On May 27, 2019, Bill Buckner died at the age of 69. We got to know Bill and his wife Jody on a week-long rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River almost 20 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed our time with them.
If you ask any of the major league baseball players who played with or against Bill Buckner in his 22-year career that spanned 2,517 games, they will all tell you he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.
The grounder that Mookie Wilson hit to Bill at first base in the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets changed Bill’s life forever. As Bill bent to the ground, the ball shot between his legs, and Ray Knight rushed home from second base with the game-winning run for the Mets.
Everyone would love to be remembered for a great day in their life: Sully Sullenberger comes to mind. No one wants to be remembered for a single bad day like Bill had in the 1986 World Series, especially given that Bill was a great athlete and an outstanding person. But how he handled that crushing adversity is a true testament to the fine man that he was.
The true facts are these:
(1) Bill had completed his second stellar season for the Red Sox and was a major contributor to their reaching the World Series. In 1985, he played in all 162 games and shattered his own record of assists by a first baseman with 184. (For his career, he was fourth all-time, even though he had not played first base until well into his career – a true testament to his exceptional fielding abilities). In 1985 and 1986, he had 110 and 102 RBI’s. But toward the end of the 1986 season, he was playing with leg injuries, and he struggled through the playoffs.
(2) Bill should not even have been on the field at a critical moment in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. His manager, John McNamara, should have made a late inning defensive replacement for Bill, as he had in games 1, 2 and 5, because Bill was clearly struggling with a debilitating ankle injury.
(3) Even if Bill had cleanly fielded the ball, Wilson was such a fast runner that he would probably have beaten Bill to the bag.
(4) The error did not cost the Sox their first World Series since 1918. The Mets won in game 6, forcing a 7th game two nights later, primarily because the Sox’s pitching collapsed. The Red Sox then lost Game 7.
After the Series, Bill became the scapegoat for the Red Sox fans’ frustrations with their team. He and his wonderful wife Jody were targeted with death threats and verbal abuse that went on for nearly two decades, requiring Bill to keep a security detail for years. And for years, the only thing people wanted to talk about with him was “the error,” and not any of the memorable high points of his career. He even lived through the pain of having a Mets fan ask him to autograph the shoes that Mookie Wilson wore that day. There were countless similar requests for other memorabilia. Thankfully, Mookie embraced Bill, and later in life they became good friends and often attended events together.
Bill went on to play until his legs gave out and he ended his career with 2,715 hits; he batted over .300 seven times. Had he reached 3,000 hits, he surely would have been in the Hall. That is also another story of frustration. In 2000, I had dinner with Bobby Valentine, one of Bill’s closest life-long friends. Bill and Bobby played for the Ogden Pioneers and then the Spokane Indians in the 1960s under manager Tommy Lasorda, before both were brought up to the Dodgers big league team. Bobby told a story of “the road not taken.” When Bill entered free agency, Bobby was managing the Texas Rangers and made Bill an offer he shouldn’t have declined: play for me in Texas and I will guarantee you get your 3,000 hits by either playing first base or DH-ing. At the time, Bill didn’t think reaching that goal would be that hard, and so he accepted a better salary offer from the Red Sox.
After he retired, Bill and Jody settled in Boise, Idaho, where Bill was very generous in supporting youth baseball. He even drove the Bobcat skip loader that was used for doing the finish grading on the new Little League baseball field.
But the high point for Bill in his sunset years was surely the invitation from the Red Sox to throw out the first pitch at the 2008 World Series played at Fenway Park in Boston. The crowd gave Bill a long and heart-felt standing ovation. It was a powerful, and for me a tearful, redemption for “Billy Buck.”
What I will remember, long after the signature on the ball he signed for me fades into oblivion, is how Bill conducted himself with such dignity and calmness in the years after the 1986 series. So often in sports, as in politics and war, someone is wrongly vilified by those not in the arena who are trying to find a scapegoat. JFK’s book “Profiles in Courage” is worth reading for its discussion on this topic or the efforts of Admiral Husband Kimmel’s family to exonerate their father for the blame heaped unfairly on him for the disastrous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
My thanks to all those who spoke up for Bill during his life and at his passing to “set the record straight,” including Jared Diamond’s tribute in the Wall Street Journal. Bill played the game all-out, all of the time, with fierce determination and unmatched professionalism, in an era when pitchers clearly dominated and good and great hitters struggled to excel. (Just ask Mike Schmidt, one of Bill’s contemporaries and perhaps the greatest third baseman in MLB history, how tough it was – Mike’s lifetime average was .267 while Bill hit .289) Bill also rarely struck out and was rated fifth best in the modern era.
Bill, you set the gold standard for grace in an impossibly difficult situation. We remember you for all of the great games over a 22-year career and what you did after you retired. That is your true legacy. You are in my personal Hall of Fame, and one day, God willing, you will also be in the official Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. – Jim