Signing with the Cubs out of high school in Seattle, Santo began his professional career in 1959 with the San Antonio Missions in the Double-A Texas League. Excelling there, he began the next season with Triple-A Houston, in the American Association. Santo found Triple-A pitching a bit tougher, but he held his own. And with the Cubs going nowhere, he was summoned to the big club in late June and took over at third base from Don Zimmer.
As a 20-year-old rookie in 1960, Santo spent most of the second half of the season as the youngest every-day player in the National League, and it showed a little in his stats.
Just that once, though.
Or rather, just that once for a long while.
Beginning in 1961, Santo established himself as the best all-around third baseman in the league and held that (unofficial) title for quite some time. He played well in '61, struggled in '62 while learning to treat his juvenile diabetes, then established himself as a power-hitting, Gold Glove-winning third baseman. Oh, and he was exceptionally durable, averaging 159 games per season from 1961 through '71.
Maybe all those games did take their toll, as third basemen historically have not aged well. Maybe the diabetes took its toll (though Santo didn't blame it for anything except his poor numbers in 1962). Whatever the reasons, Santo's four best seasons all came before he turned 28. There was one last brilliant season in 1972, when he was 32, after which the end came rather quickly.
Santo had always figured on spending his entire career in Wrigley Field.
Just after the World Series, the Cubs traded their ace (and future Hall of Famer) Fergie Jenkins to the Texas Rangers for an impressive young hitter named Bill Madlock.
Madlock played third base, but Santo apparently didn't see the writing on the wall, and was surprised when management approached him about a deal that would send him to the California Angels. Management had to approach him, because he could veto any trade.
Santo balked. He didn't want to leave Chicago, and said he would rather retire than move to California. Eventually, Santo did agree to a trade to Chicago's other team, the White Sox, after being assured that he would spend at least some of his time at third base (and not much as the DH, a "position" for which he held little affection).
Well, it didn't work out that way. The White Sox already a star third baseman, Bill Melton. Santo played a little third base, but he DH'd a bunch and also started 37 games at second base, which he hated. Still only 34, Santo didn't hit at all, didn't appreciate the mercurial talents of superstar teammate Dick Allen, and was generally miserable all season. After which, he quit, walking away from the one season and $130,000 still left on his contract.
For decades now, the question in Chicago has been Why isn't Ron Santo in the Hall of Fame?
It's probably not just one thing.
It didn't help that his career ended relatively early.
It didn't help that some of the things he did -- particularly drawing walks and playing excellent defense at third base -- are generally undervalued by Hall of Fame voters.
And it absolutely didn't help that the Cubs blew their big lead over the Mets down the stretch in 1969. That was the team that was supposed to win. They had three future Hall of Famers, plus Santo, plus a Hall of Fame manager in Leo Durocher. Three weeks into August, they still owned an eight-game lead over the second-place Mets.
And then they blew it. The Cubs didn't play well down the stretch, the Mets played brilliantly, and the Cubs finished the season eight games behind the Mets.
The Mets wound up winning 100 games. The Cubs won 92, their finest showing since World War II. Nevertheless, the story wasn't so much that the Mets won the pennant, but that the Cubs lost it. And nobody's ever taken more blame for the Cubs losing in 1969 than Santo.
By 1969, Santo had been installed as Cubs captain. Not Ernie Banks nor Billy Williams. Ron Santo. He thought the Cubs were the best team in the National League, and wasn't shy about his confidence. Before a July series against the Mets, Santo was asked by a New York writer to compare the Cubs and the Mets. "Man for man," he said, "there's no comparison. You've got the pitchers but don't try to compare the Mets to the Chicago Cubs." In the annals of "famous last words" spoken by front-runners in baseball, those probably rank among the top 10.
Just a few weeks earlier, Santo had celebrated teammate Jim Hickman's walkoff home run at Wrigley Field by running down the left-field line, jumping into the air and ... clicking his heels together. It became a huge story, and Santo began clicking his heels after every Cubs win at home.
After Santo said the Mets couldn't compare to the Cubs, the Mets took two straight games from the Cubs, and it got into the papers that Santo had blamed one of the losses on rookie center fielder Don Young ... who, as it turned out, had been mentored by Santo all season. This story blew up, too, and Santo was booed in Chicago and received death threats for some time afterward.
For better or worse, in the space of about three weeks Santo had become the face of the Chicago Cubs. If they had finished the season well, he would have been haled for both his performance and his leadership, all the negative stories forgotten (Young, who talked about quitting after the game in New York, played decently in August and September).
But they didn't finish well, and a fair number of Hall of Fame voters probably assigned an inordinate amount of the blame to their captain. Apparently forgetting that Santo's brushes with publicity in '69 came many weeks before the Cubs' September swoon.
Incredibly, when Santo first appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot in 1980 -- Ron Santo: nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, No. 2 all-time in home runs for a third baseman -- he received 15 votes. Fewer than Roy Face, Elston Howard, Don Larsen, Harvey Kuenn, and a bunch of other guys who would never come close to being elected. So few votes, in fact, that Santo was dropped from the ballot forever ... until 1985, when a special committee restored him.
Santo's support did steadily improve, and in 1998, his final year on the BBWAA ballot, he was named on 43 percent of the ballots. Since then, he's been considered by various manifestations of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, but fallen just short of election.
Santo will make it, eventually. He was simply too good a player not to make it. But I think we can all agree that it's a shame he didn't make it during the 30-some years when he could have enjoyed it.