The bronze might be on the corner of Sheffield and Addison instead of in Cooperstown, but the statue of Ron Santo unveiled on Wednesday cements his place in baseball history where it was made, in the heart of Wrigleyville on Chicago's north side.
As gestures go, it's a nice touch, as Santo's likeness in bronze now joins those of Billy Williams and Ernie Banks. Fergie Jenkins' statue can't be far behind -- then all four great players from the ill-starred Cubs of the late '60s and early '70s will be honored at Wrigley. Statues are beginning to catch up to retired numbers; the Cubs have retired just six numbers to honor seven players (counting the MLB-wide honor accorded Jackie Robinson's No. 42): Williams (No. 26), Banks (No. 14), Santo (No. 10), Jenkins and Maddux (both wearing No. 31), and Ryne Sandberg's No. 23.
That may seem slightly strange, or just reflective of the Cubs' decades of haplessness. But it's also something Santo deserved as one of the game's all-time best third basemen, and in the absence of tribute elsewhere to Santo's place in the game's history, the statue and the retired number are what will have to do for now.
Santo's place as an all-time great has been acknowledged more in sabermetric circles than in the mainstream, but the raw numbers aren't exactly shabby: 342 home runs, a career .277/.362/.464 line generated while batting during one of the game's offensive doldrums of the high-mound '60s. Years before the sabermetrics revolution, Santo was an OBP star, leading the league in walks four times, twice in OBP. He was also remarkably durable, playing in 154 games or more in 11 straight seasons; if you recognize that health is a skill as valuable as any other, Santo had it, but playing for Leo Durocher, you pretty much had to.
Break out the more advanced stats, and you can get an even greater respect for his value: among players who spent at least 60 percent of their careers at third base since World War II (and integration in '47), Santo ranks as one of the top 10 third basemen via WAR, if you check the table.
Obviously, there are flaws to this sort of quick-and-dirty exercise. Jay Jaffe's more thorough exercise on third basemen, repeated on the occasion of Santo's passing in December, essentially has Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs, Rolen, Brett, Santo and Jones at the top of his rankings. And it's notable that a year from now we'll be moving Alex Rodriguez onto this list, when A-Rod will have finally played more games at third than short. He'll be knocking everyone -- from Michael Jack Schmidt on -- down a peg.
However you want to slice it, Santo belongs in the conversation, and always has. He's wound up as the first guy on the wrong side of that line between Hall of Famers and everybody else. Maybe that line will move upward with Rolen once his career ends, should the electors not take a shine to him, but if it does that won't be just to either man. The most important thing to note beyond Santo's value in simple tallies is the notion of position scarcity. At a time when third basemen are in short supply, we should be especially sympathetic, because the '60s had much the same problem. Other than Dick Allen's sporadic, oft-bobbled brand of greatness, Santo was the best player in the league at the position, and the guy who, through his peak, was also on the short list for best players in the league, at any position.
The indignity of Santo's absence from the Hall of Fame is one of those institutional mistakes that may never get corrected, but you can hope that isn't so. The BBWAA blew it at every point despite getting multiple bites at this apple, even when given a reprieve after initially blowing it on his first ballot in 1980 -- Santo was in a group of players re-added to the ballot after initially getting dropped for not getting enough votes the first time out. Even restored to the ballot, the writers never gave Santo more than the 43 percent he received in his last year on their ballot in 1998. Iterations of the Veterans Committee placed him first or tied for first on their ballots three different times (in 2005, 2007 and 2009) without ever qualifying him for the Hall, so it isn't like the writers are alone in booting their opportunities to give Santo his props.
Obviously, if Santo finally does get in posthumously as part of the 2012 VC class, it's a long overdue bit of recognition, and just as obviously it will be far too late to have the reliably genial Santo there to accept the honor. At this point, voting for Santo might have as much to do with purging any lingering guilt among the electors as it does with belatedly acknowledging the obvious: Ron Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame. At least in Chicago there's a piece of bronze to provide the man his tribute, today and tomorrow.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.