Bill Buckner, a veteran of 22 Major League Baseball seasons who debuted with the Dodgers in 1969 and persevered after a calamitous fielding error in the 1986 World Series for the Boston Red Sox, died Monday. He was 69.
Buckner had been battling Lewy body dementia, according to a statement his wife, Jody Buckner, issued to ESPN.
The career of Buckner touched four decades. He played his final game for the Red Sox in 1990. He spent his first eight seasons with the Dodgers and eight more with the Chicago Cubs. He had more than 2,700 career hits, won the National League batting title in 1980 and made the All-Star team in 1981. But his legacy remains locked inside one moment, the 10th inning of the sixth game of the World Series against the New York Mets.
The Mets had already erased a two-run deficit on Oct. 25, 1986, when Mookie Wilson chopped a ground ball down the first-base line. The baseball rolled past Buckner’s glove and between his legs. The Mets scored the winning run. Two nights later, they won Game 7 and the World Series, extending Boston’s championship drought.
“Behind the bag!” Vin Scully cried on the television broadcast. “It gets through Buckner!”
The play became one of the most famous in baseball history. For Buckner, it became a moment of infamy he learned to live with, weathering discontent in Boston and a series of death threats. As the years passed, he often made appearances with Wilson. He declined to feel sorry for himself.
“Life is a lot of hard knocks,” Buckner told USA Today in 2016. “There are a lot worse things happening than losing a baseball game or making an error, so it puts things in perspective. You learn forgiveness, patience —all the things you have to do to survive.”
Buckner grew up in Napa, Calif. The Dodgers selected him in the second round of the 1968 draft and brought him to the majors a year later at 19. Buckner hit .289 during his time with the Dodgers. The team sent him to the Cubs in 1977 for a package that included Rick Monday.
The Dodgers released a statement Monday on Twitter: “The Dodgers are saddened to hear about the passing of Bill Buckner, who died this morning after battling a long illness. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Buckner family.”
It was in Chicago where Buckner flourished as a hitter. He showed a sublime skill for making contact; from 1977 to 1982, he averaged only 21 strikeouts a season. Buckner led the National League in doubles in 1981 and 1983.
A couple of months into the 1984 season, the Cubs dealt Buckner to the Red Sox for future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley. Two years later, he etched his name into an unfortunate place in Red Sox lore.
“I was saddened to learn about Bill’s death,” Wilson said in a statement. “We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years. I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”
In the aftermath of the error, the particulars were obscured. Buckner was playing on weary, damaged, 36-year-old legs. Then-Boston manager John McNamara had neglected to replace Buckner in the field with Dave Stapleton, as he had earlier in the series. And the Red Sox were only in this position because their pitchers had melted down, with Bob Stanley uncorking a game-tying wild pitch moments earlier.
No matter. It was Buckner who bore the brunt of the criticism. The Red Sox released him midway through the 1987 season. He spent time with the Angels and the Kansas City Royals before finishing his career in Boston.
After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the city learned to practice forgiveness. Buckner threw out the first pitch before the home opener in 2008, after the Red Sox won another title.
“In my heart, I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said after he made his pitch at Fenway Park. “I’ve done that. I’m over that. I just try to think of the positives, the happy things, the friendships.”