Ron Santo Hall of Famer At Last

More than three decades after he retired from baseball, the late Ron Santo was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Monday, the game finally showering him with the kind of love he always held in his heart for it. Somewhere Santo is smiling–and wishing that this honor had come his way before he died.

The long-time Chicago Cubs third baseman received 93.8 percent of the vote from the Golden Era Veterans Committee when 75 percent approval was needed for selection. None of the other nine candidates on the ballot came close to election. One thing Santo would take from this vote, just like the horde of candidates seeking the 2012 Republication presidential nomination, is the capriciousness of the electorate.

Three times this decade Santo previously appeared on the Veterans Committee ballot and the best he could muster, once, was 73 percent of the vote. This time the voters got it right. Indeed, in our own Fansided baseball writers mock vote we precisely mirrored what happened. We also had Santo as the only inductee and no one else close to selection.

The highest other finishers in the voting were Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso, none with more than 10 votes. Twelve were needed for election. Others on the ballot were Tony Oliva, Ken Boyer, Allie Reynolds, Luis Tiant, and executives Buzzie Bavasi and Charlie Finley.

Santo could sympathize with those players who came close. Like the others he passed through a 15-year cycle of original eligibility, never accepted by the Baseball Writers Association. In Chicago, the ups and downs of Santo being considered by the Veterans Committee became a very public, emotionally wrenching process. As a 21-year Cubs broadcaster, Santo was renowned for the way he rode the team’s highs and lows with his own open-to-the-world feelings. Likewise with the periodic Hall votes. Only the roles were reversed. The fans surfed these waves of emotion with him.

Statistically, Santo always seemed to belong in the Hall. He was equal parts great fielder and reliable hitter during his 15-year playing career from 1960 to 1975 (14 with the Cubs). Santo won five Gold Gloves and led the National League in assists at his position every year from 1962 to 1968. He batted .277 lifetime with 342 home runs and 1,331 RBIs, and was a nine-time All-Star.

Along with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins he was a cornerstone of some of the Cubs’ most memorable teams. Yet even that quartet–all four Hall of Famers now–could not carry the Cubs into a World Series. This year Williams was one of the 16 selectors who voted Santo in. However, a couple of years ago, so was Jenkins and his lobbying could not sway the committee as a whole to officially recognize Santo as deserving.

In recent years there was a growing urgency among Santo’s supporters to see him gain Hall admittance because of his increasingly fragile health. For almost his entire playing career, and many years afterwards, it was a closely guarded secret that Santo suffered from insulin dependent diabetes. He quietly, even furtively, gave himself insulin shots, doing his best to keep his illness hidden even from his road roommates. He feared team management would question his capability if it learned about his battle with the the disease and he might get cut. Much later, Santo endured operations that amputated parts of both legs as consequences of his diabetic affliction.

The world of 2011 is a more understanding place about such matters and medical issues are much more casually discussed and treated so we don’t think of sports teams as being so callous now. Later, Santo applied his Chicago celebrityhood to not only becoming the area’s most famous resident coping with the illness, but also fighting it. Regionally, Santo became the face of research efforts on Juvenile Diabetes through an annual run he backed that raised an estimated $40 million for the cause during his lifetime.

After Monday’s vote, Williams said that the panel did discuss Santo’s off-field contributions to the world. In theory, only his baseball credentials were supposed to be at issue. But how can you separate the man from the numbers? Would O.J. Simpson be elected to a football hall of fame now? Don’t we view Jimmy Carter quite differently now hearing the phrase “our greatest ex-president” than we did when Ronald Reagan made him a one-term president?

Clearly, Santo benefited from what he did with his life beyond the field and that seems appropriate. It seems difficult to explain why he did not make the Hall of Fame long before. So be it if off-field endeavors contributed to making it difficult to explain why he makes the Hall of Fame now.  These votes are in the eye of the beholder, so whatever sways an individual weighing candidates just makes up the whole of the reason for a yea or nay vote.

Santo did not live to witness his selection and he cannot be at his induction next July 22, so it is a bittersweet moment for family members. Santo died Dec. 3, 2010, almost exactly a year ago, and the cause was announced as bladder cancer and pneumonia combined. He was 70 and despite all of his health obstacles faced as a player and a broadcaster Santo squeezed every joyous minute out of baseball that he was able.

No one would have enjoyed this moment more than Ron Santo, and it is a shame he is not with us to share it, but being chosen for the Hall of Fame only burnishes his legacy.

Topics: Allie Reynolds, Billy Williams, Buzzie Bavasi, Charlie Finley, Chicago Cubs, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Gil Hodges, Hall Of Fame, Jim Kaat, Ken Boyer, Luis Tiant, Minnie Minoso, Ron Santo, Tony Oliva, Veterans Committee

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