Ron Santo, the great Chicago Cubs third baseman of the 1960s and ‘70s, had the title of “Greatest Baseball Player Not in the Hall of Fame” removed from beside his name this week, when the Veterans Committee elected him into Cooperstown, as part of their “Golden Era” ballot.
This is an event that should be celebrated. Santo, long a great ambassador of the game, was one of the best players to man third base, an under-represented position in the Hall. He was the heart of the Cubs for more than a decade, hit with power, played with grace and performed at a high level while keeping his diabetes in check in an era that wasn’t as kind to sufferers of the disease, both in perception and treatment.
Of course, this is also an event to be ridiculed. Santo was first eligible for induction in 1980, and won’t be able to enjoy his induction in person — he died last year.
Why he was kept out for so many years, and why the voters suddenly saw him eligible after he left the Earth, is anyone’s guess. There are a lot of flaws with the election system and debate over what makes a player worthy of enshrinement. Some say they can just “feel” it, that they know a Hall of Famer when they see one, and don’t need to think about it. Others hold firm to statistical evidence, coldly drawing a line in the mathematical sand — per position, this guy is in, this guy is out, and there’s no debate.
Like most aspects of life, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Certainly, candidates should be studied and stacked against their peers and positional history, with the numbers forming the skeleton of the argument.
But, this is a happy, mystical game. If there can’t be room for a little folklore in the narrative of baseball, then where?
With these elements in mind, there are a few players — not on the current Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, mind you — that are certainly worthy of a second look and, eventually, their own bronze plaque in upstate New York.
★ Luis Tiant
Generally, I believe that short bursts of greatness carry more weight than long tenures of goodness. Most baseball voters, however, seem to disagree, leading to the enshrinement of pitchers like Don Sutton, while folks like Luis Tiant are slighted.
Tiant’s final counting numbers — 229 wins, 2,416 strike outs, a career ERA of 3.30 — are good, and compare favorably to Hall members Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale. But Tiant’s greatness is illustrated in two waves.
First, as a young fireballer from Cuba, Tiant was the ace of the Cleveland Indians, averaging 174 strikeouts, a 1.066 WHIP and an ERA+ of 127 through his first five seasons. But his career began to slag, losing 20 games in 1969, leading to his trade to the Minnesota Twins and, eventually, his release from the Twins at the end of Spring Training in 1971 and, two months later, another release by the Atlanta Braves.
But Tiant caught fire again in 1972 with Boston, to the tune of a 1.91 ERA (and a 172 ERA+) as he pitched his way back into the rotation, throwing six shutouts and 11 complete games in August and September. From there, he was the Red Sox’ ace until 1978, routinely among the league leaders in wins, shutouts and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
For those of you who are into “gamers,” Tiant typically stepped up when he was needed. A famous example comes in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series. After giving up four runs in the first four innings, Tiant settled in, and the Red Sox battled back with five runs in the fifth inning. From there El Tiante held the Reds scoreless. When it was over, Tiant had thrown 163 pitches for a complete game, and a string of rainouts meant that Tiant could come back to start Game 6, which many remember as the greatest game ever played.
★ Minnie Minoso
Another Cuban, Minoso was a victim of baseball’s color barrier to start his career, earning a cup of coffee with the Cleveland Indians in 1949 before finding his place with the White Sox in 1951. Minoso boasted a quick bat and legs, leading the league in triples and stolen bases three times each and hitting 186 home runs, while posting an .878 OPS over his best years of 1951-1960.
Certainly, Minoso was respected as a player, regularly winding up at the All-Star Game and near the top of MVP ballots. He was a solid outfielder, too, winning three gold gloves (which isn’t always a great indicator, but, still). But, more so, he posted solid performance in an era when black and Latin players were still confined to different hotel rooms, still ejected from restaurants, still the target of jeering fans and skeptical teammates and ownership. Jackie Robinson was first and paved the way, but it wasn’t easy for anyone in the 1950s.
Minoso played often and played well. He compares favorably to other Hall of Famers (Enos Slaughter comes up often), and was a star on the White Sox at the time.
★ Lou Whitaker
Whitaker, for reasons difficult to comprehend, received little support from the BBWAA voters, dropping off the ballot after one year. But Whitaker was arguably the American League’s best second baseman for a decade, a cornerstone of the Detroit Tigers’ 1984 World Series team, and along with his double play partner, the equally deserving Alan Trammell, kept the Tigers solid up the middle into the 1990s.
He hit 244 home runs as a second baseman with a .276 average, he was remarkably tough to strike out — he averaged just 74 per season — and he was an excellent defensive player (with four gold gloves on his mantle). And a cursory look shows that he must’ve remained reliable in his slot — in 19 seasons, second base was the only position he ever played, save for 22 games spread out at designated hitter.
Offensively, his production puts him in an elite class among second basemen. Defensively, he more than holds his own with those already enshrined. Whitaker is, hopefully, someone who will gain extra support in the coming years.
★ Ted Simmons
Catchers traditionally have a hard time convincing Hall of Fame voters of their worthiness. Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter both had to wait before being elected, while peers Bob Boone and Ted Simmons were barely considered.
In the case of Simmons, we have a catcher who was routinely an All-Star, hit 248 home runs over 19 full seasons (he had two unproductive cups of coffee with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 and ’69), regularly appeared on MVP ballots, and spent most of his career starting for good teams, first the Cardinals in the 1970s and then the Milwaukee Brewers in the ‘80s. In fact, his ascendance inspired St. Louis to move Joe Torre, another player who is nearly Hall-worthy, out from behind the plate and into the infield.
But he never did win the World Series, and thus never truly got a moment on the big stage. His career compares nicely to folks like Fisk, Carter and Yogi Berra, fellow catchers who did earn a defining moment in October. Putting up catchy offensive numbers is difficult for catchers, whose main objective is fielding the most difficult position on the field. Simmons more than held his own behind the plate; his fielding percentages were always high, and he was a rock, starting more games at catcher in his prime than most would dream of today.
Like many catchers, Simmons went under appreciated in the long run, his hard work toiling in the tools of ignorance forgotten. But time is long, and it’s not too late to recognize Simmons’ performance.
★ Dom DiMaggio
Overshadowed by his brother, Joe, and his teammate, Ted Williams, the Little Professor quietly plied his trade in Fenway Park’s tricky center field, working the top of the batting order and running down fly balls with a precision that was rarely seen at the time.
DiMaggio doesn’t stack up to a lot of the stat-heavy analysis of today, but much of that is due to the era in which he played. In the 1940s, teams sacrificed more and encouraged their hitters at the top of the lineup to shorten their swing in an effort to move a man from second to third, rather than try for a bigger hit. DiMaggio ability to swing and make contact is demonstrated in his high average (298 for his career, with a high of .328 in 1950) and his few strikeouts. He was fast, and played in an era when stealing was not something done in the pre-Jackie Robinson era — he led the league in 1950 with just 15 steals.
DiMaggio played only 11 seasons, due to losing three seasons to World War II, and didn’t have the classic power of a center fielder. But his range and vision were legendary. Sadly, advanced defensive metrics didn’t yet exist to the point they do now, so fans are left with anecdotal evidence more than anything. But Baseball-Reference does have him listed as routinely leading the league in range factor for center fielders, which explains his seemingly high error totals — the errors are bound to go up when the player is getting to every ball within a mile.
The Baseball Hall of Fame looks favorably upon offensive behemoths who offered little defensively — mashers like Williams, Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargel walked in with little protest. And they’re deserving members, because of how they excelled in their part of the game.
DiMaggio excelled in his part of the game, and like Santo, he played his part with grace. Also like Santo, DiMaggio has left this world. If he is ever elected, he won’t be able to enjoy the accolades. But acknowledging his performance and the performance of players who didn’t hit the ball a mile, didn’t get on cereal boxes and didn’t get to play for the best teams, would make the hall a better place.
And it’s not too late to do it while Tiant, Minoso, Whitaker and Simmons are still with us.