Ron Santo has been a Hall of Fame-worthy player since the day he hung up his spikes after the 1974 season. He should have been elected almost immediately after the five-year wait; maybe not on the first ballot, but by the time the mid-1980s came along, he should have been inducted, perhaps with his longtime friend and teammate Billy Williams, who entered the Hall in 1987. Why did it take so long before his election today, with 15 of the 16 votes from the new Veterans Committee? One of the reasons is, paradoxically, his playing career -- which is the very thing that qualifies him. It's short, only 15 seasons, which means his counting stats (342 home runs, 2254 hits, 1331 RBI) don't catch your eye at first glance. But at the time Santo retired, his 342 home runs -- now 87th best in MLB history -- ranked 26th, and among third basemen, only Eddie Mathews (512) had more. (Mathews, incidentally, is nearly forgotten today, but was one of the greatest in history. Check out his career.)
Santo's career was shortened by juvenile diabetes; that disease, manageable today and played by a number of high-profile professional athletes including the Blue Jays' Brandon Morrow, the Rays' Sam Fuld and in the NFL, the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler, was much more difficult to treat in the 1960s. Santo hid his diabetes from everyone but his road roommate, Glenn Beckert (who he had to tell, because he had to inject himself with insulin), until 1971, when he had been a perennial All-Star. He was afraid he'd be let go because people then didn't understand that he could play, and clearly at a high level, in spite of it.
Santo was a nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner in an era when that award actually meant that you were a good fielder. He finished in the top eight in MVP voting four times, led the NL in walks four of five seasons from 1964-68. He also had four consecutive 30-homer seasons when that feat was somewhat rare (example: in 1965, when Santo had his career high in homers with 33, only four others hit as many, all Hall of Famers: Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey). He had the "misfortune" to have these big seasons during a time when pitching dominated. Through those five peak seasons he hit .291/.387/.509 and averaged 30 HR, 101 RBI and 92 walks -- in an era where a dozen or more pitchers every season were posting ERAs under 2.50. His combined .387 OBP for those five years ranked fifth -- and again, the four ahead of him are all in the Hall: Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski and Robinson again. At the time Santo retired, he was widely viewed as one of the top five or six third basemen in MLB history; even now, nearly 40 years later, he's still in the top 10.
So why didn't the BBWAA elect him in his period of eligibility for that ballot? It's possible that his lack of postseason appearances could have hurt him. His contemporary, Brooks Robinson, whose career numbers had the advantage of longevity but overall don't measure up to Santo's, was elected in 1983. Robinson had several great postseasons, including defensive plays in the 1970 World Series that are still seen on highlight compliations. Had Santo appeared in, and perhaps starred in, even one postseason, perhaps he'd have been inducted already.
One of the reasons -- stated by Santo himself -- that he took a job as radio analyst for the Cubs in 1990, after 15 years out of the game, was to get his name out there so that perhaps he could get voted in. Some resented this, as some had also resented the heel-click, done after Cubs home victories, that Santo had done during the ill-fated 1969 season. It was seen as "showing up" opponents. You might find that hard to believe in an era when "BEAST MODE" is done after every hit, but 40+ years ago, players just didn't do that. Nevertheless, it was felt in some quarters that certain voters, either old-time baseball writers or those charged in various incarnations of the Veterans Committee, held grudges against Santo.
I hope these voters didn't think, "We'll vote him in, but only after he dies." Because if that was the thought process, shame on them.
Ron Santo died just over a year ago and so won't be able to join the legions of Cubs fans, and baseball people who knew how good his statistical record truly was, celebrating his induction on July 22, 2012. Nevertheless, it is an honor well deserved, even if bestowed just a bit too late.