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Friday, December 03, 2010

Ron Santo Passes, And Bill James On Why He Should Be In The Hall Of Fame

Sad news this morning that Cubs broadcaster and long-ago great third baseman Ron Santo had passed, from bladder cancer complications. Al Yellon provided a nice eulogy at Bleed Cubbie Blue; and of course, Helen was disconsolate all morning. Still is.

As a public service, Bill James' case for the Hall of Fame from his Historical Baseball Abstract:

Dear Mr. James:

I saw you on ESPN Sunday Night, when you said that Ron Santo should be elected to the Hall of Fame I just had to write and tell you how wrong you are.

You said that there are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than players at any other position. Well, so what? The Hall of Fame should be only for the very greatest players. If you put in Santo because you need more third basemen, are you going to put in Sal Bando after that and Buddy Bell after that and Gary Gaetti after that? Eventually we'll wind up with Bob Bailey and Pete Ward in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be for players like Wille Mays and Tom Seaver, not for players like Ron Santo and Pete Ward.

— Cooperstown Defender
Dear Coop:

Thanks for writing. With regard to there being fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than players at any other position, you missed the purpose of the information. My point was not that there are too few third baseman [sic] in the Hall of Fame, and therefore we should elect a bunch of third basemen. My point was that Ron Santo was a better player than most of the third basemen in the Hall of Fame, and this is true despite the fact that fewer third basemen have been elected to the Hall of Fame than players at any other position.

As to Santo being a better player than most of the Hall of Fame third basemen, I think that if you study this issue carefully, you will be forced to agree that this is true, or was true before Schmidt and Brett. George Kell in his career drove in 100 runs once, scored 100 runs once; otherwise his career high in RBI was 93. Ron Santo scored 100 runs once, and drove in 93 runs every year, eight straight years. Obviously, Santo was doing a lot more to change the scoreboard than Kell was, even though Santo played in the 1960s, when runs were hard to come by.

Santo was not only a better hitter than Kell, he was also a better hitter than Jimmy Collins, Pie Traynor, Fred Lindstrom, and Brooks Robinson. He was a good hitter in a relatively long career, as he ranks eighth all-time in games played at third base. Defense? He won five Gold Gloves. I will agree that Santo was not a brilliant defensive third baseman. Had Brooks Robinson or Clete Boyer been in the National League, Santo's Gold Gloves would have been few and far between. Santo was a sure-handed third baseman with an excellent arm; he was not quick on his feet. I might even agree that Kell was probably a better fielder than Santo was — but Santo was a fine defensive third baseman. Kell, if he was better, could not have been enough better to offset the facts that Santo created more runs per year, that he did it for more years, and that he did it in a time when each run was more valuable.

By my reckoning, George Kell was the 30th best third baseman of all time; he is in the Hall of Fame. Fred Lindstrom was the 43rd best third baseman of all time; he is in the Hall of Fame. At several other positions, players have been selected who were not among the top 50. After the Hall of Fame has already honored the 30th-best and 43rd-best players at the position, does it degrade the Hall of Fame to then include the sixth-best? Does it not, in fact, enhance the integrity of the honor, to show that the institution is capable of some minimal consistency in its selections?

We could all agree, could we not, that the Hall of Fame is simply not going to stop selecting people? It's not going to happen; neither the Veteran's Committee nor the Hall of Fame as a whole is going to stop making selections. What I am saying is, it's not Ron Santo against Willie Mays. It is Ron Santo against Pete Browning, or Babe Herman, or Bob Meusel, or Jake Daubert, or somebody else whose only real advantage on Ron Santo is that he played so long ago that his flaws have been forgotten.

The reality is, Wille Mays never was and never can be the standard of the Hall of Fame. In the 1940s, many players were selected to the Hall of Fame who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo, let alone nowhere near as good as Willie Mays. Players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1950s, players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1960s, players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1970s (lots of them), players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1980s, and players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1990s. It is preposterous to argue that the Hall of Fame standard is Ted Williams, after six decades of honoring players like Tommy McCarthy (1946), Rabbit Maranville (1954), Elmer Flick (1963), Dave Bancroft (1971), George Kell (1983), and Tony Lazzeri (1991). The Ted Williams/Bob Gibson/Honus Wagner standard for Hall of Fame selection has never existed anywhere except in the imaginations of people who don't know anything about the subject.

Look, certain things just do not happen. Rivers do not run uphill, iron does not become gold, time does not go backward, whores do not become virgins, pigs do not give birth to lions, supermodels do not marry auto mechanics, and politicians do not forget about the next election. There is no alchemy by which the Hall of Fame may become what it never has been. Ron Santo towers far above the real standard of the Hall of Fame.

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