07/20/12 8:33 AM ET
Santo would be clicking his heels into Hall of Fame
Despite frustrations in years of falling short, Cubs legend would be proud and pleased
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
His reaction now, if he could share it, might include a "What took ya?" Chances are, though, Santo would have clicked his heels and expressed pride and gratitude before noting the drain of waiting for decades for what he believed he deserved.
Santo, you see, rarely complained, not about the diabetes that pained him and eventually cost him the lower parts of both legs, not about his other health issues or the plight of the Cubs or high-in-the-sky WGN booth or the feel of April baseball at Wrigley when the off-the-lake winds made conditions colder than Bob Gibson's stare.
He smiled through most of those and other adversities, reacting spontaneously about his own circumstances without regard for the political correctness of his network and generally making those around him happier than they would have been were he absent.
The slights of the Hall of Fame electorates did wear on him, though. He was on the writers' ballots for 15 years and was on five more of various Veterans Committees before he was elected by another body of voters, called the Golden Era Committee, on what was overall the 21st try. More often than not, he concealed the bruises to his ego. But with each failed candidacy in the last 10 years, Santo recoiled, questioned the process and, in a way, disparaged the very institution he hoped would open its doors to him.
His frustration was understandable. "I thought it was going to be harder to deal with, but it wasn't," he said late in 2008. "I'm just kind of fed up with it. I figure, 'Hey, it's not in the cards.' But I don't want to go through this every two years. It's ridiculous. Everybody felt this was my year. I felt it. I thought it was gonna happen, and when it didn't. ... It just doesn't make sense."
His miss in 2008 even prompted him to speak of his induction in the past tense. "It wasn't going to change my life," Santo said.
But of course it would have. Perhaps the elite players -- Musial, Williams, Mays, Ruth, Cobb, Mantle, DiMaggio, Spahn, Aaron, Gibson, Berra, Johnson, Bench, et al -- assumed induction was what routinely followed a playing career. Wait five or six years and step inside. But those who have been forced to wait -- Kiner, Blyleven, Cronin, Niekro, Carter, Rice among the many -- have readily and joyfully acknowledged how induction has altered everyday existence.
"Anywhere you go, you're introduced as a Hall of Famer. And what could be better than that?" Carter said two years after his induction. "It's a very nice reminder that what you did for 15 or 20 years is remembered as something special. And it's nice to wake up and realize your career is part of history."
His consistently insufficient vote percentages in five years on Veterans Committee ballots made his almost unanimous election by the Golden Era Committee quite surprising. The Golden Era Committee, created in 2011, includes Hall of Fame players, baseball executives and veteran baseball reporters. Santo was named on 15 of 16 ballots cast. Twelve votes were necessary for election.
In 2007, when the Veterans Committee included 64 Hall of Famers, Santo was named on 39 ballots, nine fewer than he needed to meet the 75-percent requirement. No other candidate exceeded his percentage.
Induction to the Hall is the one honor that had eluded him. He had been the Cubs captain. The club retired his No. 10 uniform number in 2003 and dedicated a statue of its third baseman last summer. Each was a fitting salute to the player who produced 1,290 of his 1,331 career RBIs and 337 of his career 342 home runs playing on the North Side of Chicago. The balance of his career totals came on the South Side with the White Sox in 1973.
Santo was an above-average defender, winning five Gold Gloves and leading National League third basemen in assists in a seven-year period, 1962-68. And, to be sure, he was an everyday player. His games-played total in the '60s, 1,536, was the third highest in the big leagues.
But his extended and impressive body of work never put him even in the outskirts of Cooperstown before the Golden Era Committee acted in the winter. The road he took to Cooperstown had potholes, curves, detours and seemingly a 20-mph speed limit. Possible reasons for his repeated shortfalls and extended exclusion include:
The presence of three Cubs contemporaries -- Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams -- in the Hall. A fourth player from an era in which a team won no championships might have seemed too much to some voters.
Though statistics may have contradicted the notion, some considered Ken Boyer the premier third baseman in the National League during the first five years of Santo's career. And Santo's best seasons were not comparable to those of Mike Schmidt, a premier slugger who began to make his mark in Santo's final season.
The Wrigley Field issue. The hitter-friendly dimensions of the Friendly Confines may have worked against Santo as the thin air of Denver seemingly has undermined the Hall of Fame candidacy of Larry Walker. Why the candidacies of Banks and Williams weren't similarly affected is an imponderable.
The heel click may have offended some players and voters. After a come-from-behind victory against the Expos at Wrigley in June 1969, Santo headed from the dugout toward the old home clubhouse in the left-field corner. En route, he excitedly jumped three times and clicked his heels with each jump. Cubs manager Leo Durocher encouraged Santo to his antics after every home victory. Santo accommodated, and opponents became irritated -- and motivated. The practiced ended Sept. 2, the Cubs' final day in first place before the Miracle Mets stormed the palace.
At the same time, though, some believe Santo's candidacy was enhanced by his 21-year presence in the WGN booth. His work kept his name current, as had been the case with fellow players-turned-announcers who have been inducted -- Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale and Bert Blyleven. Maintaining a higher profile certainly didn't undermine Santo's chances.
Upon Santo's election, Jenkins remembered his colleague as "a very proud individual. He would be overwhelmed with this honor. The only disappointing part is he's not going to be around to enjoy it. But he would be extremely proud of the fact that his family will see the Santo name in the Hall of Fame during their lives."
And the family is quite proud. Santo's widow Vicki is to accept his plaque. Her emotions were understandably mixed after her late husband was elected. "It's pretty amazing this all happened [almost] one year to the day after he died," she said. "I guess you could say that it should have been earlier, but all he said was, 'I hope I get in in my lifetime.'"
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.