Few have gained as much notoriety after making one mistake quite like Bill Buckner. Once seen as a rising star, an injury forced him to reassess his career where he would spend the next decade as one of baseball’s toughest players. The kid from Vallejo, California showed grit and determination throughout his career. He was one of the most well respected players in all of baseball until that fateful night in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. When he let the winning run slip between his legs, Buckner was immediately vilified in the city of Boston; his life and career would never be the same. However, despite the hurt feelings, redemption snuck up on him and the people of Boston in the most peculiar of ways. This is his story.
William Joseph “Bill” Buckner was born on December 14, 1949 in Vallejo, California. His father was a hopeless alcoholic throughout Buckner’s youth and when he was teenager his father was involved in a car accident. He passed away soon after due to a broken neck suffered during the incident and Bill Buckner was left with a void in his life. Buckner used his father’s death as inspiration for his athletic pursuits, always harder on himself than most and ceaselessly striving for greatness. His quest to honor his father’s legacy never ended.
Due to his fierce determination to honor his father, Buckner quickly developed a reputation as one of the angriest players on the field. His fits of rage on the field would carry over into the early part of his professional baseball career. On the football team, Buckner was a two-time All-State receiver while at Napa High School and had multiple scholarship offers from a number of big name universities including Stanford and USC. However, his passion lay in baseball and he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1968 MLB Draft.
Bill Buckner tore through the Dodger’s farm system and was in the major leagues in two years. In his first full season as Dodger in 1971, Buckner averaged .277 and hit five home runs. The following year, he increased his averaged to .319 and stole ten bases. By 1974, Buckner hit .314 and drove in 58 runs. His career was looking up and expectations were high. The Dodgers made the World Series that year where they lost to the Oakland A’s in five games.
Buckner collected five hits, a home run and batted .250 for the World Series. Despite the loss, he was determined to return to the Fall Classic. His career was going well for him but he was plagued with lower body injuries in 1975 and his speed would never be the same. No longer able to effectively play outfield and not needing a first baseman, the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs in 1977.
Initially reluctant to play for the Cubs, Chicago proved to be a breath of fresh air for Bill Buckner. In 1976, his first season, he hit seven home runs, drove in 60 RBI and averaged .301. The following year he hit 11 home runs, 60 RBI and averaged .284. In 1978, Buckner drove in 74 runs and batted .323. Two years later, he hit 14 homeruns, drove in 66 runs and led the league with a .324 batting average.
In 1981, Bill Buckner made his only All-Star Game, collecting 10 home runs, driving in 75 scores and averaging .311. Never known for his power, Buckner hit his stride in 1982 and 1983, slamming 31 home runs between those two years while averaging above .280. He split time between Chicago and the Boston Red Sox in 1984, appearing in just 21 games for the Cubs. His career was going well but it was in Boston where fate met his career with a horrible twist.
Bill Buckner’s time in Boston started off well. In 114 games during the 1984 season, he slammed 11 home runs and batted .278. The following year, he batted .299 while hitting 16 home runs and driving in 110 scores. Despite his improved numbers at the plate, a disturbing trend was starting to develop in Boston. Bill Buckner had always been a good fielder and rarely committed errors. However, beginning in his first partial season in Boston, Buckner began a streak of 12 or more errors over the next three years.
Injuries began to catch up to him and Buckner began to lose even more of what once was great speed. It all came to a head in the 1986 World Series. The Red Sox had had an excellent year and were up three games to two against the New York Mets. In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, the Red Sox held a commanding 5-3 lead and were one strike away from claiming their first World Series championship since 1918.
However, disaster struck when Boston pitcher Calvin Schiraldi struggled to get the final out. Before the Red Sox knew it, the game was tied with the winning run standing on second base and Bob Stanley had taken over the mound. Up stepped Mookie Wilson, a former roommate of Stanley’s who knew his tendencies. After hitting a foul, Wilson hit the next pitch right to Bill Buckner’s spot at first base. The ball went right between Buckner’s legs.
The look on his face was palpable as he could only watch as the Mets scored the winning run to set up a deciding Game 7. Despite a three run lead, the Red Sox could not close out the series and the Mets came back to defeat Boston. Bill Buckner would be vilified in Boston forevermore.
After the disaster of the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner played several more years in the major leagues but could never live down that fateful October night. From the California Angels, to the Kansas City Royals and back to the Red Sox in 1990, Buckner could not shake his status as a World Series scapegoat. When he retired following the 1990 season, he and his family left Boston for Idaho, hoping to escape the taunts by the fans and the nosiness of the media.
Through the years, he bided his time by investing in real estate and coaching baseball in various organizations; reconciliation with the city of Boston and the Boston Red Sox fans was the furthest thing from his mind. However, fate would soon intervene.
Reconciliation between the man and the city began in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Suddenly, the city was very open to forgiving the sins of the past.
Four years later, after another World Series triumph in 2007, Bill Buckner was invited to Opening Day in 2008. Standing in the middle of Fenway Park, Buckner found forgiveness and redemption from a city which had loathed him for so long. Bill Buckner passed away from Lewy Body Dementia on May 27, 2019.