Bill Buckner, A Baseball Player Unfairly Defined By One Bad Play, Dead At 69

Bill Buckner, the former first baseman for the Boston Red Sox whose career was defined by one bad play in the 10th inning of the Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, has died at the age of 69:

Bill Buckner, an outfielder and first baseman whose long, solid career was overshadowed by a crushing error that cost the Boston Red Sox Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets, who went on to win the championship in seven, died on Monday. He was 69.

His death was confirmed in a statement by his family and shared on Twitter by the ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap. The statement said Buckner had Lewy body dementia.

Buckner was tough on the field, battling injuries for much of his career, and dependable at the plate, registering a .300 batting average in seven seasons and amassing 2,715 hits and 174 home runs during his two decades in the major leagues.

Buckner came up through the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, starting in the minors under Tommy Lasorda, who would go on to manage the Dodgers themselves to great success. With Los Angeles, Buckner played in the 1974 World Series, which the team lost to the Oakland Athletics in five games.

Moving to the Chicago Cubs, he won the National League’s batting title in 1980 with a .324 average, led the National League in doubles in 1981 (with 35) and 1983 (38), and was an All-Star in 1981.

Buckner began his career mainly as a speedy outfielder, but he had a bad ankle injury in 1975, and by the time he went to Boston, in a trade in 1984, he had become a full-time first baseman.

It was at first base that he made the error that would haunt him. Boston, facing the Mets, was looking for its first World Series championship since 1918.

It was the bottom of the 10th inning at Shea Stadium in New York, and the Mets had scored two runs to tie the score, 5-5, with Ray Knight on second base. There were two outs, and outfielder Mookie Wilson came to the plate.

With a full count, Wilson, batting left-handed, hit a slow bouncer up the first-base line off reliever Bob Stanley, and to the fans at Shea and in the television audience, it looked like an easy third out. All Buckner had to do was scoop it up and touch first base, and the Red Sox would have had another chance to come to the plate in the 11th and possibly win the title that their fans had craved for 68 years.

It was not to be. The ball unaccountably skipped between Buckner’s legs and into the outfield. Knight dashed home, scoring the winning run as Mets fans went wild and sending the Series to a seventh game in New York.

The Mets won that one, too, 8-5, ensuring that Boston’s long dry spell would, to the bitter consternation of Red Sox fans, drag on, and cementing the most amazing Mets season in memory.

Buckner, who endured heckling for years as the goat in Boston’s defeat, told The New York Times in 2011 that his error remained, unfortunately, unforgettable.

“You can never really forget it because it comes up all the time,” he said. “I’m a competitive guy, so it’s something I didn’t enjoy. But for some reason, the stars were all lined up just right for the Mets that year, and here we are, 25 years later, still talking about it.”

Buckner underwent ankle and foot surgery during the off-season and started the 1987 season slowly. The Red Sox released him partway through the campaign, and Buckner went on to play for the California Angels and the Kansas City Royals before ending his career back in Boston in 1990, when he was 41. By then the fans were more forgiving: On his return to Fenway Park, they cheered.

Released by the Red Sox that year, Buckner retired. He moved with his family to a ranch in Meridian, Idaho, in 1993.

Ten years later, he told The Boston Globe that his World Series error did not weigh too heavily on him.

“There could be somebody in my shoes who would think that life sucks,” Buckner said. “I chose to look at it that life is great. You can make those choices. Everyone in life has things that don’t go according to plan.”

Dan Shaughnessy at The Boston Globe has his own thoughts about Buckner:

Bill Buckner had more big league hits than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. He was an All-Star and won a batting title. Playing on ankles that had to be iced almost round the clock, he knocked in 102 runs for the pennant-winning Red Sox in 1986.

He played 22 seasons in the majors and twice made it to the World Series. He was a good teammate and a solid family man. He aged better than most retired athletes and always looked like he could still give you a couple of innings when he’d return to Fenway Park tanned and fit.

But for the final 33 years of his life, Buckner was best known as the guy who missed the ground ball. For many fans and media members, it defined him. And it was unfair.

(…)

On the night this happened, the Red Sox had not won the World Series in 68 years. It was eight years after Bucky Dent. The Bruins hadn’t won a Cup in 16 years. The Patriots had never won anything. Except for the Celtics, Boston was Loserville.

Buckner’s error did not lose the World Series. Not even close. It was merely the final play in a game that was already tied. And it was only Game 6. The Sox did not lose the Series until two nights later. The Sox had a million other chances to win that World Series. But Buckner’s error became the worldwide metaphor for cataclysmic failure. It was cinematic sports shorthand for hideous defeat.

“Bill fell on the sword. The sword was thrown on him for what happened to us in that World Series,” teammate Bruce Hurst said Monday. “It wasn’t right. Without Billy, I don’t think we even make it there.”

“That always bothered me,” Red Sox legend Dwight Evans said Monday.

“Everyone thinks that’s why we lost, and it’s not. Bill was a great ballplayer. He was one tough man, and we would not have been there without him.”

(…)

He retired at the age of 40 and became a minor league hitting instructor.

But the grounder followed him into retirement. In 1993, Buckner got into a dustup with a wiseguy fan outside of Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium. A week later, he abandoned baseball and moved his family to a ranch in Meridian, Idaho.

He found peace after that. Allowing himself to be the butt of the joke, he filmed a Nike commercial with Spike Lee and Willie Mays. He did autograph shows with Mookie Wilson, signing photographs of the play. He appeared with Larry David in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” In “Curb,” Buckner’s error is the running joke. Buckner ultimately saves the day at the end of the episode, catching an infant thrown from a burning building.

There was even ultimate forgiveness at Fenway, much of it owed to the Red Sox’ new image as champions.

In April 2008, on the day the 2007 world champion Red Sox received their rings, Buckner received a standing ovation before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Evans was Buckner’s catcher that day.

“I went out to the mound after catching that pitch and he was crying like a little kid,” Evans said Monday. “It meant so much to him.”

It was cathartic. For Buckner. And for us.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner said. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

First paragraph. First sentence.

Life is unfair.

Even in death.

Even as a Yankees fan I can acknowledge that Buckner was a far better player than that one play in the 1986 World Series made him out to be. Until reading the Shaughnessy column, though, I didn’t realize that he had more career hits than DiMaggio or Williams, a statistic that, on its own, makes a good argument for why he should be considered as a Hall of Fame candidate. Buckner played for 22 years for five different teams. He played on two teams that made it to the World Series, the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers and 1986 Boston Red Sox. He was an All-Star in 1981 and National League batting champion in 1980. As Shaugnessey notes, he has more career hits than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams and has the most hits for an infielder who is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead of being remembered for that, though, he was unfairly blamed for a loss in Game 6 that was clearly the result of a number of mistakes by the Red Sox and by sheer dumb luck in favor of the Mets, and as Shaugnessey, one of the best sportswriters in the business, put it that’s just unfair.

Update: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Buckner had been on a World Series winning team in 1975. The Los Angeles Dodgers actually lost that series to Oakland. The post has been updated to correct the error.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Sports
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    The Dallas Cowboys had a similar story with Jackie Smith. He’d played the 1963–1977 seasons with divisional foe St. Louis Cardinals and retired. Tom Landry persuaded him to unretire four games into the 1978 season after an injury to Jay Saldi. And then this happened:

    Smith eventually made his only trip to the Super Bowl, which would end up leaving a mark on his career. With the Cowboys trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-14 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII, Smith dropped a third down pass in the end zone from Staubach, so instead of tying the score, the team had to settle for a field goal. Although this wasn’t the only critical play or turning point of the game and Staubach has also mentioned at different times that it was a poorly thrown pass, because it was such an iconic play, Smith was singled out in the media for the 35-31 loss. ESPN ranked Smith’s dropped pass in the end zone #24 on their list of “100 Greatest Super Bowl Moments”.

    He retired for good after that game. And it was the thing for which he was remembered despite a hell of a career:

    At the time, Smith’s 7,918 career receiving yards were the most ever by an NFL tight end, until he was surpassed by Ozzie Newsome’s 7,980 yards in 1990.

    Thankfully, there was eventually a happy ending: He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

  2. Teve says:

    Bill Buckner, A Baseball Player Unfairly Defined By One Bad Play, Dead At 69

    Ironic Headline Promotes Perception It Complains About

    2
    1
  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    RIP.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I read somewhere that on the last full day of Buckner’s life 16 major league players struck out at least three times. Buckner played 22 years and never did that, not once.
    RIP, sir.

  5. Bill says:

    @Teve:

    Ironic Headline Promotes Perception It Complains About

    Someone once wrote- My mother taught me irony. She once saying to me ‘If I said it once I have said it a million times, never exaggerate’.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    Bruckner emerged as the goat of Game 6, but the Red Sox had already blown a 2-run/2-out lead with nobody on. Blaming it on his error was ridiculous, and the majority of Red Sox fans I’ve known have always brought that up.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: The announcers at my town’s major league team remarked during their broadcast yesterday that over a 20 yr career Buckner never struck out 40 times in one season. I thought that was one of the most amazing statistics ever. (And in baseball, that’s a LOT of statistics!) Edit: He never struck out OVER 40 times/season.

    In off-topic but sports related news, I see the Spanish authorities have arrested several soccer players for throwing games. And I wonder because soccer is getting such a wave of popular acceptance in the US.

  8. EddieInCA says:

    As a Dodger fan growing up, Bill Buckner was someone I enjoyed watching. When I was about 15, I got his autograph during batting practice when my friends and I snuck down to the field level and called out to him over the railing. He came over, sighed our autograph books (remember those?), and told me, “Thanks for coming to watch us play.”

    Although he played for many other teams, in my mind he will always be a Dodger; one that always seemed to get a hit when the team needed it most, and who almost NEVER struck out.

    Thanks for letting me watch you play.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    I really like that piece by Shaughnessy. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Slugger says:

    To fulfill my job as resident looker outside the immediate focus let me point out that Niki Lauda died May 20, 2019. He will be interred wearing Ferrari gear. I read some wag saying that Niki is being buried because it has been proven impossible to cremate him.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    One of the tropes in baseball is the curse that goes with having a former Cub on your team. As noted Billy Buckner was a former Cub first baseman when he made that error.
    But before that there was Buckner’s replacement when he left the Cubs. Leon “Bull” Durham and the final game of the 1984 National League Championship Series. At that time the NLCS was a 5 game event. The cubs had won the first two in Chicago and all they had to do was win 1 of 3 in San Diego and they would be World Series bound for the first time since 1945.
    HA! Good luck with that!
    Even though the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016 Durham’s miscue in that game is still painful to dwell on.
    I’ll leave it to this:

    Groundball hit to Durham…RIGHT THROUGH HIS LEGS!!! Here comes Martínez, we’re tied at three!
    — ABC’s Don Drysdale calling Cubs first basemen Leon Durham’s crucial error in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS.

    The joke in Chicago the next day went something like this:
    “What do Leon Dueham and Michael Jackson have in common?”
    “Why, they are both black. Anyone can see that!”
    “No. What Leon Durham and Michael Jackson have in common is that they both wear a glove on just one hand and nobody knows why!”

  12. Tyrell says:

    That is the way I remember it too: Red Sox had lots of chances to win that game. One of the few times that I wanted the Red Sox to win, mainly because they were playing the Mets, the team that beat the Baltimore Orioles in 1969.
    If they had got some clutch hits, it would not have gone into extra innings.

  13. Guarneri says:

    Professional baseball players don’t let third rate grounders go through their legs. I played competitive golf. You don’t fan 7 irons into the water on 18. You just don’t.

    He deserves the criticism.

    The real tragedy here is that he was hit with this dementia at an early age. Don’t you agree?

  14. EddieInCA says:

    @Guarneri:

    You’re an a-hole.

    Professional baseball players let third rate grounders go through their legs EVERY DAY in the major leagues.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Major_League_Baseball_annual_fielding_errors_leaders

    Lots of Hall of Famers on this list.

    Also, did you see the Masters Golf Tournament this year. Not one, but TWO players fanned 8 irons into 12. Molinari, the 7th ranked player in the world was one of them. The other was Tony Finau, who is currently the 13th ranked player in the world. He fanned a nine iron right into Rae’s creek.

    I saw Jordan Speith fan two shots into the water on 12 at Augusta a few years ago. He had a five stroke lead at the time. He lost. He was ranked #2 in the world.

    You’re an a-hole.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    …a-hole.
    Which part of the links is this on?
    The back nine?