I keep going back to a written sports-story that I remember, but can't cite, from 1971. The Orioles had been beaten by the Miracle Mets in '69, and had beaten the beginnings of the "Big Red Machine" in 1970. It was the All-Star game, and Brooks Robinson was having another phenomenal year, and was to be the starting 3rd Baseman for the AL, a spot he had held for several seasons, and, in fact, it was his twelfth consecutive All-Star appearance.
The reporter asked Robinson how it felt to be regarded as the best 3rd baseman to ever play the game. The newspaper report was edited, but others who heard the exchange maintained that Robinson's report was "Me?? (bleep), I'm not even the best 3rd baseman in the park right now!! He is."
As Robinson jerked his thumb toward the batting cage, there was Santo, in the 7th of his 9 All-Star appearances, taking his hacks.
Santo broke into the Cubs lineup in 1960, won 5 consecutive Gold Gloves, and had his stellar career cut short by Diabetes, playing his last game at age 34. Years later he would lose both of his legs because of that debilitation, and later finally confessed that the disease had begun to affect his play as early as the 1967 season.
Even with that impingement, Santo was a lifetime .277 hitter, hit 342 HR, had an OBP of .362 and averaged less than 100 strike outs per year.
Santo played with the Cubs in an era when futility was the team's trademark. He broke in 15 years after the Cubs' last WS appearance, and between 1946 and 1960, the Cubs had not had ANY winning seasons, a trend which continued for 6 more years, with the abysmal 1966 season their lowest team record ever... 59-103. While most people remember Leo Durocher as the manager that turned the team around, the '66 season was his.
Those first 7 years of Santo's career were smack-dab in the middle of one of the silliest debacles of field management that baseball has ever seen. The Wrigleys still owned the team, and the owner(s) got the idea that if the ballclub was run by a "college of coaches" rather than a single manager, then the best qualities of all of the coaches would prevail on the field. Instead, what happened was a team that had no idea who was in charge, and lineups that had the "big 3" (Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks) hitting all over the place in the batting order. When that experiment ended in 1964 (sort of, Bob Kennedy was still officially the "head coach," not the manager, as late as 1965), Santo began his string of consecutive All-Star appearances, many times there when even Banks or Williams (both Hall of Famers) weren't.
By the time that cable TV came into play, Santo was past his prime, due to health issues. Consequently, what most non-Cubs fans remember was a guy who wasn't as good then as was Robinson or even Mike Schmidt. But, even then, if Santo's own recollection can be counted on, he continued to be an annual All-Star for 5 more appearances even after he conceded that his play was not up to even his own standards.
Santo was a Cub. Like Banks, his desire was to be a lifer there. When Wrigley began to break up the team after the 1972 season, Santo openly expressed his dismay that Banks had been shoddily treated in his final years, that Hundley had been over-used and poorly appreciated both before and after his knee injuries, and that Williams, Jenkins and Holtzman had been "dealt like so much meat." Santo, too, was let go, and exchanged for a decent pitcher, but one who had no where near as much value as Santo had contributed for 13 years.
Thirteen years. That's all. In other words, he averaged over 25 home runs per year in the days when the mounds were higher, when the pitchers DID pitch high and tight, and before the rules of the game were effectively changed to give the hitters a better shot at hitting home-runs and producing runs.
Some have compared him to the Boyer brothers, Clete and Ken. Both were extremely good. Neither were as good at 3rd as was Santo. Neither even come close to Santo's offensive numbers. Both played longer than did Santo. But Robinson was right, Santo WAS better by far than either of them.
Ron never was invited to be included into the Hall of Fame. This is probably the only disappointment he ever had with baseball itself. He belonged there years ago. Why he's not there only shows how little sports writers really know about the game itself.
Modern fans remember him for his 20 years in the broadcast booth with Harry Caray, Thom Brennaman, Dewayne Stadts and finally, Pat Hughes. He wasn't an analyst. Never claimed to be. But listening to him on the radio was like sitting in the dugout, and listening to a grizzled veteran be your teammate.
The guy the Cubs traded him for in 1973 is recognized in retirement from his field days as being one of the best broadcast analysts the game has ever known. I'd still rather listen to Santo (if we now could) talking about apples and oranges than listen to the other guy whine on about how badly he'd been mistreated no matter where he played.
But watching Santo do his job with a gracefulness (at the hottest spot on the diamond) that has only been exceeded by Ryne Sandberg (at a different position) was what taught me the importance of basic foot movement. Santo wasn't a speedster, but like Robinson, made every move with his feet count productively. Santo didn't seem to be refined, but, if you're lucky enough to catch highlight footage of him, watch him respond once the ball is hit. I'm guessing that you'll seldom ever see him make a wrong move in positioning.
And hands!! Wrigley's 3rd base has always had a reputation for being the most difficult to play. In Santo's day the field had a high crown, soft dirt, and from day to day even a moderate shower could change the landscape remarkably. Even with all of that, Santo posted a .954 fielding pct.
Now, putting my fan's-eye aside for a moment, .971 for 22 seasons (Robinson) is better than .954 for 14. On the other hand, Robinson himself confessed that Santo consistently got to balls that he couldn't have. In other words, Santo was charged with errors on balls that even Robinson would not have even gotten to.
So, if the guy who was the best 3rd baseman to ever play the game defensively says that Ron Santo was better than even he, maybe it's time to start listening to him.
Ron, I'm missing you already! Thanks for being part of my earliest baseball memories!