Full Count: Ron Santo’s Bid for the Hall of Fame

EDITOR’S NOTE: A year after his death, Ron Santo was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on December 5th, 2011. This story appeared in our November 2002 issue.

Most men never realize that they are dead. Their hearts stop or their brains stop, and that’s it-they’re gone. Not Ron Santo. When he died, he knew it.

It happened last year after Santo, the onetime Cubs third baseman and the team’s radio color commentator since 1990, had undergone the latest of eight operations to save his leg from the ravages of diabetes. Recovering in his room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, he went into cardiac arrest. People scurried. Someone yelled, “Code blue!”

“I was aware of everything that happened and everything around me,” Santo says. “I knew my heart was stopping. I heard someone say, ‘He’s flat!’ I had no pain. I didn’t panic. It was a very calm feeling. I experienced death.”

Doctors revived Santo. When he awoke, he saw his wife, who told him that he’d made it.

Those who have had a close brush with mortality often view the world differently afterward, and Santo is no exception. Niggling annoyances don’t bother him anymore, he says. The unconditional love of his family astounds him. Fans who cheer as he limps into the broadcast booth (he has since lost his leg) touch him. Simple things, like his horse’s nostrils or the feel of a good golf swing or his grandson’s face, move him deeply.

But one thing hasn’t changed in Santo’s outlook, and it’s the oddest thing, because the subject goes to immortality itself. Baseball’s Hall of Fame, a place where America’s heroes live forever, still won’t have Santo. And even though the man thinks differently about everything else now, even though his heart stopped beating last year, not a whit has changed in that heart about the Hall of Fame.

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It is quite possible that Ron Santo is the greatest eligible major league baseball player not in the Hall of Fame. (Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, inarguable Hall of Famers, are not eligible for induction.) In 15 major league seasons (14 with the Cubs, one with the White Sox), Santo hit 342 home runs, drove in 1,331 runs, and won five consecutive Gold Gloves. He posted a lifetime .277 batting average and made the National League All-Star team nine times. All the while, he suffered from type 1 diabetes, a disease that sometimes forced him to the clubhouse between innings for a Snickers bar before returning to battle the likes of Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, pitchers whose fastballs could break the will of a hitter.

Santo first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1979, five years after he had retired from baseball. He never won the necessary 75 percent of baseball writers’ votes required for induction. Strangely, it is near impossible to find voters, or baseball experts, who think Santo does not deserve the honor. “You talk to people who played with him, to broadcasters, to coaches, and the opinion I get from most of them is that he deserves to be in,” says Paul Hagen, the national baseball writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. “I don’t know why he’s come up short.”

“He surely should be in the Hall of Fame,” says Barry Codell, a Chicago baseball statistician and creator of several innovative statistics for the sport. “It was incumbent upon the baseball writers to put him in and they blew it. He should have been a first-ballot choice, an obvious choice.”

In making the case for Santo, Codell points to aspects of a career most writers never consider. He notes, for example, that while Santo was slow afoot, he once led the league in triples, “indicative of his all-out style of play.” He remembers Santo as a “great” walker who could coax ball four from the best control pitchers, and a fiercely competitive player. And he invokes Santo’s effect on the Cubs: Since Santo left the team, almost 30 years ago, the Cubs haven’t had consecutive winning seasons. (They had six of them with Santo, from 1967 to 1972.) Before Santo arrived, in 1960, the Cubs hadn’t posted a winning record in 13 seasons.

Codell thinks Santo has been overlooked for a few reasons. First, while he was a great fielder, he was less spectacular in execution than his contemporary Brooks Robinson, the Orioles Hall of Famer. (Offensively, though, Santo trumps Robinson: He hit for a higher average, .277 versus .267, slammed more home runs, 342 versus 268, and knocked in about the same number of runs, 1,331 versus 1,357, all in a career eight years shorter than Robinson’s.) Second, baseball writers already have voted in three of Santo’s teammates-Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins-"and they might be reticent to vote for a fourth from a Cubs team that never got closer to winning the division than eight games out.” Finally, Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Robinson “were the third basemen of the era in terms of publicity.”

“Sometimes an era gets a guy in, like [Cubs second baseman] Johnny Evers in his limited era,” Codell says. “But Santo’s impact has stood up over time.”

* * *

Santo first confronted mortality at age 18, the days when most men anoint themselves indestructible. Just months before his rookie bow with the Cubs, he was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic.

“I went to the library and read that my life expectancy was only 25 more years,” Santo recalls. “I was devastated. I’m thinking, I’m going to die at 43. I just hoped I’d live to 50. But it made me decide that I was going to play in the big leagues with this disease. I decided I was going to do it.”

For decades, Santo largely outran the diabetes. Lately, the disease has gained on him. In the past few years, he underwent a quadruple bypass and eight operations on his right foot. In December 2001, doctors amputated the lower third of his right leg.

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DURING A RAIN DELAY at Wrigley field, Santo speaks passionately in the broadcast booth on how mortality alters a person’s perception of the world. “I have more fun and enjoy life more,” he says. “I don’t get as mad as I used to. The little things don’t get to me.” He talks about his family and about fresh air and the tiny pleasures that glow in the aftermath of a dance with death. “There are a lot of things you think are important that you realize are not so important after you come so close to dying.”

Which brings the discussion to the Hall of Fame. If Santo sees the world differently since he stared at death, if his fundamental values have been reassessed, he must feel differently about Cooperstown, too. He must want it more because he is 62 and the diabetes still stalks him. Or he must want it less because such honors pale next to a second chance to attend a grandson’s birthday party. Not so, Santo says. There is one thing about which he thinks exactly the same today as he did before he went code blue. And that is baseball’s pantheon.

“There is nothing I want more than to be in the Hall of Fame,” Santo says. “I wanted it before the surgeries, and I want it now, in just the same way. I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s not just that I want to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s that I think I deserve to be there. I accomplished something. It’s that part, about deserving to be there, that has stayed with me through all of this.

“Maybe the idea of dying has affected how I think of the Hall of Fame in a different way,” Santo continues. “It’s difficult to say, in a way. The last thing I want is to die and then be put into the Hall of Fame. It’s not because I won’t be there to enjoy it, exactly. It’s because I want to enjoy it with family and friends and fans. I want to see them enjoy it.”

* * *

Santo might get his wish. This year, the Hall of Fame board of directors rewrote its rules for election. Now players like Santo, who had been dropped from ballots after years of failing to achieve the requisite votes, will be considered by a panel that includes historians, veteran writers, and all 58 living members of the Hall of Fame-in other words, people who saw him play. Earlier this year, a group of 1,400 such players was narrowed to 200, including Dick Allen, Bobby Bonds, Roger Maris, and Santo. This fall, that list will be further narrowed to 25. Final votes will be cast in early 2003. Those players receiving 75 percent of the vote will make it. Many consider Santo to be a front-runner for induction under the new plan.

For his part, Santo waits hopefully. He speaks of his desire for induction with the same unselfconscious immediacy with which he roots for the Cubs on the radio. “Someone asked me if it will take the loss of my leg to get into the Hall,” Santo says. “The answer is, I don’t care what it takes. I want it very much.”

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