Congratulations to Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs for being elected to the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee voted overwhelmingly (15 of the 16 possible votes) to induct the former Cubs third baseman in Baseball’s historic shrine next summer. What will follow may take on an air of sour grapes, so I want to make this one statement, all by itself, without any conditions or hesitation. It is a great day for the Chicago Cubs organization, fans, friends and family of one of the most loved Cubs players. I got the chance to watch Santo in his prime, and he was one heck of a ballplayer.
Now, take a long dramatic pause so that I can continue with the rest of this article.
Ready ? OK.
The election of Santo should open the door for Ken Boyer, but it won’t. And that is just wrong. W-R-O-N-G. When considering whether a player is worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame, there are a couple of traps you should avoid, but I am unable to do that.
The Maris Effect
The career of Roger Maris was cut short by an injury (among other things). If he’d just been able to play longer, his numbers would have easily been good enough to meet the Hall minimums. It is easy to get caught up in the 61 home runs in 1961 and totally miss that Maris was the best player in the game in 1960 and 1961 and followed that up with a very solid 1962. He won just one Gold Glove, but should have easily won 2, if not 3 more. The home runs are an albatross, Maris was a complete player and was one of the best in the game. He should have been to the decade of the sixties what Mickey Mantle was for the decade before.
Unfortunately, his aggressive playing style led to a series of injuries that caused a huge drop in production following the 1962 season. It could be that Cardinals fans have a different perspective since we got to see him in his final two seasons, far removed from memories (and sports press) of New York. We saw a smart player that knew how to move runners up, hit the right cutoff man and field balls cleanly in the outfield. If only we had been able to see him player earlier, what a sight it would have been.
But those injuries were a part of his career and separate him from Mickey Mantle, who largely avoided them (or played through them) and consistently produced over a much longer period. It’s why Mantle is in the Hall of Fame and Maris isn’t.
My argument in support of Ken Boyer doesn’t fit in this category. The difference between Boyer and Ron Santo is not injuries, but military service – and that’s a much different situation.
The Sutter Factor
It’s also somewhat dangerous to use the fact one player was inducted as reasoning for electing another. Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven and Bruce Sutter are interesting inductees that open up all sorts of comparisons (Vada Pinson, Jerry Reuss, Lee Smith for example). Of those six names, only Lee Smith deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. But if we use Jim Rice as benchmark, you have to include some marginal players like Reggie Smith, Richie/Dick Allen, Vada Pinson and Keith Hernandez. Bert Blyleven should open the door for Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant and maybe even Mike Cuellar (who was a dominating pitcher for half a decade).
For full disclosure, I am going to make heavy use of this in my arguments for Boyer, only because there seems to be overwhelming support for Santo, at least for the moment.
The Case for Ken Boyer
It is scary how similar the careers of the Ken Boyer and Ron Santo really were. How much ? Let’s take a look.
|Ken Boyer||Ron Santo|
Looking at the two players by age, you can learn a few things.
- Both players were very good hitters.
- Boyer generally for higher average, Santo with more power.
- Some of Santo’s power is obviously influenced by playing more games at Wrigley Field (216 HR at home, 126 on the road). Boyer hit 148 at home, 134 on the road.
- Santo had a few exceptional seasons (1964, 1966, 1967). Boyer was more consistent.
- Both players won 5 Gold Gloves
- Both players were routinely among the top in MVP voting, Boyer won the award in 1964
- Santo’s career came to an abrupt end, probably due to the effects of diabetes.
- Boyer stayed very productive until injuries finally ended his career. Don’t underestimate Boyer’s age 35 season – he was the best hitter on a very bad Mets team.
There is one more difference, and this is perhaps the biggest, and why we are having this discussion. Santo’s career started much earlier than Boyer’s and it’s a big part of why Boyer is at least as deserving, probably more so than Santo. You have to dig a bit deeper into the Ken Boyer story to understand why.
The Boyer Story
Like his older brother, Cloyd, Ken was originally signed by the Cardinals as a pitcher. Yes, the future MVP third baseman of 1964 was originally a pitching prospect in the Cardinals minor league system. He followed in Cloyd’s footsteps and seemed poised to be another power arm in the rotation. Both had big arms and could strike out batters, but also had control troubles, walking a few too many batters. The difference between the two was the prolific bat of Ken. In 16 games in with the Lebanon Chix (D), Ken hit hit .455 with 3 home runs, a double and a triple. That’s not exactly the hitting profile of a pitcher.
He continued to hit like a lumberjack with the Hamilton Cardinals (D) in 1950 and was eventually moved from the rotation over to third base, originally as an interim assignment, but it soon became permanent. He would finish the season with a .342 batting average, 9 home runs, 17 doubles and 6 triples. That would earn Ken a promotion to Omaha (A) for the 1951 season. Now a full time third baseman, he hit .306 with 14 home runs, 28 doubles and 7 triples. Yes, this young man had a very bright future ahead.
If it were any other year than 1952, Boyer would have found himself in Houston with the Buffaloes (AA) for part of the season and probably called up to St. Louis, at the very least, when rosters expanded in September. Given Billy Johnson, the Cardinals third baseman’s, age (33) and relatively poor performance (.252 / .339 / .323), Boyer might have gotten that call a lot earlier.
But that’s not what happened, and it plays significantly into the Ron Santo comparisons. What did happen was military service. Ken Boyer was drafted and spent the next two years in the US Army. Although he played baseball during his military time, it is not the same as getting the professional instruction he would have received in the minor leagues. That created an opportunity for Ray Jablonski, who was one year behind Boyer in the Cardinals farm system, and it was Jablonski that played in St. Louis in 1953 and 1954.
When he returned from his military service in 1954, Boyer made up for his time away and put together an impressive season for Houston (AA), hitting .319 with 21 home runs, 116 RBIs and 42 doubles. It was so good that the Cardinals traded Ray Jabslonski prior to the start of the 1955 season, handing the job to Boyer, even though he had not played a single game at the AAA level. He was that kind of talent.
Now, let’s play the “what if” scenario over those two missing years. What if Boyer had not been drafted and took over third base in 1953 instead of 1955. Losing those two years was totally out of Boyer’s control. It was not an injury or that he was slow to develop in the minor leagues. He was the next third baseman, but circumstances out of his control robbed him of two productive years. Assuming that his rookie season and subsequent sophomore slump would have happened as they did, lets add two more years worth of his 3rd through 7th year average and see where that puts us.
That would add two more seasons of 25 home runs, 88 RBIs and a .303 batting average to his totals. His career home run total would climb from 282 to 332 and his RBI total would go from 1,141 to 1,317. What were Santo’s by comparison ? 342 and 1,331. Take away the Wrigley effect and Boyer’s numbers are actually better than those of Santo.
If you are fan of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), doing the same exercise would add two more years of 6 WAR to Boyer’s numbers, taking it from 53.5 to 65.5. Santo’s career WAR ? 66.4.
Any way you choose to look at this, if Ron Santo is worthy of inclusion into the Hall of Fame, Ken Boyer should be automatic.
That is unlikely to happen and for all of the wrong reasons. The simple fact is that even the Veterans Committee members are from an era where they did not see players like Ken Boyer in his prime. Santo came along a decade later, so the voters have more familiarity with his career than that of Boyer. The current group of Hank Aaron, Pat Gillick, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, Tommy Lasorda, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Billy Williams, Paul Beeston, Bill DeWitt, Roland Hemond, Gene Michael, Al Rosen, Dick Kaegel, Jack O’Connell, and Dave Van Dyck just know more about players of Santo’s era than a decade earlier, and that hurts the chances of a player like Ken Boyer.
Time for the sour grapes, and I am not going to apologize for this next statement. Ron Santo’s induction into the Hall of Fame has more to do with his recent passing than his career statistics. That sounds harsh, especially considering the challenges that Santo faced, not only during playing career, but also later as a broadcaster. Nobody should have to do through what he did, but the thing I love about Santo was that he never lost his passion during a broadcast. That by itself does not make one a Hall of Fame candidate.
It was nearly one year ago to the day that Ron Santo lost his battle with cancer. It was a terrible loss for the Cubs organization, and the entire baseball community. Let’s not forget that Boyer lost his battle with lung cancer in 1982, at age of 51. After his playing career was over, Boyer stayed involved with baseball, coaching for a short time in St. Louis and eventually manging. He managed for several seasons in the minor leagues before taking over the helm of the Cardinals in 1978. He would be dismissed early into the 1980 season as the Cardinals started a total overhaul of the major league club. Boyer was to return to managing in the minor leagues, but his poor health kept him from doing that.
Boyer’s passing came at the worst possible time for his Hall of Fame considerations. It was too close to his playing time, so he would have still been under consideration through the normal balloting, but it was far too soon for the veterans committee to take up his case. Since then, players from his era have been all but forgotten, and that is wrong.
To end this on a positive note, let’s all agree that Ron Santo is deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame. In that case, the veterans committee needs to do the right thing and do the same for Ken Boyer. If they don’t, it makes Santo’s invitation seem more like a sympathy vote rather than a reflection of a marvelous playing career. I used to think the Cardinals overreacted when they retired Boyer’s #14, but after looking back at the playing career of Ron Santo, maybe they were just a couple of decades ahead of the rest of us in getting it right.