The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #35 Bill Buckner

Profile by BCB reader gauchodirk (with additions by Al)

Undoubtedly, when you hear or see that name you first think of one thing, so let's just get it out of the way. On October 25, 1986, the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets played Game 6 of the World Series at Shea Stadium. With the game tied at three going into extra innings, Dave Henderson homered for the Red Sox in the top of the tenth, and Marty Barrett drove in Wade Boggs with what should have been an insurance run. Leading 5-3, Calvin Schiraldi retired the first two Mets in the bottom of the tenth. With the champagne on ice and the lockers covered with plastic in the Red Sox clubhouse, Gary Carter singled. Kevin Mitchell singled. Ray Knight singled, driving in Carter to make the score 5-4, and sending Mitchell to third. Bob Stanley came in to pitch and promptly uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Mitchell to come home with the tying run; Knight moved to second. And then, the fateful play that would define Bill Buckner's entire 22-year career forever: Mookie Wilson hit a slow roller down the first base line, Buckner reached down to field it behind the bag, the ball rolled between his legs into right field, Knight scored, and the Mets won. Whether he or Stanley covering would have gotten the speedy Wilson at first always goes unmentioned, as is the fact that it was Stanley's wild pitch that tied the game in the first place. (Of course, it has just recently come to light that he was wearing a Cubs batting glove on his glove hand that night; draw your own conclusions there.)

He deserves better than this, and it also shouldn't be forgotten that he compiled most of his achievements in the National League: eight seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and just over seven with the Cubs. Now it's time to tell the entire Bill Buckner story.

Buckner, who both hit and threw lefthanded, stood six feet tall and weighed 185 pounds. He was born on December 14, 1949 in Vallejo, California. He was drafted by the Dodgers in the second round (#25 overall) of the June 1968 amateur draft and made his major league debut on September 21, 1969 against the San Francisco Giants at the age of 19. He was mostly an outfielder with the Dodgers; it wasn't until he arrived in Chicago for the 1977 season that he was moved to first base full time. Buckner's career started slowly as he hit .191 in 28 games in 1970. He quickly improved with a .277 average in 108 games in 1971 and a .319 average in 105 games in 1972. He hit .275 in his first full season (140 games) in 1973, and he followed that up by hitting .314 (fourth in the NL), with 182 hits, in 145 games in 1974. Also in 1974, Buckner was the left fielder seen climbing the wall in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in a futile attempt to catch Hank Aaron's 715th career home run. The Dodgers won the pennant with a 102-60 record, but Buckner hit only .167 in the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates and .250 in the Series against the Oakland Athletics.

Buckner was quite the speedster in the early part of his career. He stole ten bases in '72, 12 in '73, and 31 in `74, a total good for second on the Dodgers behind Davey Lopes, who had 59. In 1975, however, he injured his ankle while sliding, limiting him to only 92 games and essentially ending his career as an outfielder. He hit .243 in his shortened season and was never again the same on the basepaths or in the outfield. He rebounded in 1976 with a solid .301 average in 154 games, and his 193 hits were fourth in the league. Though he did steal 28 bases, it would be another six years before he would crack double digits in that category. With the Dodgers realizing that he was no longer a viable option in the outfield, and with Steve Garvey entrenched at first, Buckner became expendable, and his time in Los Angeles was soon to become a memory.

On January 11, 1977, just after Buckner's 27th birthday, the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs along with Ivan DeJesus (best known for going to Philadelphia in the later trade for Ryne Sandberg) and a minor league player named Jeff Albert (who never made the majors) in exchange for Rick Monday (best known for preventing the American flag from being burned in center field at Dodger Stadium in `76) and Mike Garman (a reliever whom the Cubs only had for the '76 season). Buckner's `73 season was the only one in which he had played more games at first base than the outfield, but knowing that he wasn't an outfield option, the Cubs wasted no time in turning him into their primary first baseman for 1977.

Buckner hit .284 in 122 games in '77 with 11 home runs, his first double digit season, and 60 RBI, which tied his career high from the previous season. The 1977 Cubs were in contention for much of the summer thanks to big years from Buckner and Steve Ontiveros and 20 wins from Rick Reuschel. They went 54-35 in the first half, were as many as 20 games over .500 at 62-42 as late as August 2nd, and were still in first place on August 6th. They were 63-44 after winning that day's game but swiftly went into the toilet, going 18-37 the rest of the way to finish exactly where they started: at .500, 81-81, fourth in the NL East, 20 games behind the Phillies.

Buckner followed that in 1978 by hitting .323 in 117 games; his homer total fell to five, but he drove in 74 runs. His 1979 season was his first truly full one in Chicago, and he responded by hitting .284 in 149 games with 14 home runs and 66 RBI.

We all know that Derrek Lee won the NL batting title with a .335 average in 2005. What you may not remember is that the last Cub to lead the league in hitting before Lee was Buckner, who hit .324 in 1980, three points ahead of Keith Hernandez. (George Brett led the AL and the world in hitting that year at .390.) Buckner also posted a career-best OBP of .353. He had a slugging percentage of .457 on the heels of 41 doubles (second in the league) and ten home runs.His 187 hits were fourth in the league, and he struck out a grand total of 18 times in 578 at bats (how many modern players can do that?).

A strike shortened the Cubs' rather dismal 1981 season, but Buckner earned his one and only All Star selection in this year. He hit .311 in 106 games and posted a career-best slugging percentage of .480. He led the NL with 35 doubles (only six fewer than the previous year in 157 fewer at bats) and was second with 131 hits. He finished tenth in MVP voting, and also finished tenth in MVP voting in 1982 after hitting .306 in 161 games. He hit 15 home runs, drove in over one hundred runs (105) for the first time in his career at the age of 32, and stole 15 bases. His 201 hits were second in the league.

The 1983 season was Buckner's last full season in Chicago, and his numbers fell. He hit .280 with 16 home runs but only 66 RBI. He led the league with 38 doubles. He also struck out more than he walked for the first time in ten years (30 Ks against 25 walks).

Unfortunately for Buckner, he didn't get to stick around for the magical season that was the 1984 Cubs. After hitting .209 in 21 games (largely relegated to pinch-hitting duty after the acquisition of Gary Matthews moved Keith Moreland to RF and Leon Durham to 1B), he was traded to the Red Sox in exchange for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley. Eckersley went 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA as a starter for the Cubs that year (and was traded to the A's just before the 1987 for three minor leaguers who never made it), and Brumley didn't make it to the majors until '87 when he played in 24 games for the Cubs. Was this a good trade for the Cubs? It appears so: Buckner was 34 and a good argument could have been made that his best years were behind him, plus Leon Durham had come on strong at first base, while Eckersley was only 29 and had won 20 games for the Red Sox in `78. But Buckner had become a true Cub by that point, and he actually cried at the press conference to announce his trade.

Buckner finished '84 by hitting .278 in his first appearance in the American League. He followed that in 1985 with a .299 average, a career-best 110 RBI, and 18 stolen bases; he also set a major league record by playing all 162 games at first base. In 1986 he whacked a career best 18 home runs while hitting .267. His '86 postseason performance was not very good, however: he hit .214 in the epic ALCS against the Angels and .188 in the Series. In fact, his career playoff numbers aren't very good overall: he hit only .204 with just four extra base hits in 23 games.

The Red Sox gave Buckner his outright release on July 23, 1987, and he signed with the Angels five days later. He hit .306 in 57 games for the Angels to finish that season but only .209 in his first 19 games in 1988. The Angels released him on May 9th, and four days later he signed with the Kansas City Royals, where he hit .256 in 89 games. By this point in his career he was mostly a DH, with occasional stints at first. He spent all of 1989 in Kansas City, hitting .216 in 79 games, and he went back to Boston for his final season in 1990, where he hit .186 in 22 games. His last home run was of the inside-the-park variety at Fenway Park on April 25th; you might find that odd for a 40-year-old player, but it was accomplished when Angels RF Claudell Washington fell into the stands chasing the ball, and his last game was on May 30th, when he went 1-4 against the Texas Rangers.

And that was that for the 22-year career of Bill Buckner. He finished with 2,715 hits, a .289 average, 174 home runs, and 1,208 RBI. He also struck out 453 times, just three more than his 450 walks. Four times in his career he led the league in most at bats per strikeout: 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1986. His 2,715 hits are 54th in baseball history, his 498 doubles are 47th, his 1,994 singles are 45th, and his 9,397 at bats are 40th. He is also 42nd in games (2,517), 30th in sacrifice flies (97), and somewhat dubiously for both, 28th in grounded into double plays (247) and 34th in outs (7,146). (In case you're wondering, Cal Ripken hit into the most double plays in history with 350, and Pete Rose made 10,328 career outs.) Of the 53 players with more career hits than Buckner, only four that are eligible for the Hall of Fame are not currently in it: Andre Dawson, Vada Pinson, Al Oliver, and Rusty Staub.

There is more to this story, however. Buckner wasn't a very durable player (although, oddly, his 22 seasons played ranks tied for 32nd all-time), and this fact has probably contributed the most to his current omission from the Hall of Fame. Only four times in those 22 seasons did he play 150 games or more, and he missed significant time in his prime due to his injury in 1975 and the 1981 strike, and also sat out about 75 games due to his bad knees in his first two Cub seasons. He probably missed around 160 games all told in those four seasons, one full season's worth. Buckner averaged 1.37 hits per game between 1975 and 1981, meaning that had he been healthy enough to play (and if not for the '81 strike), he lost around 220 hits, which would have put his career total well over 2900, which might have gotten some team to sign him to stick around long enough to get to 3000, though it's fairly apparent from his 1990 stats that he was at the end of the road. Would it have been enough? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly wouldn't have hurt his chances.

I'm not making the argument that Buckner should be in the Hall (baseball-reference.com says his Hall of Fame monitor is 69.5, and a HOFer is usually greater than 100; further, if Buckner gets in, then Pinson, who had similar numbers, has to be in as well), but he certainly was on the HOF track when he was establishing himself as a dangerous hitter, and most of his lengthy and productive career has been overlooked at the expense of one play. He first became eligible for the Hall in 1996, but he only received two percent of the vote and was dropped from subsequent ballots. Thus, if he is to get in, it will have to be through the Veterans' Committee (though it won't be in 2007, as he isn't on the list of 200 players that will be pared down to 25 before the Committee votes; this is likely because the Committee is currently evaluating players only through the 1985 season, for whatever reason).

Whether he will ever become a Hall of Famer or not, it is fortunate for Buckner's sake that the Red Sox won the Series two years ago, but he shouldn't have had to deal with being the "goat" for 18 years in the first place, and he sure as hell didn't need to be "forgiven" for his error. On the whole, however, it is clear that his entire body of work has been ignored; indeed, Buckner's career is the proverbial case of failing to see the forest for the trees (or the tree, in this case).

As far as his time with the Cubs went, he should be remembered as the rock at first base for seven seasons, and he won a batting title to boot. (Somewhat amazingly [or maybe not, depending on how you view this franchise], only six Cubs have ever led the league in batting average: Lee, Buckner, Bill Madlock in the back-to-back years of 1975 and 1976, Billy Williams in 1972, Phil Cavaretta in 1945, and Heinie Zimmerman in 1912.)

The Cubs have had some great first basemen over the years, and Bill Buckner can easily stand among them, Game 6 or not. Just as you can't judge a book by its cover, neither can you judge an entire career on the basis of one play. Buckner deserves better than that, and even if it's just a little bit, hopefully this profile will help accomplish it.

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