Bill Buckner, a sweet-swinging left-handed batter who amassed more than 2,700 hits in a career that spanned four decades but to many is better remembered for his error that gave the Mets victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, died Monday at age 69.
Buckner was battling Lewy body dementia and was surrounded by his family before his passing, his wife, Jody, told ESPN. He was a beloved teammate and valuable infielder and outfielder for the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels and Royals over 22 Major League seasons from 1969-90. He was the National League batting champion in 1980, when he hit .324 for the Cubs, and was an NL All-Star in 1981. Neverthless, it was the ground ball by Mookie Wilson that squirted under Buckner's glove in that fateful game at Shea Stadium, which allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winner in the bottom of the 10th inning, that made Buckner famous.
Though the Mets completed their comeback by winning Game 7, Buckner ultimately was forgiven and embraced by Red Sox fans for his dignity in the wake of the unfortunate play. Boston fans gave him a standing ovation upon his return to the team via free agency in 1990, and he later helped unfurl the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series championship banner to a huge ovation during the club’s home opener the following season.
“I thought [that] was kind of a healing moment, it seemed, for a lot of people and maybe for him, I hope," Indians manager and former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, said before Monday's game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. "You have to be up here to understand how people take things that happen. I thought that was a really cool moment."
Buckner established himself as a steady hitter over his first eight seasons with Los Angeles, batting .289 over 773 games, and was the Dodgers left fielder who climbed the fence in attempting to catch Hank Aaron's record-setting 715th career home run in 1974. With the Cubs, who acquired him for Rick Monday in 1977, he hit better than .300 four times and twice led the NL in doubles before being traded to Boston in May 1984 in a deal that sent future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley to Chicago.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Buckner, a great ballplayer and beloved member of the Cubs family,” Cubs executive chairman Tom Ricketts said. “After his playing days, Bill served as a valued member of our player development staff and was a fan favorite during his appearances at our Cubs Conventions. On behalf of the Cubs organization, I extend our sympathies to Bill’s family and his many friends.”
Buckner’s bat translated well to the American League, where he hit .299 and drove in a career-high 110 runs for Boston in 1985. He then helped the Red Sox capture the ’86 AL East title with a red-hot month of September in which he hit .315 with eight homers and 22 RBIs. Buckner singled to ignite Boston’s rally in Game 5 of that year’s ALCS, which was later capped by Dave Henderson’s famous home run.
“We are proud that Bill Buckner wore a Red Sox jersey during the course of a terrific career that spanned more than two decades,” said Red Sox principal owner John Henry. “His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win. Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered. We join the baseball world in sending our condolences and our love to Jody and the entire Buckner family.”
“Bill Buckner personified toughness and grit, and his determination to play through pain defines him far more than any single play ever could,” said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. “The standing ovations our fans gave him on his visits back to Fenway Park, most notably when he threw out the first pitch before our opener in 2008, illustrate the respect and admiration we all had for Billy Buck. We mourn his loss and offer condolences to his family and many friends.”
Though the Red Sox likely wouldn’t have reached the 1986 World Series without Buckner’s help, for better or worse his unfortunate error stood out. But Buckner would eventually win back the fans with his grace and refusal to let one moment define his life.
“People’s lives, health, family are much more important,’’ Buckner later told the Boston Globe. “You’ve got to enjoy the good when you’ve got it. But life is not all good things. You’ve got to rebound.’’
Buckner would also show his sense of humor, making fun of his famous error in a cameo on HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He partnered with Wilson in numerous public appearances in the decades that followed.
"We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years," Wilson said. "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."
Buckner made 10,037 trips to the plate throughout his 22-year Major League career, yet only 453 of those plate appearances ended in strikeouts.
To put that into context, his 4.5 percent career strikeout rate ranks third among the 237 players who have batted at least 7,500 times since 1950. The only players with a lower rate are Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and Tony Gwynn.
• While Buckner played in a lower-strikeout era, he was tough to whiff, even compared with his peers. He led his league in at-bats per strikeout four times, including a career-high 32.1 at-bats per K for the Cubs in 1980.
• Buckner never struck out 40 times in a season, despite collecting at least 600 plate appearances nine times. He also never struck out more than twice in a game.
• Buckner is one of two Cubs, along with Mark Grace, to bat .300 for the team in at least 3,000 at-bats since 1950. Buckner also was a .314 career hitter at Wrigley Field.
• Buckner was all about putting the ball in play. His 4.5 percent career walk rate was also third lowest in the above group of players with at least 7,500 at-bats since 1950, higher only than A.J. Pierzynski and Willie Davis.
Buckner finished his career with 2,715 hits and a near identical number of walks (450) as strikeouts (453). His 1,994 singles rank among the top 50 totals in Major League history. Buckner is survived by his wife and three children, Brittany, Christen and Bobby.