Ron Santo, hard-luck Cubs third baseman and broadcaster, dies at 70

Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs' legendary third baseman and popular announcer, died Thursday in Arizona.
By Matt Schudel
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:58 PM

Ron Santo, 70, an outstanding third baseman for the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s and '70s who later became a broadcaster for the team, died Dec. 2 of bladder cancer at a hospital in Arizona, where he lived. He had also battled diabetes all his life.

Mr. Santo, a nine-time All Star, was considered the finest National League third baseman of his era, but he was perennially rejected for membership in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in what some observers considered a travesty.

He won five Gold Glove awards as the league's top fielder at his position and was an excellent hitter, with a career batting average of .277. When he retired in 1974, his 342 home runs were the second-most ever by a third baseman.

Sportswriters often called Mr. Santo the best player not in the Hall of Fame, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) once wrote a letter urging the Hall of Fame voting committee to vote for Mr. Santo. But he always fell short of baseball's ultimate honor.

"My heart just dropped," he said after his rejection in 2003. "I know how good I was."

Mr. Santo played alongside Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, but the Cubs never made it to the postseason during those years.

In 1969, when they led their division for much of the season, Mr. Santo became known for clicking his heels in the air after his team's victories. But the Cubs lost 17 of their final 25 games and were overtaken by New York's "Miracle Mets."

As Mr. Santo stood in the on-deck circle at New York's Shea Stadium on Sept. 9, a black cat ran onto the field, made a complete circuit around him, then darted away. It seemed to be a symbol of the team's long history of futility and hard luck.

Mr. Santo finished his career in 1974 after a final season with the Chicago White Sox. When he became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1980, he received only 4 percent of the vote of the Baseball Writers Association. Advanced statistical analysis, first introduced by baseball writer and historian Bill James, suggested that his skills were not fully appreciated until long after his retirement.

James and others showed that Mr. Santo was clearly the best-hitting third baseman of his time, with four seasons of 30 home runs and more than 100 runs batted in. He twice led the National League in on-base percentage and had the underappreciated ability to draw walks, leading the league in the category four times.

James ranked Mr. Santo the sixth-best third baseman of all time and one of the 100 best players in major-league history.

"If I were in control of the Hall of Fame selections," James wrote in "Politics of Glory," his 1994 book about the Hall of Fame, "the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo."

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