Don Buddin wasn’t a good player, though he wasn’t a bad one. The former Red Sox shortstop died Thursday, June 30, at the age of 77, an embodiment of an age that no one at Fenway particularly wants to remember. As Dan Shaughnessy wrote in an unexpectedly tender eulogy for him: “Buddin became the poster boy for bad times… And the nasty stuff from the stands sounds louder when there are only 8,000 people in the ballpark.” Boston Globe writer Martin F. Nolan referred to the time as “the empty-seat epoch of Don Buddin.”
Buddin hit .244 over his five full seasons with the Sox: 1956 and 1958-1961. (He missed the 1957 season, spending the year in military service in Korea.) During his years with the team, Buddin held down the starting shortstop position while the team remained lily-white and Pumpsie Green (who would later become the Red Sox’s first African-American player) was kept in the minors. When Buddin remained the team’s starting shortstop on Opening Day in 1959, after Green had hit .400 in spring training, the fans booed. Racist manager Pinky Higgins — who had once said, “There’ll be no n****s on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it” — was fired that July, and Green was finally called up to the majors, but he was just used as a utility infielder. Higgins was rehired in 1960, and Green never received more than 260 at-bats in a season in his career. At the time of Green’s callup in 1959, the Boston Globe wrote, “Pumpsie Green can only hope he is given as much opportunity to prove himself as Don Buddin.” Needless to say, he wasn’t.
Though team owner Tom Yawkey paid an estimated $50,000 bonus to sign Buddin out of high school, believing he “could become one of the top ballplayers of his time,” Buddin was one of the least surehanded shortstops ever. In Boston, he averaged 30 errors a year, despite only playing an average of 126 games a year. Two years after Buddin left the Sox, the Sox acquired Dick Stuart, the stone-handed former Pirate who first earned the nickname “Dr. Strangeglove.” But Buddin deserved the nickname more than Stuart ever did; Stuart didn’t make 30 errors in a season even once. Still, Buddin had no shortage of dubious nicknames, including “Bootsie,” “Bootin’ Buddin,” and “E-6.”
Buddin struggled to explain just why he had so much trouble. In that same 1959 spring training, when Green was tearing the cover off the ball, the Associated Press noted that Buddin was putting in extra work on ground balls, and quoted him as saying: “The easy chance has been ruining me… I never have had trouble on the hard shots off to my left and right. But I’ve made errors on balls hit right at me.” And he may have been right: he actually led the AL in range factor in 1956 and 1958, and led the league in double plays in 1956, 1958, and 1959.
Buddin was a small-town kid from South Carolina, and in the tradition of the day, reporters sometimes liked to quote him in dialect. In 1956, the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich praised Buddin as a hot prospect, but made Buddin sound like a rube when he quoted him talking about his hometown of Olanta: “Well, there’s a thousand people live there… the day I graduated from high school, they was a thousand and 14 people, to be exact. They was 14 big league scouts in town that day trying to sign me for bonus money.”
In an era when few shortstops other than Ernie Banks had any power at all, Buddin’s occasional ability to poke one over the fence tantalized his teams. He was the only American League shortstop to hit double-digit home runs in 1958, and one of only two in 1959 (though Cleveland shortstop Woodie Held had a sizeable advantage over him that year, with 29 homers to Buddin’s 12). Still, Buddin generally alternated between hitting leadoff and eighth. Buddin actually was pretty good at working a walk; his career BB% was a terrific 14.8 percent, and his wRC+ was a none-too-shabby 95. He hit for a low average and struck out a bit, but overall, he wasn’t a bad hitter. When he went to the expansion Houston Colt .45’s in 1962, he hit the first grand slam in franchise history.
Even in his day, Buddin always seemed to stand in for something more than himself: ineptitude, or racism, or a team fallen on hard times. In his biography of Ted Williams, Leigh Montville mentioned that in the 1970s, in a Boston bar called The Dugout, there was bathroom graffiti that read as follows: “Don Buddin lives! There is a little bit of him in all of us.” While rereading his baseball card for their book “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book,” Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris came to the same conclusion, though far more unkindly:
Don Buddin was a creative goat. He was the sort of guy who would perform admirably, even flawlessly, for seven or eight innings of a ball game, or until such time as you really needed him. Then he would promptly fold like Dick Contino’s accordion. Choke. Explode. Disintegrate…. If there was a way to make the worst out of a situation, Don Buddin could be counted on to find it. There is a little bit of this in many of us, of course, and quite a bit of it in fact in most, but then again we aren’t being paid big league salaries are we, or being interviewed by “Collier’s” magazine?
There was something in Buddin that made Sox fans boo. It must have gone beyond his errors. In his five full seasons in Boston — 1956 and 1958-1961 — the Sox went 379-399, and averaged 6,726 fans a game. He was hardly the worst player on his teams, which were anchored by an aging Ted Williams (who retired after 1960), and which featured the likes of Sammy White and a past-his-prime Vic Wertz. Buddin wasn’t good and he wasn’t bad: he was worth about 10 WAR in his five seasons in Boston. With his above-average offense and below-average defense, he was almost an exactly average player on a team that lost more games than it won. But they hated him anyway.
The Red Sox believe that he never returned to Fenway after leaving baseball, and you could hardly blame him if it’s true. The team didn’t even know he’d died until his family informed them. He didn’t leave the game he loved: according to a paid obituary from Floyd Funeral Home, he worked with the Special Olympics and played in baseball Old Timers Games. It’s hard to imagine that there was much love lost for Boston after the Sox traded him. His old teammate Bill Monbouquette told Shaughnessy, “I think the fan stuff got to him. He would talk about it. Nothing was ever said when he made good plays.” After Buddin retired, he went back home to South Carolina, where his family remains: two sisters, three children, and seven grandchildren.
Buddin didn’t have a very distinguished or noteworthy career, but he played hard, played pretty well, and had a big family and a long life. We don’t often celebrate the perfectly average players. But there’s no reason to boo them. And Shaughnessy is right: Buddin’s career is worth remembering, because his history is tied to an important, though disgraceful, part of the Red Sox’s past. Don Buddin deserved more cheers than he received. Rest in peace, Don Buddin.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.