R.I.P. to Bill Buckner, an All-Star first baseman, a tough out, a player who battled through numerous injuries to play in 22 seasons and yes, an infamous World Series scapegoat. Buckner died today, May 27, at the age of 69. He played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1969-1976), Chicago Cubs (1977-1984), Boston Red Sox (1984-1987; 1990), California Angels (1987-88) and Kansas City Royals (1988-1989).
Buckner’s family issued the following statement today:
“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family. Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The above song is “Buckner’s Bolero” by The Baseball Project. I happened to listen to it earlier today before news of his passing broke, and I thought once again about the injustice of one error at precisely the wrong time. I grew up in Chicago at the time when Bill Buckner was by far the best player on a string of really bad Cubs teams, so it’s always bothered me that he’s remembered for an error and not all the other great things he did in his career. On the other hand, as the song above notes, at least Buckner is remembered. If Mookie Wilson strikes out or hits a clean single up the middle, what becomes of Buckner’s legacy? He doesn’t make a widely publicized return to the Red Sox as a beloved alumnus, and he doesn’t go on to star in TV commercials. At least this way, when people talk about his World Series error, they can also mention that Buckner had a really excellent career.
Bill Buckner was born on December 14, 1949 in Vallejo, Calif. His rise to the majors was a pretty quick one. He played for Napa High School and hit .688 as a junior in 1967. That is not a typo. He had 22 hits in 33 at-bats, with 15 runs and 9 RBIs. He “slumped” to .513 as a senior but still led his league in hitting. The Dodgers drafted him in the 2nd Round of the 1968 Amateur Draft and sent him to the Rookie League Ogden Dodgers. He hit .344, just a bit ahead of his teammate Steve Garvey (338). They finished #2 and #3 in the batting title, respectively; another Ogden player, Tom Paciorek, hit .386 to lead the league.
Buckner hit over .300 while playing for AA Albuquerque and AAA Spokane in 1969 and made his major-league debut on September 21 of that year. He popped to second base against Gaylord Perry of the Giants for his only MLB plate appearance of the year. He had a longer stint in the majors in 1970 but struggled, batting .191 in 28 games, primarily as a left fielder. He became a regular player in 1971 and would spend most of the next two decades as an everyday player. He he was mainly an outfielder for the length of his Dodgers career, as Garvey had entrenched himself as one of the NL’s best first basemen by then.
In his six full seasons with Los Angeles, Buckner hit over .300 three times, with a high of .319 in 1972. He stole 31 bases in 1974 while hitting .314. The only down season was in 1975, when an ankle injury held him to a .243 batting average and 92 games played. Ankle problems would haunt him for the rest of his career.
Buckner was traded to the Cubs in January 1977, along with Ivan DeJesus, for Mike Garman and Rick Monday. For the next seven seasons, Buckner was a mainstay in the Cubs lineup, Playing first base now, he usually hit over .300 with at least 10 home runs. He won the 1980 batting title with a .324 average and led the NL in doubles twice, including 35 two-baggers in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He earned his only All-Star nomination that year as well, slashing .311/.349/.480 for a 130 OPS+. He grounded to first base against Dave Stieb in his only All-Star at-bat.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Cubs were finally good in 1984, but Buckner barely played. After hitting .280 in 1983, which was low for him, Buckner was benched in ’84 in favor of Leon Durham. He batted .209 in 21 games before being traded to Boston, in exchange for Dennis Eckersley. Buckner was 34, but he was far from done in the majors. After performing well for the Sox for the rest of 1984, Buckner set career highs in 1985 in doubles (46), RBIs (110) and hits (201), and his .299 average was one base hit away from being another .300 season. His batting average dropped to .267 in 1986, but he still homered a career-high 18 times and drove in 102 runs. Despite the fact that his ankles were causing near-daily pain, he played in 162 games in ’85 and 153 games in ’86.
Buckner didn’t hit particularly well in the 1986 postsesason, and we’ll say no more about that damned ground ball. But I will say this. The heartbreaking loss the Red Sox suffered was in Game 6 of a 7-game series. They had to go and lose to the Mets 8-5 in Game Seven to lose the Series. It’s fair to say that instead of Bill Buckner costing the Red Sox a World Series championship, the Red Sox cost the Red Sox a World Series championship.
Jason Stark, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was somewhat prophetic when he wrote about Buckner on October 24, 1986 — one day before That Game. He noted that watching Buckner score from second base on a hit or try to chase down a foul pop was painful to watch, due to his gimpy ankles.
“But you can’t help but admire this man for the fire that burns inside him,” Stark wrote. “He has waited too long for this to spend the World Series walking around the dugout leaning on a cane.”
Following the ’86 season, Buckner became more of an itinerant ballplayer for the rest of his career. He played half-seasons with the Red Sox, Angels, Royals and back to the Red Sox to finish off his career. He retired after the 1990 season with 2517 games played, 2715 hits that included 498 doubles and 174 homers, and a slash line of .289/.321/.408. He stole 183 bases in his career too, and his fielding percentage at first base was a solid .992.
After his playing career, he and his family moved to a ranch in Idaho, and he largely stayed out of baseball. The worst elements of Boston fandom and Boston media pretty much drove him out of Massachusetts, but he was an outdoorsman, so the hunting and fishing was probably better in Idaho anyway. He did serve as a batting coach for a few seasons when the Cubs had a Rookie League team in Boise. Regardless of how Boston media and the dark side of Red Sox Nation treated him after the ’86 Series, Buckner had settled into a nice life and didn’t seem to harbor much resentment. He even attended baseball card shows with Wilson, the Met who hit that… you know.
Buckner made a return to Fenway Park in 2008 to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. He almost turned down the invitation but decided at the last minute to attend.
“I prayed about it a little, and here I am. Glad I came,” he told reporters afterwards. After a standing ovation, Buckner threw a strike to his old Red Sox teammate, Dwight Evans.
“No one played harder than Bill,” Evans said. “No one prepared themselves as well as Bill Buckner did, and no one wanted to win as much as Bill Buckner.”
Kevin Youkilis, then of the Red Sox, said he made a point to shake Buckner’s hand after the first pitch.
“I’ve probably never almost been in tears for somebody else on the baseball field,” he said. “There’s not too many people that can do what he did today and face thousands of people that booed him, threatened his life. For a man to step out there on the field, it shows how much of a man he is.”