Monday, December 5, 2011


One very large slight in the Hall of Fame voting results was at long last rectified today. Ron Santo, the fourth key member of the 1960s Chicago Cubs--the most star-crossed franchise of that decade, the one with absolutely nothing to show for itself--was finally admitted by what seems like the four hundredth incarnation of the serially dubious and excessively bureaucratized Veterans' Committee.

Sadly, though, this vote was (unnecessarily) too tardy to permit Santo (who passed away almost exactly one year ago) to enjoy this honor while still alive. And it sends a signal that in an age of accelerating cultural and economic factionalization, public institutions such as the Hall of Fame will be increasingly forced to take these types of mincing steps only with the convenient impetus of dead bodies.

For some reason, we are faced with the paradox that as the life of the world becomes more accessible to us, it is more and more necessary to not engage in any type of official judgmental activity unless those involved are already dead and gone.

This is a terrible and unfortunate trend, and it sends a tragic message to an entire series of aging ballplayers who are as deserving as Santo, but whose mistake (or so it would seem) is that they are still alive.

It is not fair to Santo to point out the series of reasons why his honor was so long delayed, but we must do so. His supporters, who naively believe that his enshrinement is part of a larger cultural-economic-rationalist "movement" to save baseball from a dark, protracted age of insiderist myth-mongering, have spun a narrative that Santo was merely an overly enthusiastic "yokel" whose on-field braggadocio was essentially harmless and homespun. When this is done in the mainstream media, it is known as "whitewashing."

Santo was no saint. He was not a pleasant man. He was a bully. He was also a great baseball player, an excellent third baseman, a hitter with power and strike-zone judgment--and a man who overcame a serious medical condition (diabetes). He also had the great good fortune, however, to play in a ballpark (Wrigley Field) that aided hitters the most of any during the time frame (1960-74) in which he played.

And, as the data shows, Santo took advantage of it more than anyone. The current "advanced metrics" which have become part of the long drumbeat on his behalf have conveniently cast off the constraining reality of these park effects and what they can tell us about Santo's actual level of offense.

This inconvenient truth does not mean that we are concluding that Santo is not deserving of induction. We suggested back in 2002, when we were writing a column for the Baseball Think Factory, that in a gesture of sabermetric and cultural healing, Santo and Dick Allen be inducted in the same ceremony. Such a concept was always naive and sentimental, because while Santo had been snubbed by a coterie of sportswriters who'd found him to be less than couth, Allen had come to symbolize far greater levels of hubris and social leprosy.

But with our lenses tinted to the maximum value of rose, we fearlessly suggested such a redemptive scenario. And it is to the eternal degradation of American culture, as embodied in the little world of baseball, committed both by those with the power to have made it happen, and those whose voices could have created a narrative to give it some real impetus, that this did not occur.

It is a blemish that will never go away.

We harbor no illusions that Dick Allen--clearly no saint, but a far greater hitter than anyone of his time who's not already in the Hall of Fame--will ever be enshrined while he is still breathing. After all, if the various editions of the bureaucracy could not manage to do so for Ron Santo, how can anyone in their right mind expect that for Allen?

And, likewise, we feel nothing but pity and regret for Minnie Minoso, a member of the first generation of black ballplayers to play in the major leagues. Minoso is in his mid-to-late 80s, and while his achievements are arguably more modest than those of Santo or Allen, the combination of his talents and personality are more than sufficient for such an honor.

We know that there are legions of "numbers folk" who have become comfortably numb with respect to Dick Allen. We can only shake our heads at their inconceivable certainty, and be saddened by their incalculable cultural cowardice. They were led by a series of terribly unfortunate slurs written by Bill James in a sprawling, dyspeptic, often downright nasty book originally entitled The Politics of Glory. Bill has recently recanted those words, but he did so in a backhanded way that was too little and too late. (It was the equivalent of a retraction of a libelous comment buried somewhere deep in the classified ad section.) His influence was much greater than he knew, and it remains infinitely more damaging than that.

Allen and Minoso must take solace in their enshrinement by two smaller but infinitely more cogent institutions--the Baseball Reliquary and the Hall of Merit. The former has an actual concept of American culture; the latter has an actual concept of the true on-field value of baseball players. This is better than nothing, to be sure. But we are left with the ugly residue of a series of cultural clashes that played out in the middle part of the twentieth century that, apparently, we are still centuries away from successfully resolving. (If we make it far enough.)

So, while there are tears of joy for Ron Santo (particularly for his family, who know more than any of the rest of us how much Santo recognized his own personal shortcomings and worked to ameliorate them during his post-baseball life), there are only tears of infinite sadness for the lost opportunities to rectify so much more than one great ballplayer who had unfairly been on the outside looking in.