News that Chicago Cubs legend Ron Santo died Thursday night has been met with grief from the Chicago community, as Santo was among the team's most popular players and broadcasters. It has also provoked a renewed discussion of his Hall of Fame merits, as Santo has not yet been inducted despite a strong career and a good amount of support.
Santo received just 3.9% of votes in his initial year of Hall eligibility, falling off the ballot entirely before being added back in 1985. His vote total then increased steadily over the years, but topped out at 43.1% in 1998 - his final year on the ballot, and well below the 75% necessary for induction. Santo found his way to Veterans Committee consideration soon thereafter and has fared well, but still has yet to receive enough support to get in.
For Santo's part, he declared on several occasions that he didn't want to get inducted posthumously, although more recently he resigned himself to the idea. He has said that having his number retired by the Cubs was the equivalent of Cooperstown induction.
Santo's case is a difficult one. He was a very good player, and a popular icon. However, he retired at the age of 34, didn't meet any of the usual benchmark round numbers, and never once led the league in sexy categories like home runs, average, or slugging percentage. His real strengths were defense and getting on base, as he twice posted league-leading OBPs. While Santo's case is strengthened by the fact that he played in a pitcher-friendly era, it's weakened by the fact that he took considerable advantage of Wrigley Field - his career OPS at home was .905, but just .747 on the road. Wrigley has been considered a hitter-friendly ballpark.
A traditional statistical analysis that focuses on more normal statistics will show Santo as a player undeserving of the Hall. A deeper analysis that considers his defense, ability to reach base, and era will show him as a more worthy candidate. Not a shoo-in, by any means, but someone on the border. Given how much Santo meant to the city of Chicago off the field, seeing him get inducted by the Veterans Committee probably wouldn't draw much in the way of criticism. When the tangibles are right on the edge, sometimes the intangibles can shift the balance.