Bill Buckner (1949-2019) Didn’t Let His Error Define Him

Fred Merkle, Fred Snodgrass, and Mickey Owen had it easy by comparison. In a time before television and the internet, they didn’t have to endure the endless replay of their infamous gaffes, the worst moments of their professional careers re-stoking the enmity of championship-starved fans at the press of a button. Bill Buckner, who died on Monday at the age of 69, wasn’t so lucky in that regard. While the man spent parts of 22 seasons in the majors, finished with a .300 batting average or better seven times, won a batting title, made an All-Star team, started for two pennant winners, and racked up a career total of 2,715 hits, all of that was overshadowed by the Mookie Wilson ground ball that trickled through his legs in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The clip (find it yourself) lives on eternally, the indelible image of his miscue accompanied by the excited voice of Vin Scully in one of his most memorable calls — a thrilling moment, unless you happened to be on the wrong end of it.

Though he was just one of several players who played prominent roles in Boston’s series loss, Buckner received countless boos and even death threats for his role in prolonging the Red Sox’s decades-long championship drought. Thankfully, both he and the Red Sox faithful eventually achieved some closure and catharsis regarding the matter. After a career spent grinding through countless ankle surgeries, injuries that required him to begin treatments five hours before game time — “Billy is the only guy in the game with cauliflowered feet,” quipped the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray in 1987 — he never lost the respect of the baseball world, and he accepted his spot in history with dignity and a measure of defiance.

According to his family, Buckner died after a battle with Lewy Body Dementia, a neurodegenerative disease that shares similarities with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Born in Vallejo, California on December 14, 1949, Buckner took to baseball so quickly as a youth that his mother falsified his birth certificate so that he could begin playing Little League a year early. At Napa High School, in addition to excelling as a lefty-swinging first baseman, he earned all-state as well as Coaches All America honors as a wide receiver. The Dodgers chose him in the second round in 1968 as part of the greatest draft haul the game has seen. In the four phases of the draft as it existed at the time, the team selected six players — Buckner, Doyle Alexander, and Tom Paciorek in the regular June draft; Davey Lopes in the January secondary phase, and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey in the June secondary phase — who would make a total of 23 All-Star teams, and signed 11 players who would combine for 235.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference’s version) at the major league level. (All of those are records according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis.)

Buckner started his professional career alongside Garvey, Paciorek, and Bobby Valentine (also a 1968 draftee) at the Dodgers’ Ogden (Utah) affiliate under future Dodgers manager (and Hall of Famer) Tommy Lasorda. He hit .344/.373/.492 as an 18-year-old, thereby finishing between Paciorek and Garvey in the Pioneer League batting race. The next year, after hitting .310/.330/.418 split between the team’s Double-A Albuquerque and Triple-A Spokane affiliates, the 19-year-old Buckner made his major league debut on September 21, 1969, popping out in a pinch-hitting at-bat against the Giants’ Gaylord Perry. The next spring, his batting practice session caught the eye of Ted Williams, who said, “You don’t have to worry. You’re going to be an excellent hitter one of these days.” Though Buckner broke camp as the team’s starting left fielder — Wes Parker, then in the midst of a run of six straight Gold Gloves, was the incumbent first baseman, necessitating the position switch — he went just 4-for-33 before being returned to Spokane, where he spent the bulk of the 1970 season, playing through a broken jaw suffered in a collision with Lopes and Valentine.

Buckner stuck in the majors for good the following year, emerging as an aggressive, contact-centric lefty, albeit one with only modest power. From 1971-76, he hit .292 — that is, .292/.322/.383, for a 101 wRC+, while striking out in just 4.3% of his plate appearances, and walking in 3.9%. He spent time at both outfield corners and first base, though in mid-1973, he became the odd man out when the Dodgers chose to move Garvey, a weak-armed third baseman with whom they experimented in the outfield, to first base, where he joined Lopes, Cey, and Bill Russell in what became the longest-running infield in baseball history, the anchor of four NL pennant winners and one World Series winner. Buckner returned to left field, where he enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1974 (.314/.351/.412, 7 HR, 31 SB, 3.4 WAR); he placed fourth in the NL batting race while helping the Dodgers to their first pennant since 1966. Though he hit a solo homer off Catfish Hunter in Game 3 of the World Series, he went just 5-for-20 without another extra-base hit or RBI in the Series as the Dodgers fell to the A’s in five games.

After a dismal 1975 season marred by a severe left ankle sprain that eventually required season-ending surgery, Buckner hit .301/.326/.389 with seven homers, 28 steals, and a career-high 3.7 WAR in 1976. With his stock high, he was traded to the Cubs as part of a five-player deal that sent Rick Monday to Los Angeles. He spent seven full seasons in Chicago, stuck on a team that was going nowhere; the Cubs’ 81-81 record in 1977, his first season with the team, was the best they could do during his stay. Buckner hit .300/.332/.439 as a Cub, finishing with a .300 batting average or higher four times and receiving down-ballot MVP consideration in each of those seasons. In 1980, he hit .324/.353/.457, edging Keith Hernandez for the NL batting title, all while striking out just 18 times in 578 PA (2.9%). During the strike-torn 1981 season, he hit .311/.349/.480 while making his lone All-Star team.

Dissatisfied with losing, Buckner wanted out of Chicago, and after Leon Durham — soon to gain infamy himself for a ground ball through the legs at a critical moment in the postseason — emerged as the team’s first baseman of choice, the 34-year-old Buckner was traded to the Red Sox on May 25, 1984 in exchange for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley. Thus, he missed out on the Cubs’ first postseason appearance in 39 years. Buckner was subpar that year, but in 1985 he matched his career highs of 201 hits and 16 homers while batting .299/.325/.447 for Boston, playing in 162 games for the only time in his career and driving in a career-best 110 runs.

Though he hit a career-high 18 homers in 1986 while driving in 102 runs (second on the team behind Jim Rice), Buckner’s gaudy counting stats concealed a thin .267/.311/.421 (91 wRC+) line boosted by a red-hot September (.315/.364/.574 with eight homers) as the Red Sox pulled away in the AL East. His bat went cold in the postseason (12-for-60 with one double and four RBI), and Red Sox manager John McNamara substituted seldom-used reserve Dave Stapleton for the gimpy, 36-year-old Buckner in the late innings of each ALCS and World Series game where Boston had the lead. An October 24, 1986 column by the Kansas City Star’s Jack Etkin detailed Buckner’s various ailments: a strained right Achilles tendon, suffered while trying to beat out a hit in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Angels — necessitating his ninth cortisone shot of the season to deaden the pain — and aggravated while fielding a Dwight Gooden bunt in Game 2 of the series; a left ankle in need of a fourth surgery; bone chips on the top of his left foot, which were scheduled to be surgically removed as well; plus a knee and hamstring and quadriceps muscles that required regular pregame icing. Buckner wore specially designed high-topped shoes to help him manage his injuries, but he told Etkin regarding his left ankle, “It’s like if you have a toothache for 10 years. It’s something you get used to.”

Despite Buckner’s woes, the Red Sox were in position to clinch the team’s first championship since 1918 in Game 6 against the Mets. Boston scored in each of the first two innings against Mets starter Bob Ojeda, but the Mets rallied for a pair of runs in the fifth inning against Roger Clemens. A Ray Knight error led to an unearned run in the top of the seventh, and when Clemens completed the frame with a 1-2-3 inning, the Red Sox were six outs away from their championship. Both in the immediate aftermath and through the years, McNamara claimed that Clemens told him as he came off the field, “That’s all I can pitch,” due to a blister or cut on his finger; according to Peter Gammons’ unofficial count, he had thrown 135 pitches to that point. While Clemens has since disputed McNamara’s account, the New York Times’ reported at the time, “Clemens said he was forced out of the game because of a blister on the middle finger of his right hand. It had been cause by throwing sliders.”

Reliever Calvin Schiraldi, who hadn’t pitched in a week since saving Game 1, surrendered the tying run in the eighth, but remained in the game. Boston scored twice in the top of the 10th via Dave Henderson’s solo homer and a pair of two-out hits by Wade Boggs (a double) and Marty Barrett (a single); Buckner, still in the game, was hit by a pitch right after Barrett’s single, but advanced no further. Schiraldi retired the first two batters in the bottom of the 10th, but three straight singles, the last a two-strike hit by Knight, kept the Mets alive, cutting the score to 5-4. McNamara brought in Bob Stanley to face Wilson, and he too got within one strike of the final out, but his 2-2 pitch sailed inside, sending Wilson scrambling as the ball squirted past catcher Rich Gedman, bringing Kevin Mitchell home from third base with the tying run as Knight advanced to second base. Wilson fouled off a pair of pitches and then chopped “a little roller up along first,” (as Scully called it). The ball squirted through Buckner’s legs — “a croquet shot through Buckner’s wicket,” as Gammons later described it — and into right field as Knight scored the series-tying run. Champagne and a riser for the presentation of the World Series trophy had to be hastily cleared from the Boston clubhouse.

“I was playing a lot deeper than I normally do because I didn’t want them to get a hit down the line,” said Buckner after the game. “It was a slow roller with a lot of spin. I thought I watched it good. It bounced, it bounced, but the last bounce didn’t bounce, it scooted.”

“I haven’t missed a ground ball in two months,” he added. “That’s a hell of a time to miss one.” Buckner said that he believed the speedy Wilson would have beaten Stanley to the bag, had he fielded the ball cleanly, though Stanley disputed that assertion.

Said McNamara in the immediate aftermath, “I never thought about taking [Buckner] out tonight. He has very good hands.” In a 2011 retrospective for MLB Network, he again defended his decision:

“Buckner was the best first baseman I had. And Dave Stapleton has taken enough shots at me since that he didn’t get in that ballgame, but Dave Stapleton’s nickname was Shakey. And you know what that implies. I didn’t want him playing first base to end that game, and it was not any sentimental thing that I had for Billy Buck.”

For as bad as it was, Buckner’s error was just one of several bad breaks that merely evened the World Series. After Game 7 was postponed for a day by rain, Dwight Evans‘ three-run homer off Ron Darling gave Boston a 3-0 lead it took into the bottom of the sixth inning. Alas, the Mets broke through against flagging starter Bruce Hurst for three runs, then three more against a gassed Schiraldi in the seventh. Buckner sparked an eighth-inning rally with a leadoff single against Roger McDowell, his second hit of the night. Rice singled, and then Evans’ two-run double trimmed the lead to 6-5, but the Mets pulled away for an 8-5 victory. It was the first time in World Series history that a team had come within one out of clinching, only to lose the whole thing.

In the wake of his surgeries and the endless controversy about what transpired in Game 6, Buckner wore a brave face. Shortly after undergoing surgery, he received a warm reception at a Boston parade to honor the team, calling it “the most incredible experience of my career.” Prior to a mid-1987 exhibition with the Mets, a fundraiser for Boston’s Jimmy Fund and the New York City Amateur Baseball Foundation that had been scheduled prior to the two teams’ October matchup, he joked about fielding grounders from Wilson, and the Shea Stadium crowd gave him a pair of standing ovations.

Nonetheless, he struggled at the plate to the point of being released on July 23. He bounced around thereafter, spending time with the Angels (1987-88) and Royals (’88-89) before returning to Boston for the start of the 1990 season. Fans greeted him with a standing ovation upon his return. Wrote the Boston Globe’s David Nyhan, “Only by forgiving Billy Buck can we begin to be wiser. Because that pain, that loss, was never confronted, chewed, swallowed, and digested, the way it should have been. Grief has to be dismantled, brick by brick. But banishing Buckner for his sin deprived us of the opportunity to forgive.”

The 40-year-old Buckner played sparingly in his return, going just 8-for-43 before drawing his release in early June. He retired with a .289/.321/.408 line, 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, and 18.8 WAR (dragged down by -3.6 WAR over his final four seasons). His penchant for contact may be his most distinctive stat; his 4.5% strikeout rate is the fourth-lowest of the post-1960 expansion era.

Though he had received a measure of forgiveness from the Fenway faithful, Buckner could not completely escape the legacy of his fateful play. In 1993, he moved his family to a ranch in Meridian, Idaho, where he invested in real estate. Meridian “isn’t a sports town,” his wife Jody told the Wall Street Journal in 1998. “Nobody in this town would talk about Willie in a derogatory way.” Buckner did return to baseball intermittently, initially working as the White Sox’s hitting coach in 1996-97 and finally, after a brief stint managing in the independent Can-Am League in 2011, as the hitting instructor for the Cubs’ Boise affiliate from 2012-14.

For better and worse, the play followed him. He and Wilson became friends, and like the inextricably linked Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson before them, the pair hit the collectibles circuit, autographing memorabilia and posing for photos. “We both sent our kids to college with that deal,” Buckner later explained. But in 2006, Buckner recounted instances where he nearly came to blows with unruly fans. “I think what bothered me the most is the people — my immediate family and mother, wife, kids — I think it was unfortunate that they had to endure it,” he said. “It was a lot harder on them than on me, because they didn’t like to see how people were treating me.”

Buckner shied away from overtures to join the festivities after the Red Sox finally won their long-awaited championship in 2004. “I was almost offended that people thought that was supposed to make me feel good,” he said in 2005. “I mean, I’ve got to laugh at it: We forgive Bill Buckner. For what? What crime did he commit?” He bypassed the 1986 team’s 20th anniversary celebration in 2006 as well. In 2008, however, he accepted an invitation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the home opener at Fenway Park as the Red Sox celebrated their ’07 championship. Again, he received a standing ovation:

In 2011, Buckner made light of his World Series play in a guest spot on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. After dropping a Wilson-autographed ball out the window on a surprise throw by star Larry David, he later made a heroic, diving catch of an infant thrown from the window of a burning building:

Even before that round of public acceptance, Buckner had come to peace with his lot and took pride in his career and its aftermath. “When I look back at my job, baseball, and my life, I maxed out,” he said in 2005. “I did physically everything I could do. What more could you ask of yourself?”

“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘You really helped me in my life,'” he added. “‘I looked at what you had to go through, and how you handled it, and my life is better because of that.”‘





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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nvcjr1
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nvcjr1

Outstanding piece. I know enough people have said it already but his remembrance yesterday and today has already been shrouded by mentions of that play, especially with what ESPN featured on their crawl.

SirCharlesK
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SirCharlesK

It almost felt like ESPN was forced to include the thing about how many hits he had in his career just so that it would be okay to immediately mention the play in 86.

Bat
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Bat

Not a Hall of Famer – other than in terms of graciousness for talking extensively about the play immediately after the conclusion of Game 6 and the way that he handled his ignominy in the years that followed. But I did hear two phenomenal Buckner stats…I do not have the time to confirm the veracity but share them nonetheless:

(1) Of batters with at least 10,000 ABs, he struck out the second least…to Tony Gwynn.

(2) He never struck out two or more times in a game in his entire career.

Needless to say, that is incredible hand-eye coordination.

Stat (2) makes you wonder…if Buckner played in a different era and did not care about strikeouts but focused on power and launch angle, would he have had a completely different WAR total? No answer of course, just fun speculation.