Bill Buckner: I Sing the Body Glyptodon

Bill Buckner will be remembered for more than the 1986 World Series. (via Craig Johnson)

You’ve never seen a glyptodon. Your distant ancestors likely did. It was roughly the same size and shape as a Volkswagen Beetle. It died for our breakfasts. As hard as it is to imagine eating an 11-foot long, two-ton pseudo-armadillo, your ancestors might have consumed one, or several, until they were gone forever. Until human beings showed up brandishing pointy sticks, the glyptodon, heavily armored and carrying a tail that doubled as a club (or, if you will, a bat), presumably went along on its merry way, doing what it wanted to do and going where it wanted to go—aside from the odd saber-toothed tiger, nothing was going to attempt to deflect a living armored car—never thinking much about the consequences.

Former major league first baseman and outfielder Bill Buckner, who died on May 27, was glyptodon-like in two ways, neither of which had anything to do with Game Six of the 1986 World Series except insofar as those qualities led him to being in that game at that place and time. Big-game goats are hardly unique, as the several players who have worn the horns, from Fred Merkle onwards, attest. There have been so many over the years that we’ve even misplaced a few, including Buckner—he didn’t make a seemingly fatal error in one World Series, but two, a fact that tended to get lost in the rush to consider Buckner’s personal ordeal in the aftermath of the more iconic shock ending in ‘86.

In the 1974 World Series, Buckner’s Los Angeles Dodgers played the Mustache Gang Oakland A’s. With the A’s ahead three games to one, the Dodgers had to win Game Five to extend the series. The A’s took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth and put Rollie Fingers, their bullpen ace, on the mound. Buckner led off the frame for the Dodgers and pulled a line drive to right-center for an apparent single. When A’s center fielder Bill North tried to play it off to the side, it skipped past him, and Buckner—in his pre-chronic ankle injury days possessed of wide receiver speed—sprinted to second. It was a heady move, except that he kept on going, not having considered the possibility that right fielder Reggie Jackson, backing up the play, would cut off the ball and toss a bullet to second baseman Dick Green, and that Green, in turn, would make a perfect relay to third baseman Sal Bando. Buckner was out by a fair distance as those plays go, having violated one of baseball’s cardinal rules: Never make the first out of the inning at third base.

The Dodgers went meekly after that. Prior to the Series, Buckner, then 24, had publicly denigrated the A’s as a vastly inferior team, and had singled out North in particular. The A’s remembered, and they made sure anyone watching understood just where the Dodgers had gone wrong. “You can’t play with your mouth,” Bando admonished. “I’m sorry it was my error that set up the play,” North said, “but I’m glad it was Buckner who made the stupidest mistake of the Series.” Catfish Hunter credited not only Buckner’s baserunning, but also his words, for Oakland’s victory. “[H]e only made us better, he only made us play harder. And his statements came back to haunt him.” As for Buckner, he continued to insist the Dodgers were better than an A’s team that had just won its third straight World Series. As for trying to go for third base? “I’d do the same thing again.”

As far as the public’s memory went, Buckner’s double gaffe proved to be as ephemeral as Henie Zimmerman’s passingly infamous botched rundown in Game Six of the 1917 World Series. So, although almost every remembrance of Buckner in the days after his death focused on the devastating moment that was the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six, 1986, they missed the forest for the trees, or rather the impossibly large armadillo-like creature wandering between them.

Like the glyptodon, Buckner was an odd specimen of a player who had few professional antecedents and no descendants. He too went where he wanted to go and did what he wanted to do, never thinking much about the consequences. Throughout his career he was lauded as an ultimate gamer who had made a celebrated commitment to playing hurt—after a severe ankle injury suffered in April 1975 he was always playing hurt. This invited the question of whether playing hurt is always a good thing, and why we celebrate the kind of self-sacrifice that also sacrifices the good of the team.

Buckner was a born athlete who very early on developed a single-minded focus. “I was very goal-oriented,” he told Jim Kaplan for a 1982 Sports Illustrated profile. He was so enamored of baseball that his mother pretended he was a year older than his actual birth date so he could start Little League early. “I was going to go to school and college, play sports and go on to professional baseball,” he said. His plate appearances are characteristic of that same mode of linear thinking: Put the ball in play. The other stuff—walks, the strikeouts that come when you risk taking a home-run cut, not making an out by swinging at the pitcher’s pitch, or pitches far out of the strike zone—those would diminish the likelihood of achieving the desired end-state.

Drafted out of high school, he attended college in the offseason but never earned a degree. “I didn’t spend a lot of time doing nothing,” Buckner said. “Doing nothing” is an oddly dismissive way to characterize what some might call “learning,” but insofar as his professional development went, Buckner had no need to develop any nuance. He had reduced hitting to just one outcome, and with fantastic eye-hand coordination he could execute that plan. “Buck can read a book in the dark,” Tommy Lasorda said in 1974. A teammate added, “He tries to hit the ball between the ‘N’ and the ‘L’ where it says ‘National League,’ or between the ‘Charles’ and the ‘Feeney’ on the president’s signature.”

He almost never struck out, and walks were an even rarer outcome. He hit only 174 home runs in over 2,500 career games. Buckner’s on-field performance stood out in only one way: He was a career .289 career hitter at a time when high averages were tough to come by—the .293 he averaged during 1971-1987 heart of his career ranked 19th among players with 5,000 or more plate appearances during that span. He also hit .301 or better in seven seasons of 105 or more games, winning a batting title with a career-high .324 for the 1980 Cubs.

And yet, Buckner was a good bad player, or a bad good one, because his singular focus limited his production. He was, by far, the hardest player of his era to strike out, but there’s so much more to run-production than not whiffing. He K’d just 453 times in 10,037 plate appearances. He walked even less often, just 450 times—and 111 of those were intentional. As a result, he had six seasons in which he qualified for his league’s top 10 in batting average, but none in which he finished in the top 10 for on-base percentage. Whereas he had the 19th-best batting average from 1971-1987, he had only the 101st-best on-base percentage. His singles/doubles-oriented approach meant he didn’t move many runners either; he had just one season in the top 10 for slugging percentage, and his isolated power during those same years ranked 91st. In 1982, Bill James wrote, “A year ago I wrote that Buckner was a batting champion in the noble tradition of Pete Runnels, Ferris Fain, and Bubbles Hargrave. My mail has been evenly divided between those who think I was maligning Buckner and those who think I was maligning Ferris Fain.” He was maligning Fain, who averaged 127 walks drawn per 162 games played during his career and finished with a .424 OBP.

This made Buckner weird. There are few players like him in the baseball lexicon. Baseball-Reference uses James’ similarity scores to compare players. Each pair begins with a score of 1,000 and then differences are noted by subtracting points. A pair is substantially similar if they have a score in the high 900s. Most players have at least one “twin” with a 900+ score in his list of comparables. It’s only the truly great and the truly odd who register as outliers. Buckner’s comparable scores are all in the 800s—he was as much like other players as a glyptodon was like an armadillo, which is to say the resemblance is superficial, the degree of relationship distant.

Buckner was fast enough in high school that he was a serious college football prospect, but when the Dodgers tabbed him in the second round of the 1968 draft, he opted to sign and reserve college for the offseason. He hit .344 and .310 in his first two seasons and, at 19, earned a one plate appearance cameo in 1969, something which, along with his unlikely longevity and the 48 PAs bestowed upon him in his 1990 return to the Red Sox, made him the rare player whose career spanned four decades. He reached the majors for good in 1971, Dodgers manager Walt Alston using him largely as a platoon left fielder.

On April 14, 1975 at Los Angeles, Buckner singled against the Giants’ John Montefusco and, with two outs, attempted to steal second. When he slid in, his foot caught under the bag, badly damaging his ankle. He missed 24 games. The ankle hadn’t really healed, but he tried to come back anyway and struggled badly: A .292 hitter in 527 games through 1974, in 1975 he hit .243 in 92 games.

While Buckner was out, the Dodgers went from a half-game out of first (through just 11 games) to being up by 4.5 (through 35 games). With Buckner in the lineup and struggling on both offense and defense, they rapidly played that away and soon trailed by double-digit figures. While the players who replaced Buckner in his role of platoon left fielder registered middling performances at best, the Dodgers were still only 35-32 when he started (.522) versus 53-42 (.558) without him. Bucker still told himself he was essential. “Every game is critical now, so I’ve got to keep playing. Between that and the bad ankle, I must be carrying three pounds of tape around every night,” he said on August 9. As of that day, the Dodgers were 15.5 games back with 47 games to play. He was shelved, mercifully, at the end of August.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

Though the surgery that immediately ensued didn’t wholly ameliorate his injury, Buckner bounced back nicely in 1976, hitting .301/.326/.389 in 154 games and even stealing 28 bases in 37 attempts. Nevertheless, the leg problems were chronic. “To this day when he walks,” Kaplan wrote in 1982, “he feels it snap, crackle and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies.”

“Before every game we run through the same 45-minute routine,” said Cubs trainer Tony Garofalo. “Ice, whirlpool, ultrasound, massage, tape. He could hardly walk when he came here. He worked to get a range of motion, and now he’s got it.” But, Kaplan added, Buckner’s range was still “not normal.”

“Some players ask for a king-size bed or a water bed when they check into a hotel,” Buckner once said. “All I ask for is a room near the ice machine.” During the 1986 season, Buckner needed nine cortisone shots to keep playing. The great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once invoked Jimmy Dykes’ description of Luke Appling and applied it to Buckner: “He could foul off machine-gun bullets.” Just as no one ever questioned whether that was actually a good idea, Buckner’s insistence on playing in great pain was lauded rather than properly investigated. This was true even after 1986, when Red Sox manager John McNamara’s act of hubris (he wanted to leave Buckner on the field so he could celebrate the championship) revealed that there was a cost.

It was possibly the ambiguous nature of Buckner’s commitment to which outgoing Cubs manager Herman Franks was referring in 1979 when he said, “I thought he was the all-American boy. I thought he was the kind of guy who’d dive in the dirt to save ballgames for you. What I found out [is] he doesn’t care about the team. All he cares about is Bill Buckner.” Buckner was deeply aggrieved. “I’ve been busting my tail for three years. I’ve played when I shouldn’t be playing.” Again, one possible rejoinder, one that was apparently never made, was, “If you shouldn’t be playing then maybe it would be better to sit down for a while and make room for someone who should be playing.”

The Dodgers had dealt Buckner (along with Ivan DeJesus and Jeff Albert) to Chicago in January 1977 in return for outfielder Rick Monday and reliever Mike Garman. At that point, said Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, they had been trying to deal Buckner for close to two years. As soon as the Cubs saw Buckner limp into camp, they developed similar misgivings. They had apparently not realized the severity of Buckner’s ongoing leg problems, which by that time had required multiple surgeries, some of which had provoked additional consequences. “They operated, moved a bone, and gave me a bigger ankle socket,” Buckner said of his initial 1975 surgery. That hadn’t fixed the problem, so he underwent a second surgery to remove the pin from the first operation and address a bone spur. “It was back into the cast,” Buckner said, “But it got infected and I had to go back into the hospital. I was off the leg so much it atrophied.” He opened the 1977 season on the disabled list. “Didn’t the Cubs know Bill Buckner couldn’t walk when they made the trade?” Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes asked that April. “I mean, that’s just plain stupidity, isn’t it?”

It was actually a salary dump—Cubs ownership didn’t want to pay Monday what he was worth. Still, according to some sources, the Cubs formally protested having received damaged goods. Buckner again expressed his willingness to play hurt, but via their grievance, the Cubs were strongly implying they more greatly valued a player who was willing to play healthy. This is how players are valued approximately 99.9 percent of the time. Buckner was the great exception. Meanwhile, he set records for assists by a first baseman because he was so immobile the pitcher always had to cover first base.

None of this is to criticize Buckner, or diminish the amazing bat-to-ball talents he possessed, and it is certainly not intended to delegitimize any mourning among his friends, teammates, and family. As with all of us, he was who he was for all the good and ill that entailed. Certainly, many former teammates over the years saw Buckner, with his determination to play with pain, as an exemplar of professionalism. Rather, it is to say that most assessments of his career have his professional good and bad qualities backwards, and an excess of commitment can also be a form of self-indulgence.

In short, it must be comforting to know you’re always the best-suited person for your job, with the best knowledge and ability of how to execute it, and it’s strange just how much the writers of the time bought into Buckner’s self-image. It started close to the very beginning. In Major League Baseball 1972, Brenda Zanger wrote of Buckner, who had just completed his rookie season, “Bill has been called cocky, but he simply has a lot of confidence for one so young and inexperienced. It hasn’t hurt him in the least.”

But it sometimes hurt his teams and occasionally his coaches and teammates. On May 24, 1982, the Cubs were playing at San Diego. In the top of the sixth, Padres pitcher Tim Lollar, then pitching a shutout and up 8-0, slipped and threw a fastball up and in, knocking Buckner down. Buckner finished the at-bat by flying out on a 3-0 pitch, which was typical. Returning to the dugout, he began shouting at his teammates that he needed to be “protected.” “If somebody doesn’t go down, I’ll kick your ass.” Cubs manager Lee Elia told Buckner to forget it; the pitch was clearly accidental. Nevertheless, when Cubs reliever Dan Larson took the mound, he hit Tim Flannery, who led off for the Padres that inning, in the hip. Elia rushed out to the mound and told off his pitcher: “I manage this ballclub, no one else.” It was then, on the top step of the dugout, that Buckner threw a punch at his own manager. Elia defended himself, and the fight was quickly broken up, lasting perhaps all of 15 seconds.

The next day, Buckner complained of neck spasms and refused to play. “I can understand maybe why he did what he did,” Buckner said of Elia, “but I think he owes me an apology for coming up and taking a swing at me. You know managers can get on their players from time to time, but there’s no room for acting like a child and taking a swing at a player.” He asked, not for the last time, to be traded.

When Dallas Green became Cubs GM in 1981, moving Buckner rapidly became a priority. Buckner, Green wrote in his autobiography, “was an accomplished baseball player, but his selfish attitude never sat well with me… Buck was happy to put his numbers up, but he was never truly content. And he most definitely never embraced the idea of baseball as a team sport.” The Cubs already had a better hitter, young Leon Durham, to play first base. He had been pushed to the outfield so both he and Buckner could play, but was lost in the pastures. Late during 1984 spring training, Green dealt Buckner to the Phillies for outfielders Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier, plus pitcher Porfirio Altamirano.

These acquisitions would be key to the Cubs’ 1984 NL East title. However, Buckner nearly blew up the trade. In the midst of a five-year contract, he had the right to veto any deal. He told the Phillies he would only approve the transfer if they extended his contract. The Phillies told the Cubs they were suddenly not so interested in acquiring Buckner. Green reconfigured the deal to exclude him and made it anyway. The new outfielders pushed Durham to first base and Buckner to the dugout. “I’ll collect my paycheck and sit on the bench,” he said. “I’m not about to do them any favors. Not after the way they’ve screwed me and lied to me.” He added, “If all they need me for is pinch-hitting, that means this team must be a pennant winner.”

That was pretty much on the nose, even down to the pinch-hitting—Buckner’s ability to make contact produced 97 sacrifice flies, 39th all time, so in certain situations he would have been an ideal pinch-hitter. Of course, he saw himself as much more than that. On May 25 Green freed him to pursue his destiny (Buckner frequently spoke of making 3,000 hits), trading him to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley and shortstop/outfield prospect Mike Brumley.

Thus the events that resulted in Game Six stemmed from another act of Buckner’s will. It was an entirely reasonable act, and one well within his rights, but an affirmative decision nevertheless. You can’t dissuade a glyptodon; you can only redirect him.

Note that this remembrance of Bill Buckner has not directly addressed Game Six of the 1986 World Series until now. Buckner had a lot of help getting to that moment, but it was also directly an outcome of everything he had done to that point. Whereas the loss of the World Series was hardly his fault—McNamara betrayed him, no defeat is reducible to one play, and any player can make an error—the legend of Bill Buckner’s perseverance, and his wholehearted embrace of his own myth, created the conditions that allowed it to come to pass. Thus, in that sense, he was culpable. The criticism was fair.

Bill Buckner was a unique baseball player with an idiosyncratic stubbornness that didn’t make Game Six an inevitability, but made it far more of a possibility for him than for perhaps any other player. For his career, Buckner struck out just once per 20.7 at-bats. The most abstemious active player, Andrelton Simmons, whiffs about twice as often. Buckner’s sole skill, the ability to hit for batting average, has been denigrated, debunked, and devalued. As with the glyptodon, we will never see his like again.

References and Resources

  • Howard Burman, Season of Ghosts
  • Dallas Green (and Alan Maimon), The Mouth That Roared
  • Jeff English, SABR, “Bill Buckner
  • Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville
  • The Los Angeles Times
  • The Chicago Tribune
  • Baseball-Reference


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Jim
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Jim

Excellent.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Great article on a totally misunderstood career. He had his weaknesses, both in playing and personality, but the ’86 series is really an injustice. Yes, why in the world was he even on the field. Second, and this is oh so easily forgotten, the Red Sox (not Buckner) blew a 3-0 lead the following day. And Red Sox fans are notorious for blaming the wrong person for their team’s mishaps. Bucky Dent gets a lot of grief in Boston lore but you never heard a bad word about Mike Torrez or the fact that it was Reggie Jackson’s HR in… Read more »

Green Mountain Boy
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Green Mountain Boy

Just throwing this out there for consideration. Many recent studies have linked steroid use to dementia. Cortisone being a steroid, I wonder if there’s a link between all the cortisone shots he received and his onset of dementia at a relatively young age. I read somewhere recently that there’s a finite limit on how many cortisone shots you can safely be given in your lifetime. Lifetime, as in cumulative effects! Exceed that number and consequences essentially become inevitable. A lot of players, especially pitchers, were injected with cortisone in Buckner’s day. Will they end up suffering the same fate?

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

A little tough using the 1975 Dodger team stats. The Dodgers poor season was a result of Cy Young Award winner Mike Marshall going down as well as Tommy John to have….Tommy John. 🙂

87 Cards
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87 Cards

The events of October 1986 obliterated earned quick-associations with a very human event and a very-skilled accomplishment from Billy Buck’s career. 1. One of my first baseball-memories,–April 15, 1974—- was when Billy Buck chased Hank Aaron’s 715th-home run in Atlanta by climbing the left-field chain-link fence to its apex and then abandoning his quest to capture the prized-ball. 2. Billy Buck–2, 517 career games –his maximum strike-outs in a single-game was two. For perspective, Tony Gwynn had one three-strikeout game (vs LAD, Bob Welch in 1986), Adam Dunn had 173 three-K games and Ichiro had 22 such games.

sturock
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sturock

Great piece. But remember, those high-batting-average guys are gold on your fantasy team!

brooksie
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brooksie

Wow, that was a great article. Anyone who enjoys reading great sports writing, or great writing in general, will surely appreciate it. Congrats, Mr. Goldman.

Grandpaboy
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Grandpaboy

Thanks for capturing the essence of Billy Buck without making him out to be either a saint or an ***hole. In today’s 3-true-outcomes game, I kinda miss guys like him who are, well…weird. Different. Outliers. Long live the Glyptodon…

Spin
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Spin

Great piece. I didn’t think Buckner should have gotten so much grief. However, I never understood why McNamara didn’t play Baylor, especially given the situation in the game and Buckner’s bad legs. At the time, I thought the only reason possible was McNamara was a racist.

evo34
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evo34

The glyptodon comparison is strained, at best — which would be fine if it didn’t permeate the entire article.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

No K no BB — Willians Astudillo does that today.

Hank G.
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Hank G.

If not for the grounder between his legs, Buckner would likely be nearly forgotten today, except as the answer to a trivia question: “What player with more than 10,000 PA has the least total career WAR?” Not only that, but the player with the next lowest total (Harold Baines) has more than twice the career WAR as Buckner.