With the sad news coming out on Memorial Day of the passing of Bill Buckner, we at Royals Review wanted to remember Buckner not only for his time with the Royals, but also as a fine man and a terrific baseball player. Many younger fans only remember Buckner as the hobbling first baseman for the Red Sox who let an easy ground ball pass between his legs, thereby changing the course of the 1986 World Series. Never mind the fact that the Red Sox pitching staff had melted down prior to the error or that Buckner should have never been on the field at that point in the game. Sox manager John McNamara typically would substitute the more agile Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement late in games, but Buckner was such a well-liked and popular player that McNamara wanted him to be on the field when the Red Sox recorded the final out to clinch the series. No, Buckner was far more than that.
He was a multi-sport star in high school and was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1968 amateur draft. Buckner made his major league debut as a 19-year old in 1969 with the Dodgers and had another 28-game cup of coffee in the 1970 season. He stuck with the big club in 1971, appearing in 108 games and slashed a very respectable .277/.306/.366 in his age 21 season.
Stardom arrived in 1974 when he collected 182 hits and slashed .314/.351/.412 and picked up some MVP votes. The Dodgers brass lost their minds in January of 1974 and traded Buckner and Ivan De Jesus to the Chicago Cubs for Mike Garman and Rick Monday. Monday was a fine player, but Buckner was just coming into his own. He played eight seasons in Chicago, collecting 1,136 hits and slashing a cumulative .300/.332/.439 for the Cubs. He made his only All-Star appearance in 1981 and collected MVP votes in four of his eight Chicago seasons. During the famous Cubs-Phillies windblown slug fest on May 17, 1979, Buckner went four for seven with a grand slam and seven RBI.
The Red Sox, desperate for first base help, acquired Buckner in May of 1984 for Mike Brumley and Dennis Eckersley. Buckner enjoyed five solid seasons in Beantown, slashing .279/.315/.410 with 577 hits. He drove in over a hundred runs in both the 1985 and 1986 seasons. Boston released Buckner on July 23, 1987. He signed with the California Angels five days later and played 76 games before getting his release from them.
The Royals, needing a veteran bat and a back up to George Brett at first base, signed Buckner on May 13, 1988. Buckner played in 168 games for the Royals over the 1988 and 1989 seasons, collecting an even 100 hits. Age though eventually comes for all of us and Buckner was no exception. He slashed .239/.269/.316 during his Kansas City tenure and the club released him in November of 1989.
He signed with Boston in February of 1990, hoping for one last surge. The rebirth never came and after 22 games and a .186 average, the Red Sox released him one final time. Coincidentally, Buckner’s final career home run came on April 25, 1990 and was his only career inside-the-park home run. Right fielder Claudell Washington had fallen into Fenway’s right field stands trying to snare Buckner’s line drive. The crowd cheered wildly as Buckner hobbled around the bases.
Besides the 1986 World Series, Buckner had a front row seat to history when on April 8, 1974, playing left field for the Dodgers he watched Hank Aaron yank an Al Downing pitch over his head into the Atlanta bullpen. The home run was the 715th of Aaron’s career, moving him past Babe Ruth as the then all-time home run leader. Buckner valiantly tried to climb the left field fence to retrieve the ball, but to no avail.
Over his 22-year career, Buckner collected 2,715 hits, 174 home runs and 1,208 RBI. He was a fantastic contact hitter, only striking out 453 times in 10,033 plate appearances. He never struck out more than twice in any game in his career and his career high for strikeouts was only 39 in the 1984 season. Buckner never walked much either, only collecting 450 bases on balls.
Before his ankles went bad, he had surprising speed. He stole 183 bases in his career, including 31 in 1974 and 28 in 1976. He won the National League batting title in 1980 with a .324 average. Baseball card #1 of the 1981 Topps set should be a must collectible for every Royals fan. On the left side is George Brett and his .390 average. On the right is Buckner. Brett was such a big Buckner fan that on an off day, June 7, 1983, he was at his Kansas City home doing laundry when he overheard Cubs announcer Harry Carry announce Buckner coming to the plate. Brett scrambled into his TV room and rammed his big toe into a door jamb. The resulting fracture caused Brett to miss 19 games in what remains one of the more famous baseball injuries of all-time.
After retiring from baseball, Buckner, an avid outdoors man, bought a ranch in Idaho. Always a stand-up guy, Buckner handled the fallout from the World Series error with grace and humor, often appearing at card shows with his protagonist, Mookie Wilson. He even appeared on an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm and apologized to actor Larry David, and in a humorous skit, later caught a falling baby, thrown from a burning high rise.
With his full head of hair, thick eyebrows, bushy mustache and sweet left-handed swing, Buckner was a true Boy of Summer. Buckner had been afflicted with Lewy Body Dementia before losing that battle today. He is survived by his wife Jody and three children, Brittany, Christen and Bobby. Billy Buck, fan favorite in Los Angeles, Boston and Kansas City, age 69, gone way too soon.