As fans settled in for an extended weekend of baseball on Memorial Day, one of the game’s unsung heroes passed on. Bill Buckner, a native of Vallejo, CA who played with the Dodgers in 8 of his 22 seasons, passed away aged 69 from dementia.
Not even 70 years old … farewell, Bill Buckner. https://t.co/YDXiQqn8qs
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) May 27, 2019
From the start, I need to make clear that I will not be devoting any passage of this article to his error in the 1986 World Series. That moment has been scrutinized and referenced time and again, and thus doesn’t need to be picked over here. I’ll say that Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley and John McNamara are more to blame in that instance, and leave it there.
Instead, it’s high time (and honestly has been for a long while) that Bill Buckner is recognized unconditionally as the superb baseball player he always was. A batting champion in 1980 and All-Star in 1981, both with the Chicago Cubs, he was a hitter of exceptional discipline, never striking out more than 40 times in any of his 22 seasons in the majors. That wasn’t the only measure of his prowess at the plate, as Jayson Stark noted:
What a shame that Bill Buckner is only remembered for his worst moment as a baseball player. What he really was, was a pure hitter.
The only 5 players with a .300+ AVG from 1972-82 (5500+ AB):
Rod Carew .340
Al Oliver .312
Pete Rose .308
Steve Garvey .304
Bill Buckner .300
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) May 27, 2019
While Buckner’s greatest individual feats came with the Cubs and Red Sox, his MLB journey started in Dodger Blue. Drafted by Los Angeles in the second round of the 1968 draft, he made his debut with a single at-bat at Candlestick Park on September 21, 1969. His talent soon blossomed in tandem with the Dodgers’ steady ascent from the depths of irrelevance.
After dominating the first half of the ‘60s, the Dodgers tumbled to 71-91 in 1967, their first season after the sudden retirement of Sandy Koufax. Things weren’t much better in 1968, Don Drysdale’s record-setting scoreless streak the lone saving grace of a 76-86 slog.
Season by season, though, a contending core started to emerge in the early ‘70s. After winning records in 1969 and 1970, the Dodgers made a serious run at the NL West title in 1971 before falling short to San Francisco. After another second-place finish in 1972, they started to look like elite contenders with 95 wins in 1973. Buckner was a crucial part of this trajectory, hitting .319 in ‘72 while alternating between right field and first base.
It all came together in 1974, a season for the ages in Los Angeles. It was the first full season of the Steve Garvey/Davey Lopes/Bill Russell/Ron Cey infield, which first started together in June 1973. Garvey won the team’s first NL MVP since Koufax in 1963, while crafty reliever Mike Marshall took home the NL Cy Young. Ace pitcher Tommy John went 13-3 before undergoing his revolutionary namesake surgery in September that not only saved his career, but changed sports medicine altogether.
The result was the best regular season yet for the West Coast incarnation of the franchise. The Dodgers won 102 games, a mark that wouldn’t be eclipsed until the 2017 squad reached 104. The team participated in their first National League Championship Series (which started in 1969), and made the most of it. They took just four games to dispatch the Pittsburgh Pirates, and were finally back in the World Series for the first time since 1966.
Even with all these elite players emerging, Buckner remained a sturdy presence. Moved from the infield to left field, he hit .314 in 145 games and knocked in 58 RBI, along with 31 stolen bases (the latter three marks career highs at that point). His defense was stellar too, with a .976 fielding percentage as an outfielder.
Unfortunately, a season of unprecedented success for both Buckner and Los Angeles ended on a sour note. The Dodgers squared off against the Oakland Athletics, who had won the previous two championships. In spite of this, Dodger players made comments to the press that their opponents were “doubtful champions,” and that Joe Rudi was the only Athletic who’d make their team. Buckner doused the flames with gasoline by stating that they would beat the A’s 100 out of 162 games. The Swingin’ A’s, no doubt motivated by these remarks, proceeded to bulldoze L.A. in just five games for their third consecutive title.
After two more solid seasons, Buckner was traded to the Cubs, where he’d enjoy his greatest success. He finished his Dodger career with totals of .289, 38 homers and 277 RBI. After retiring from baseball in 1990 (thus stretching his career into a fourth decade), he had elite career tallies of .289, 2,715 hits and 15.1 WAR.
In Dodger lore, he remains vital for his role with the pennant-winning 1974 team that finally lifted the franchise out of the post-Koufax nadir. With every team he played for, Bill Buckner was a tremendous player, a pure hitter, a reliable fielder, and a veteran leader for two World Series teams. And that’s exactly how he should be remembered.
God Bless Bill Buckner on his passing today.This Picture is from our first year together in Ogden 1968 with Tommy and Bobby Valentine..the greatest draft in ?@MLB? history.He was a dear friend, a strong Christian and wonderful husband and father. ?? ?@Dodgers? ? pic.twitter.com/UwoTL6jKoa
— Steve Garvey (@SteveGarvey6) May 27, 2019