Some guys, when you hear about their death, it makes you feel a little bit older. That’s how I felt when I heard that Ron Santo — one of my first baseball cards — had died last night in Arizona at age 70. He had a rough life, battling diabetes and eventually losing the lower part of his right leg in 2001 to complications from the disease; the cause of death was bladder cancer.
Life after baseball was just a little tougher for Santo (who retired in 1974 after 15 seasons) because he was never voted into the Hall of Fame. As good as he was and as popular as he was, he was kept out, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. Here’s what I wrote in my 2004 book, Brushbacks and Knockdowns, The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries:
“Santo’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame are obvious: He hit 342 home runs in fifteen seasons, drove in eighty or more runs for eleven straight years, led the National League in walks four times, and was voted to nine All-Star teams and won five Gold Gloves at third base. He was unquestionably the NL’s best third baseman all through the 1960s and was perhaps the best all-around player at the position in either league. Yes, that includes Brooks Robinson …
“Put it this way. He was the best hitter and best fielder for a longer period at third base than any player in NL history except Mike Schmidt. Is that enough of an argument?
Anyone old enough how the ’69 Miracle Mets overtook those hapless, snake-bitten Cubs in 1969 will also recall that Santo was about the only Chicago player we didn’t boo. (With the exception, it goes without saying, of Ernie Banks.) I’ll never forget the way he grinned as he fielded foul balls down the third base line and flipped them to us over in the seats – invariably with some wisecrack like, “Oh, great catch. Bring a glove next time” if you dropped it or “Hey, you’re good enough to be wearing a uniform — a Mets uniform!” if we did catch it.
RIP, Ron, and I can promise you the HOF will be getting heckled from my box seat until you’re in.