Gloves he won because they are awarded largely on reputation. (Quite infamously, he won one of those Gold Gloves, in 1999, for a season in which he played only 28 games at first base.)
More to the point, by my count, among first basemen whose careers overlapped with Palmeiro's by at least 10 years, I would rank him behind at least five: Murray, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas (yes, I realize he was mostly a DH) and Jim Thome. I also note that four other contemporaries -- Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Mo Vaughn and Fred McGriff -- had a higher career OPS than Palmeiro. In short, I see Palmeiro as being a product of his era (the so-called Steroids Era), his hitter-friendly home stadiums (mostly The Ballpark in Arlington and Camden Yards) and his longevity (which may or may not have been aided by performance-enhancing drugs).
I'm not slamming Palmeiro. He was a very good player for a very long time. He just wasn't a transcendent player of his time.
As for Santo, his candidacy faces some of the same problems as Palmeiro's. He never finished higher than fourth in an MVP vote. He was rarely, if ever, the best player on his team. He never won a batting title or a home run crown.
But here's the thing: No matter what method you use, Santo was the dominant third baseman of his era -- or at the very least in the top two. His contemporaries will tell you that. And so will the numbers. In the decade of the 1960s (admittedly an arbitrary period), he hit more homers, drove in more runs, drew more walks and had a higher slugging percentage than any other third baseman -- including Hall-of-Famers Eddie Mathews and Brooks Robinson.
In fact, when you look at career OPS+, which adjusts for the differences in eras and ballparks, Santo ranks seventh all-time among third basemen (min. 5,000 plate appearances) -- and of the six players ahead of him, five (Mike Schmidt, Mathews, George Brett, Home Run Baker and Wade Boggs) are already in the Hall of Fame, and the sixth (Chipper Jones) will be eventually.
And of those third basemen, only Mathews had a career that overlapped significantly with Santo (who was also the superior defensive player) -- which means Santo was either the premier third baseman of his era, or a very close second. And in my estimation, that makes him a Hall-of-Famer.
Rest in peace, Ron.
| December 3, 2010; 10:05 AM ET
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