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Posted at 10:05 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Thoughts on Santo, Palmeiro and the HOF

By Dave Sheinin

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.

By Dave Sheinin  | December 3, 2010; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  Astros  
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Comments

I certainly agree that Santo was a great player and should be in the HOF.

But was he do much more dominant in the period and at 3B than another non-HOFer, Ken Boyer.

Both won 5 Golden Gloves.

Boyer was NL MVP in 1964.

BA --Boyer higher, .287 to .277
HR Santo 342, Boyer 282
RBI Santo 1331 Boyer 1141
OBP Santo .362 Boyer .349

And finally, Boyer hit the grand slam that helped the Cards win the 64 WS

Both great ball players, and both very fine individuals.

Posted by: robweisberg | December 3, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

The fact that you have to defend an obvious position is a major problem with the HOF. Somewhere, inclusion became less about whether you were one of the top players at your position in your era to who had the best career statistics. With changes in baseball across the decades, comparing statistics in one era to another (which is what looking at career statistics implicitly does) is ridiculous. Of course the HOF should be about who was the best at their position at the time they were playing! Nice article!

Posted by: Dougmacintyre | December 3, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

With newspapers dying off, and writers at prominent papers prohibited from voting, how is voting for these awards going to be handled in the not-too-distant future? The voting pool seems to be shrinking rapidly, and that can't be a good thing.

Posted by: Cosmo06 | December 3, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Cosmo06, that is one damn good question. Perhaps the HOF ballots should be sent to players whose careers overlapped those of the HOF candidates by at least 5 years. Let the players, current or retired, determine who has been the best of the best.

Posted by: angelos_peter | December 3, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree with letting players vote because I think they'd let in way too many fringe candidates when the HOF should truly be the best of the best. I don't have a solution though, and it is a really good question.

We're entering a media era where bloggers and web journalists are gaining influence and the old guard of print journalists are losing it. That could be a very dangerous trend when it comes to award/HOF voting in any sport.

Posted by: JS26121820 | December 3, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, all you voters need to cycle onto some steroids for awhile so that you can gain some perspective on the steroid era.

You are simply not qualified to vote for players from the steroid era. As much as steroids changed the sport, it diminished your ability to identify real talent in the era. You know it's true.

did you ever see Rafi swing a bat? Not as good as Jim Thome or Frank Thomas, gimme a break. You are analyzing them from a steroid era point of view, as if steroids make all players equal. Aren't you able to see that, steroid or no steroids, some players actually have talent, e.g. Ken Griffey Jr, and Rafael Palmeiro. Or are you afraid to open that can of worms?

I realize it is hard to do that analysis. But it is also an honor. So do it or give up the honor.

Posted by: sorenoid | December 3, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Palmeiro's 3,000/500 numbers qualify him, but the steroids keep him out as well as Bonds, McGwire, et al who damaged the game as well as their reps. Ron Santo was a great player and the vet committee will put him in. He worked radio for the Cubs and like those who preceded him in the booth (Harry, Brickhouse...) he was a Cubs fan first and foremost, and that makes it fun...hope we start having fun in DC.

Posted by: FlaNatsFan | December 3, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Exactly the right criteria. I always divided between the National and American Leagues: Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson were the dominant third basemen of their era. To me, the diabetes issue is above and beyond -- doesn't need to be included in the consideration. The only reason that I've figured he isn't in has to do with the number of teammates - Banks, Williams, Jenkins - in the Hall while the team they played for never won. Perhaps they think, about the team captain, even: how great could they be with so many HOFamers and they never won? Sad that Santo died without that recognition, but a lot of love came back his way. The biggest sports hero of my youth has my salute and admiration.

Posted by: GeoffWebb | December 3, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

My criteria has always been that if you have to debate whether a player's a HOFer, then he's not. Neither Santo nor Palmeiro belong in the Hall. It's unfortunate that there are less worthy players who have been enshrined.

Posted by: ShovelPlease | December 3, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

One of the factors that is holding Santo back from the HOF could be the one item of his career that he should be most remembered for.

At a time when the owners were only reluctantly conferring improved benefits on the players through the MLBPA that the owners were desperately trying to stamp out, Santo courageously became the first player under the new 10 and 5 rule to veto a trade, invoking a right conferred upon the players following the 1972 strike. I have heard nothing about this important aspect of his career throughout all the tributes given today.

There is still institution animosity on the part of the baseball establishment, in particular those who control the access to the HOF, against players who took an anti-establishment stace against the owners (Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, to name two). I think it could be argued that Santo suffered the same prejudice.

Posted by: lgm6986 | December 3, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

In those years, the Cubs were Santo, Banks, and Williams and they were pretty much equals in that lineup, which says something to me about HOF credentials. The three have always belonged in the HOF together. At 3B back then, there were three superb players to compare to Santo: only Brooks Robinson was a better fielder; only Matthews was a superior slugger; and Ken Boyer was "almost as good" as Santo all-around.

Posted by: pjro | December 4, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

As a lifetime Chicagoan, I have always found it astonishing that Ron Santo (to date) has been denied entry into the HOF. Even IF, the only considerations are the stats, Santo has always been a very deserving candidate for induction. What’s astonishing though, is that Ron Santo was not only one of the best third basemen in history; Ron Santo was a great man.

On performance enhancing drugs… Sure, put Santo in that class too. Except for his performance enhancer was called insulin! Which started taking at 18 years of age after being informed that he may not live past the age of 25. That came out many years later, as he feared that such an admission might get him denied to play the game.

I suppose it’s too much to ask that anyone having to sort through a ballot spend more than a short moment considering a player’s character, especially his performance in the face of such adversity.

His passions for life, the game, his team, and his community, make Santo a no-brainer for the HOF.

God Bless, Ron Santo

Posted by: TMHChicago | December 4, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Great blog post.

I think that Ron Santo clearly stacks up with the other HOF Third Baseman. And you don't have to get all crazy with WAR or OPS+ type stats to prove that (not that I have a problem with those stats).

If you look at Santo's basic stats you will see that he more than measures up.
Here is just a few examples.

Of the twelve HOF third baseman you can't include Paul Molitor who was primarily a DH. Not that his inclusion would really skew the results.

In total home runs, Santo would rank third out of 12 behind Schmidt and Matthews. Slugging percentage - 4th. OBP - 6th, RBI - 5th, Runs - 6th, Batting Average - 8th. Those are pretty basic stats which show that Santo ranks quite high on the list when compared with other HOF Third Baseman. Nothing that would blur anyone's eyes or strain anyone's brain. As far as fielding stats, his skills are also on par with every one else on that list. Quite simple. A no brainer.

You are right too, Santo was the dominant NL Third baseman for many years in the '60's. He was up there with Brooks Robinson and another should-be HOF candidate, Kenny Boyer.

BTW, I am not a Cubbie fan and was not a fervent fan of Santo's until I grew to admire him as an adult. As a kid, I grew up rooting for the Pirates. I can tell you that Santo was a major thorn in our side when he came to town with Banks and company and often cost us some important games. Santo could beat you with his bat or glove.We hated/respected Santo as a tough opposing player who could do you some major damage.

I've heard some people say that Santo being on a team that never won a pennant hurt his chances for the HOF. If that is so, it all the more sad that character doesn't count as much as being on a winner. I guess if fate had brought Ronny to the Yanks, he'd have been a HOF shoe-in. Pretty limited vishion I'd say on the part of writers and the vets committee.

Thanks Dave for having your eyes, mind and heart wide open to what really amounts to a Hall of Famer.

Posted by: alvy5521 | December 5, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Sheinin,

This is your quote "I'm simply not as impressed by longevity as I am by sheer greatness." So tell me, are you referring to Cal Ripken? In 2007, 537 out of 545 voted for Ripken into the HOF. Were you one of the eight to not vote for Ripken? You better be because if you aren't then you're a damn hypocrite. Ripken was not great by any measurement; he simply went to work every day and set a record for it, and perhaps, just perhaps, hurt his team by playing hurt when he should have been recuperating. So, Sheinin, just asking: did you vote for Ripken?

Posted by: getitritegov | December 10, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

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