Bill Buckner: Another View

Despite the criticism he faced, Bill Buckner still had a good MLB career. (via Craig Johnson)

For me, Bill Buckner was the Burt Reynolds of baseball. First, he always reminded me of Reynolds physically, with that thick mustache and that jet black hair. (Of course, Burt relied on a toupee, while Buckner’s hair was real.) Buckner was also like Reynolds in another sense. They were both much criticized and vilified: Reynolds for failing to live up to the promise of his early career, and Buckner for both his error in Game Six of the ‘86 World Series and for his inability to draw walks or hit with much power. (For example, a recent article by THT’s Steven Goldman concluded that Buckner was not a very good player.) Within their industries, neither man seemed to have the respect they could have had, or should have had.

Both Reynolds and Buckner deserved better. Reynolds was an excellent actor who made three classic films from three different genres: Deliverance (horror/thriller), The Longest Yard (comedy), and Boogie Nights (drama). He also starred in Smokey and the Bandit, a frivolous but fun film that made a ton of money for folks in Hollywood, and in Sharky’s Machine, an underrated movie about quirky members of a vice squad pursuing a killer.

Similarly, Buckner was a good player. He never won an MVP or played on a world championship team, but did assemble a long and productive career, one that lasted 22 seasons. It’s hard to stick around that long if you’re simply a utilityman or a backup outfielder or a subpar regular, and Buckner was more than any of those things. While not close to being a Hall of Famer, the Buckner of his prime was a player you could win with, as the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers and ‘86 Boston Red Sox could attest.

At his peak, Buckner was an All-Star level player. Look at his numbers from 1980 to 1982, when he manned first base for the Chicago Cubs. He hit for high averages (winning a batting title), showed occasional power, hit a lot of doubles, stole bases, drove in a ton of runs, and played every day. For three years running, he received votes in the National League MVP race, despite the Cubs’ status as a middle-of-the-pack team. Did the writers get it wrong? It’s possible, but not likely — not when he won a batting title during that stretch and put up OPS numbers of .810 and .829. Even if you don’t think of the late-1980s Buckner as a strong player (and I wouldn’t either), I think it’s fair to say that he did a good job for the Cubs in the early part of the decade.

All that said, the story of Buckner comprises far more than just his worth as a player. In terms of player evaluation, many writers can make a better argument than me, either pro-Buckner or anti-Buckner. For me, the fascinating part of Buckner goes beyond all that, and beyond being the alleged goat of the 1986 World Series. Here was a player who was involved in a number of intriguing storylines that spanned three decades of baseball—and even became part of our popular culture.

The Supreme Draft Class: Buckner joined the Dodgers’ organization in 1968, when he became part of arguably the greatest draft class in the history of any franchise. The Dodgers selected him in the second round of the June draft (25th overall), just one round after they made Bobby Valentine, a top-flight shortstop, their top pick (and fifth overall). In that same draft, the Dodgers selected Tom Paciorek, Joe Ferguson, and Doyle Alexander. Then, in the secondary phase, the Dodgers took Steve Garvey with their first pick and Ron Cey with their third. In the January phase of the draft (which no longer exists), the Dodgers had already drafted the rights to Davey Lopes and Geoff Zahn.

When all was said and done, the Dodgers selected a total of 15 future major leaguers from the various 1968 draft phases. A catastrophic leg injury would prevent Valentine from becoming a star, but Garvey, Lopes, and Cey would form three-quarters of one of the game’s longest-lasting infields. Alexander and Paciorek would be used as key trade chips with Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively, in trades that brought in Frank Robinson and Dusty Baker.

Buckner and Ferguson would become important contributors to the Dodgers’ pennant-winning team of 1974. With his speed, defensive skills, and ability to make hard contact, Buckner had as much pure talent as any member of the ’68 draft class, outside of Valentine. That would start to change with a major injury in 1975.

Hank Aaron’s 715th Home Run: The early-career Buckner, an athletic and accomplished outfielder, tends to be forgotten, but will always be preserved on film. You can find him on the 1974 World Series highlight reel, or whenever you see the film of Aaron hitting his record-breaking 715th home run. In the latter piece of film, you will see Buckner pursuing Aaron’s home run ball from his post in left field, while Jimmy Wynn gives chase from center field. Instead of conceding the home run, Buckner can be seen climbing the wall in a desperate hope of snaring the ball. Most players wouldn’t have made such an effort. But that was Buckner’s way, all-out, all of the time, even if it meant delaying a history-making moment.

In looking at that tape, I wonder if Buckner might have been able to catch the ball if he had reached the fence sooner. By the time he started climbing the fence, the flight of the ball had already passed him, and the ball was on the verge of landing in Tom House’s glove. As it turned out, the Aaron home run ball cleared the fence by only a few feet. It would have required a miraculous catch, but a young Buckner, who had not yet injured his ankles and was an excellent defensive outfielder at this point of his career, might have made it interesting.

Consider what his Dodgers teammate Don Sutton said about him later in 1974, when he broached the possibility of Buckner winning the league MVP. “Wow! If he doesn’t get some votes—I mean a lot of votes—it’s an injustice,” Sutton told The Sporting News. “He’s made so many unbelievable catches out in left field we’re starting to take him for granted.” Yes, the Buckner of 1974 could more than handle the demands of left field.

The Ankle Injury: It’s well known that Buckner suffered from a chronically bad ankle (not to mention creaky knees), but it’s not often detailed just how serious his original injury was. It happened early in the 1975 season. Buckner had recently learned a new way to slide from his teammate, Davey Lopes. It was a late slide, one that minimized the level of contact the runner made with the infield dirt before coming into direct contact with the bag. Trying that slide in an April game against San Francisco, Buckner hit the dirt and then the bag with his left ankle, but the bag did not give at all. He tore several ligaments in his ankle.

Remarkably, Buckner returned to action in a month, but the ankle never healed properly. At the end of August, he underwent the first of two surgeries, ending his season. After the second surgical procedure, Buckner developed a terrible staph infection in his foot. The infection became so bad that doctors at one point considered amputation.

Thankfully, the doctors were able to treat the infection and save the leg, allowing him to resume his career in April of 1976. For the rest of his career, Buckner iced the ankle to allow him to continue playing the game every day. The injury robbed him of his excellent speed, but his career lasted for 16 seasons after the injury. I wonder how many other players would have shown the same level of determination.

In Defense of the Home Run
There may be more of them than ever before, but home runs are still the most exciting play in the game.

Almost a Yankee: During the winter of 1982, Buckner seemed on the verge of changing venues. Several reports circulated that Buckner would be making his way to New York to become the first baseman of the Yankees. According to the rumor that lasted for much of the winter, the Yankees would be making a major trade, acquiring Buckner from the Cubs for Willie Randolph. That would have filled a major need at first base for the Yankees; (33-year-old John Mayberry had finished out the season but was clearly over the hill. The trade would have also created a large void at second base. According to another corresponding hot rumor that winter, the Yankees were prepared to replace the departed Randolph with another ex-Cub, free agent Bump Wills.

Those additions would have given the Yankees a hyperactive offensive infield of Buckner, Wills, Roy Smalley at shortstop, and Graig Nettles at third base. That would have created more than a few misadventures defensively. In addition to Smalley’s shortcomings, Wills’ range had started to diminish, while Buckner’s ankles were already giving him trouble before undergoing a further breakdown during his years in Boston. Of the four infielders, only Nettles would have rated a plus defensively.

The Yankees had been interested in Buckner for a while, dating back to the spring of 1981, when they considered trading Dave Righetti in a straight-up one-for-one deal. Of course, neither of the rumored trades with the Yankees ever happened. With regard to the second deal, the one involving Randolph, it’s possible that Buckner rejected the trade. As a player in the middle of a long-term contract, he had the right to veto any trade that didn’t meet his liking. Then again, it’s also possible that the Yankees or Cubs simply had second thoughts. We’ll likely never know.

If Buckner had joined the Yankees, he might have blocked a young Don Mattingly from taking over first base. We might have seen Mattingly move to the outfield, or in a scenario that seems more in line with events from the 1980s, the Yankees might have made the mistake of trading Mattingly for an aging veteran. So in that sense, it’s a good thing that Buckner stayed put in Chicago—until being traded to the Red Sox for future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.

The Larry David Appearance: Only a small percentage of players, even among Hall of Famers, are able to transcend the game and become ingrained in popular culture. For Buckner, that happened in 2011, when he appeared as himself on an episode of the HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In the midst of a building fire, Buckner can be seen on the street below, viewing with concern as smoke overtakes the tall structure. By happenstance, the show’s main character, Larry David, happens to be in the neighborhood and spots Buckner, an acquaintance. They soon notice that a mother and her baby are trapped on one of the upper floors of the structure. David, like many of the other bystanders, urges the mother to toss the baby onto a safety trampoline that the firefighters have staged at street level. She does so, but the baby (which is actually a doll) bounces off of the trampoline and begins to make a perilous fall to the street. Reacting to the situation while everyone else stays motionless, Buckner races to the spot where he anticipates the baby will fall, dives to the ground, and catches him just before he hits the ground. The surrounding crowd then applauds and congratulates Buckner on his life-saving play.

The bit is an obvious ode to Buckner missing the ground ball in Game Six, only this time the result is a happy and heroic one. I imagine a number of athletes who have been cast as goats during their careers would have turned down such an appearance, because of pride and because they did not want to relive the agony, even in a comedic sense. But Buckner was different. After initially balking at David’s request, he agreed to appear on the show.

Similarly, he regularly appeared with Mookie Wilson at card shows, signing countless photographs of the misplay from 1986. He patiently answered questions about The Play, rarely showing anger or frustration. And he was willing to poke fun himself on a show known for its biting sarcasm and often cruel humor, even in connection with the most difficult episode of his long career. That should tell us something about the man.

Sadly, this good man has left us, at the too young age of 69. Baseball is a little worse without Bill Buckner. He was a player who showed us how to lose, not with temper tantrums and screaming, but with a calm sense of dignity. He was fun to watch, too, the kind of player who put the ball in play and gave us some much-needed action. In a game where strikeouts and walks have taken over, and where sportsmanship is often lacking, a few more Bill Buckners would be a good thing.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Not to beat a dead horse, but the real villain in the ’86 horror show was John McNamara for keeping Buckner in the game to begin with in the bottom of the 9th. And for all the talk about Buckner’s decrepit legs, he did start 153 games for the Sox that year, only 15 of which were at DH. Not to get off topic but you started it: Nice that you mention (probably accidentally) Reynolds and Bobby Valentine in the same article. Each has a claim to fame for fake hair, one facial and the other implanted. And on the… Read more »

musclepharm52
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musclepharm52

I think it’s important to evaluate historical players based on the criteria they were judged by during their era, rather than based on WAR, OPS, and the criteria of our day. It is likely, had Buckner played in this current generation, that he would have learned to hit the ball in the air more, draw more walks, etc. Its hard to believe his numbers would not have been different, especially given his great bat-to-ball skills and tremendous determination to succeed. But he played in an era when batting average was the gold standard for hitters…and so he led the league… Read more »

ThomServo
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ThomServo

No this is backwards and absurd.

Throughout much of baseball history racism has dominated how players were judged in their era. Were all black players in the 20s and 30s ‘poor leaders’ just because they didn’t meet the criteria for leadership in the era in which they played?

Of course not. Doing the things that result in wins is what matters- if you are not smart enough to overcome popular misunderstandings on that topic and deliver wins, then you weren’t a valuable player.

SpeecySpicy
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SpeecySpicy

Bruce, just started watching your course that went online at the Great Courses Plus. 3 lectures in and its great thus far!

RPDC
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RPDC

I suspect you got distracted by that magnificent man mane – typo in the subheadline on the homepage:

“Crediting an an oft-criticized player with what he accomplished.”

ThomServo
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ThomServo

Pretty absurd article honestly. “For three years running, he received votes in the National League MVP race, despite the Cubs’ status as a middle-of-the-pack team. Did the writers get it wrong? It’s possible, but not likely — not when he won a batting title during that stretch and put up OPS numbers of .810 and .829. ” No intelligent baseball analyst would fail to realize that, yes, the writers got it wrong overrating the unproductive Buckner. He was a poor player who logged way too much playing time. It’s nice to pretend he was a good player since he has… Read more »

ThomServo
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ThomServo

Lots of hyperbole in this artcile with no basis in fact. Buckner was never an ‘all out, all the time’ player. This sort of romanticizing is perhaps nice given the circumstances, but it also has a smack of ‘memberberry’ nonsense, illustrating how easy it is for white players with throwback appeal to be accredited with entirely fabricated hard work/effort narratives. Buckner suffered a bunch of abuse for one error which is unfortunate, he handled it with class so far as the public can tell imo, so its hardly a disaster that one over-the-top article tries to pretend he was something… Read more »

texastarantulas
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texastarantulas

A great and gritty player, but in two World Series, he messed up. The most famous was the 1986 World Series and the other was in the 1974 World Series. Down by a run late he tried to stretch a double into a triple, but Jackson, to Green to Bando took him off the bases.