I was sitting in a restaurant with my daughter today when I looked up at the baseball game playing on the television. My eye caught the headline at the bottom of the screen that Bill Buckner had died.
I remember the famed play from the 1986 World Series. I noticed one that Buckner was the outfielder for the Dodgers with Hank Aaron hit his record-setting home run. He had always seemed, in some ways, to have his entire career diminished by one moment in one game.
Then, on a whim, I wrote to MLB and asked for permission to attend and cover a legends baseball game. At the time, I was working in journalism and, amazingly, MLB said yes. I knew some of the names that would be there and had a chance to talk to Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs and others.
Then, I saw Bill Buckner. He wasn’t hanging around the other players and the crowds weren’t clamouring around him for autographs. I waited until he finished his stretches and asked if I could interview him.
He said yes and then you could see his face. He almost cringed as he braced for the inevitable question about 1986. Instead, I asked him first about Aaron’s home run. His deameanor changed, he smiled and he talked to me about being a part of that night. Eventually, without having to ask the question, Buckner moved to the 1986 World Series.
Still though, you could see that answering those questions had taken a toll on Buckner over the years. It was still a painful moment some 20 years after the fact.
I used those notes from that interview to complete a story on Buckner. Tonight, in honor of Buckner and his career, I’m republishing that story.
Remembering Bill Buckner
How would you want to be remembered?
Bill Buckner’s career has alway been marked by one play in the history of the World Series. In Game 6 of the 1986 series, Buckner, hampered by leg problems, was unable to stop a groundball from the Mets’ Mookie Wilson. The play allowed the winning run to cross the plate.
That’s what many people remember about Buckner. That overshadows the fact that Buckner had a long career and earned a reputation as a “workhorse.”
Buckner made an impression at an early age. He was drafted into the Dodgers organization out of high school. His first manager in Dodgers’ minor league system was Tommy Lasorda.
Lasorda would later become the Dodgers’ manager, but even as a minor league manager, he had a way with players. Buckner says Lasorda could make his young players feel they would be ready for the majors any day. One of Lasorda’s exercises was to have his players write letters to the Los Angeles starters to let them know they were coming. Buckner wrote his letter to the Dodgers’ first baseman Wes Parker.
“I wrote a letter to Wes Parker and told him I was going to take his job,” Buckner said. He said Parker later gave him a hard time about writing the letter.
Buckner made it to the Major League level with the Dodgers in 1969 at the age of 19. That day, he went hitless in his only at-bat. His first regular action in the majors came in 1971. He split time in the outfield and at first base, hitting .271 with 5 HR and 41 RBI. For most of his career with the Dodgers, he would play more as an outfielder.
In a five-player deal in 1977, Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus were traded to the Chicago Cubs for Rick Monday. The move also saw Buckner shift to spending the majority of his time at first base. In his first season with the Cubs in 1980, Buckner won the National League batting title when he hit .324. He also led the NL in doubles twice — 1981 and 1983.
Buckner made his only appearance in an All-Star game in 1981. The Cubs decided they wanted Leon Durham playing first in 1984 and that sent Buckner to the bench. On May 25, the Cubs traded Buckner to the Red Sox for pitchers Dennis Eckersly and Mike Brumley. Buckner immediately became the starting first baseman for the Red Sox.
In 1985, Buckner tied a Major League record by playing in 162 games at first base. He also broke the Major League record for assists with 184. He also drove in 110 runs that season.
The year that will always be a part of Buckner’s legacy came in 1986. He drove in 102 runs and added 18 home runs to help the Red Sox get to the playoffs.
In the AL Championship series, the Red Sox came back from a 5-2 deficit and two outs in the ninth inning to beat the Angels in the deciding game. Dave Henderson’s two-run homer capped the comeback.
“I remember running out on the field and lifting him up at home plate,” Buckner says.
The Red Sox moved on to face the Mets in the World Series. Buckner’s had been hobbled by leg injuries entering the series. Five games into the series, the Red Sox held a 3-2 advantage and were on the verge of a World Championship.
Then came Game 6. The Red Sox and Mets were tied after nine at 3-3 and the game went in to extra innings. Red Sox starter Roger Clemens had allowed just 2 runs over 7 innings. However, Clemens developed a blister on his finger and was replaced by reliever Calvin Schiraldi. In the 8th inning, the Mets scored a run on Schiraldi to tie the game. It would send the game into extra innings.
In the top of the 10th inning, the Red Sox went up 5-3 off a home run from Dave Henderson and an additional run. The drama, however, would unfold in the bottom of that inning. Schiraldi surrendered singles to Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight. Carter crossed the plate and the Mets were now trailing by a run. The Red Sox brought in reliever Bob Stanley who allowed the tying run to score on a wild pitch.
That set up a play that would become a part of World Series history. The Mets’ Mookie Wilson hit a rolling single down the first base line. Buckner tried to stop the ball but it rolled beneath his glove and through his legs. As a result, the Mets scored the winning run and tied the World Series at three games apiece.
Years later, Buckner would still be haunted by the memory of a play that he could almost see in slow motion.
“I thought, what is going on,” Buckner recalls. “I turned around to go after the ball and I realized the game was over.”
The Mets went on to win Game 7 and the World Series. Buckner became a part of the lore of the game.
The next season, Buckner’s productivity dropped off considerably. Midway through the season, the Red Sox traded him to the California Angels. In 1988, the Angels traded Buckner to the Royals.
Buckner, now 40, returned to the Red Sox in 1990 and was greeted with a standing ovation in his first home game. He hit his last MLB home run that season and he retired from baseball. Bucker worked as a coach for a couple of seasons. However, Buckner says that he eventually grew tired of the constant questions from the press about the 1986 World Series. He walked away from baseball completely.
After leaving the game, Buckner and his family moved to Idaho where Buckner is involved in a number of businesses. He has developed malls and housing developments in Idaho including one called Fenway Park.In 2008, Buckner returned to Fenway Park as the Red Sox opened the season with a celebration of winning the 2007 World Series. Buckner threw out the first pitch and received a two-minute standing ovation. Buckner died on Memorial Day 2019 (May 27, 2019) after battling Lewy Body Dementia. – By Dean Lollis