Former major league first baseman and outfielder Bill Buckner, who won a batting title with the Chicago Cubs in 1980 but was best remembered for the error he committed in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series while playing for the Boston Red Sox, died Monday at 69 after battling dementia.
ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap confirmed the news after speaking with Buckner’s wife, Jody, who issued the following statement: “After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family. Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Buckner, a second-round selection by the Dodgers in the 1968 MLB draft out of Napa High School, enjoyed an impressive 22-season major league career with the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Royals and Angels. He led the National League in batting in 1980 with a .324 average and was selected to his only All-Star Game the following year. A terrific contact hitter who finished his career with a .289 average, Buckner never struck out more than twice in a game.
In May 1984, the Cubs traded Buckner to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley. Two seasons later, on Oct. 25, 1986, the Red Sox took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Mets at Shea Stadium, needing three outs to clinch the franchise’s first championship since 1918.
With two outs and nobody on, the Mets managed to tie the score. Then, with Ray Knight on second base, Mookie Wilson hit a groundball off Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley down the first base line. It was a routine play that should have ended the inning, but the ball went through Buckner’s legs and into right field, allowing Knight to score the winning run. The Mets won Game 7 to extend Boston’s World Series championship drought.
Buckner, who by 1986 was hobbled by ankle injuries and had been removed by Red Sox Manager John McNamara for defensive replacement Dave Stapleton in the late innings of Games 1, 2 and 5 of the World Series, received death threats after his gaffe. He was released by the Red Sox the following July.
“He did a great job,” Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman said of Buckner upon his release. “He drove in 102 runs last year, and if he wasn’t playing first base for us, we wouldn’t have been in the World Series.”
After finishing the 1987 season with the Angels, Buckner, a normally sure-handed fielder who always handled his legendary error with grace, played parts of three more seasons in the major leagues, including 22 games for the Red Sox in 1990. The Boston Globe reported that Buckner received a “hearty ovation” during Boston’s home opener that year, while others welcomed him back with a purposely misspelled banner that read, “Good luck, Billey Buck.” In part to escape the taunts of fans who blamed him for Boston’s loss in the 1986 World Series, Buckner moved his family from New England to a 2,000-acre ranch in Idaho upon his retirement.
The Red Sox finally won their first World Series since 1918 in 2004. Buckner declined an invitation to attend a ceremony honoring the 20-year anniversary of the 1986 team at Fenway Park in 2006, but after Boston won another title in 2007, Red Sox official Dick Bresciani called Bucker to invite him to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park at the team’s home opener the following year. Buckner almost declined that offer, too, before changing his mind.
“I just didn’t think I was going to do it,” Buckner, who had 2,715 career hits, including 174 home runs, told the Boston Globe. “I told Dick I’d think about it, but I made up my mind. I wasn’t going to come. Then I prayed about it a little, and here I am. Glad I came.”
The Fenway Park crowd gave Buckner a lengthy standing ovation as he threw a strike to former Red Sox teammate Dwight Evans.
“Just seeing him walk out, I couldn’t have been happier for him,” Evans said. “This guy had tremendous numbers, total stats, and I don’t even know if he got a couple votes for the Hall of Fame, which I really think is a shame. No one played harder than Bill. No one prepared themselves as well as Bill Buckner did, and no one wanted to win as much as Bill Buckner.”
In 2015, Buckner told the Deseret News that he had found peace after being treated as a scapegoat by fans and media members for years.
“It’s life, and everybody has to deal with something, and most of the time it’s a lot more important than a baseball game,” Buckner said. “You’re talking about cancers, children, and those things that are much more important than baseball. You have choices and some people can’t deal with it and some can. Spiritually that helped me.”
Knight and Wilson, the Mets involved in the play that followed Buckner throughout the rest of his career and into retirement, were among those who reacted to his death Monday.
“Deeply sadden[ed] with the loss of Billy Buckner,” Knight tweeted. “Great player that deserved better. I will miss you my friend.”
“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said in a statement. “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.”
This post has been updated.
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