What Jeff Santo Should Say at Cooperstown, July 2012 (Best of Kurt)
I predict that—despite his emphatic statement that ‘if it’s gonna be posthumous, I don’t want it’—Ron Santo will indeed be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he’s next considered in early 2012. How might his family respond?
- Editor's note: ESPN and others are reporting that Ron Santo was elected to the Hall of Fame today, Dec. 5, 2011—just about the way Kurt Wehrmeister said it would happen. In honor of the occasion, we're re-running Kurt's column, originally presented on Geneva Patch on Dec. 6, 2010.
Anyone who saw Ron Santo wear his heart on his sleeve over the last half-century—during his 1960-'74 playing career, or during his 21 seasons as a Cubs radio broadcaster—felt the loss last Friday morning when they heard that he'd finally lost his battle against diabetes and bladder cancer, and was dead at 70.
And especially, anyone who had seen the lovely 2004 documentary This Old Cub, produced by Santo's filmmaker son Jeff, had to really feel the blow—having seen how badly Ronnie's heart was broken, repeatedly, by being denied his richly deserved plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Now, that which every Santo fan has dreaded for the last several years has now come to pass: Old No. 10 has lost his chance to see that wrong righted during his lifetime.
Santo never even came close in 15 votes by the nation's baseball writers (the best he did with them is 43.1 percent in 1998 versus the 75 percent needed), and came achingly close but not close enough in voting four more times by his peers on various iterations of the Veterans' Committee (he was just five votes short in February 2007 and nine votes shy in December 2008).
The consensus among today's baseball writers (mostly a generation younger than the ones who collectively, via secret ballot, told Santo to "take a hike" throughout the 1980s and '90s) is that Santo is "the best player not in the Hall of Fame." Many of today's writers are too young to have seen him play—and so must look at the cold comparative stats, against other batters and third basemen of his day, and those stats are pretty damn conclusive that Santo belongs.
The old third baseman said repeatedly and emphatically (actually, he said most things emphatically) that if his peers were waiting for him to die before voting him into Cooperstown, he didn't want it.
Nonetheless, I'm going to predict that enough of those peers are going to be sufficiently shamed and/or chastised to, finally, elect the late Ron Santo to the Hall of Fame, when he next appears on the ballot in the late winter of 2012.
And then what?
This is what I'm also predicting will occur, the warm last weekend of July, on that speakers' platform facing the thousands of fans on the lawn in that beautiful little village tucked away in the hills of central New York state.
Jeff Santo, a burly man of 49 and pretty much the spitting image of his late father except for a film-industry chin beard, will step to the microphone and be presented with the Hall of Fame bronze plaque with a smiling, fresh-faced likeness of his father, circa late-'60s, with the familiar circle-C on the cap.
Behind him on the stage, applauding, will be the several dozen living Hall of Famers, proud of themselves because they will have finally seen fit to right an old wrong and check the box marked "Ron Santo," nearly unanimously.
But Jeff Santo will not be carrying the fairly innocuous and pleasant acceptance script that he'd been asked to submit to the Hall of Fame office three days before for release to the news media. Instead, he'll pull a couple of folded sheets of yellow legal-pad notes from the pocket of the blazer sitting uncomfortably on his thick shoulders, and he will begin:
"If you had asked me back in February, when I first learned the news of the near-unanimous vote to finally elect my father to the Hall of Fame, if I were going to go to Cooperstown, NY, to accept this plaque, I'd have said, 'No way in hell.' My dad said several times that he didn't want this honor if it was only going to come to him posthumously. And so, to be very frank, my first reaction was to tell the Hall of Fame where they could stick it; that the family should simply turn it down. But my brother and my sisters talked me into changing my mind.
"There are two reasons, and two reasons only, that I'm standing here this afternoon. One is that my father richly deserved this honor. He deserved it frankly a hell of a lot more than several of the gentlemen who are sitting behind me right now, and more than several more of the guys who are dead and whose plaques are on the wall of the museum down the street behind us.
"The second reason is that 50 and 75 years from now, kids from all over America who walk in to see those plaques should see my dad among them, and know what a great ballplayer and a great man he was.
"So here I am, and on behalf of the Santo family, I am accepting this great honor on his behalf.
"I never came close to having the baseball talent my father had. But one of the things I'm proudest of in my life is that I am Ron Santo's son. And because I am his son, I too have something of a penchant for speaking my mind—and damn the consequences.
"I have a few things to say to some of these men sitting behind me—a few of whom, I know, voted to deny my father this honor while he was still alive to enjoy it.
"First, to Nolan Ryan, who has said it irritated him back in 1969 when Dad's exuberance got the better of him and he would click his heels in the air at Wrigley Field after a big win. Fine. Didn't you settle the score well enough several times afterward, when you threw your fastball at his head and knocked him on his butt? I guess not.
"And you, Joe Morgan. I love it when you've said, in your arrogant little way, that the current Hall of Famers tend not to vote anyone new in because, 'Well, maybe there was a reason the writers didn't vote them in in the first place.' Interesting that even though you played seven full seasons longer than my Dad, he had 74 more home runs and 198 more RBIs than you. How'd that happen?
"And last but not least, you, Gaylord Perry, you old SOB. Apparently you didn't like it, when you were both playing, when my father didn't mince his words to reporters about you; he said you were throwing a spitball and he called you a cheater. You, of course denied it at the time. Only after you retired, with your 314 wins, and your plaque safely up on the wall down the street, did you laugh at everyone in your memoirs and admit that you threw the spitter basically your whole damn career. He was telling the truth, and you were a liar. But you didn't like it, and you voted against him until this year too, didn't you?
"But, there are a couple of you whom I'd like to thank, too.
"Such as you, Brooks Robinson. You've readily acknowledged that my dad's regular-season batting stats were the superior of yours, and that he was your equal at third base defensively. You were fortunate enough to get into four World Series, and on that national-TV stage you played your butt off, batting .429 in 1970 and .318 in 1971—and so you were a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1983. But you have said, repeatedly and publicly, that if you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, so does Ron Santo. So I thank you.
"And you, Johnny Bench. You weren't playing for the Reds yet when Dad had a few of his best years, in 1964, '65, '66, playing on some pretty awful Cub teams. But then, when you played against him through the early '70s, and with him on All-Star teams, it struck you—the grit, determination and sheer talent that Dad obviously had, playing through the frightening uncertainty and debility of diabetes—back when he was the only one to ever do it, and when it had to be managed through a best-guess strategy of orange juice and Hershey bars in the dugout. And you, too, consistently argued publicly for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
"So now, it's finally happened. And Dad's not here to see it. Those of you who voted to keep him out until now, I sure as hell hope you're proud of yourselves. And those of you who thought he always belonged, well, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
"Hey, it's hot out here. Let's go get a beer.
"The old spitballer's buying."