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In memory and appreciation of Bill Buckner

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He was an underappreciated great player and a real fan favorite in Chicago.

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Many of the obituaries and tributes to Bill Buckner, who passed away Monday, begin or are headlined with one event: his error in the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox.

You might have noticed that I just did that, too, but I’ve got one specific reason for mentioning it. In 2006, Paul Lukas, then writing for ESPN.com, posted this long article about a Cubs connection to Buckner as the 20th anniversary of that World Series approached. To wit:

Bill Buckner was wearing a Chicago Cubs batting glove under his first baseman’s mitt. (And no, that’s not a Photoshop job -- it’s the real deal.)

There are photos in Lukas’ article as proof that not only did Buckner wear that batting glove during the 1986 World Series, but had worn it for at least a year before that, possibly for the entire time he played in Boston.

Conclusion drawn: That’s how much Bill Buckner loved being a Chicago Cub. When he was traded to the Red Sox for righthander Dennis Eckersley and infielder Mike Brumley in May 1984, he broke down in tears (“several times,” reported Tribune writer Fred Mitchell) at the news conference announcing the deal. Buckner said, according to this article in The Athletic:

“It’s a very tough moment for me,” Buckner said, according to a UPI story. “I’m going to miss everybody. There’s been some tough moments. I think you can tell it’s a pretty emotional time for all of us.”

That’s how much he wanted to stick around on the North Side, even though his playing time had been reduced that year following the acquisition of Gary Matthews at the end of spring training and the subsequent movement of Leon Durham to first base. That forced Buckner into primarily a pinch-hitting role, back in the day when teams could actually carry a guy on the 25-man roster who mostly just pinch-hit (he did so 12 times that year, with three hits, all singles).

Buckner, I think, sensed what was happening in 1984, that the Cubs might be headed to the postseason, and he wanted to be a part of it. And a couple of years after a ball went under Durham’s glove in the 1984 NLCS, helping lead the Cubs to the loss in that series, Buckner spoke to Bob Verdi of the Tribune (also from The Athletic link above):

“People ask me was I glad that the ball went under Leon Durham’s glove in San Diego,” Buckner told Verdi at the end of the 1986 regular season. “Heck no, I like Leon. I felt for him. I wish they’d have gone all the way to the World Series. I loved Chicago, I loved the fans. I think some of them liked me.”

That wasn’t quite the case when he was traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs in January 1977, along with Ivan de Jesus, for Rick Monday and Mike Garman. Buckner, it was said at the time, “bled Dodger blue,” having come up in L.A.’s system along with guys like Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Steve Garvey... and Bobby Valentine, then a top prospect. Here are Buckner, Garvey and Valentine (with manager Tommy Lasorda!) as Ogden, Utah Dodgers in 1968, from Valentine’s Twitter account:

(Buckner and Valentine were 18 years old and Garvey was 19 at the time that photo was taken.)

The trade sending Buckner to the Cubs wasn’t popular among Cubs fans, either. Monday had just finished the best season of his career, smashing 32 home runs, posting 4.4 bWAR and making the All-Star team. Buckner was considered damaged goods; he had suffered serious ankle injuries, which slowed him considerably from the speedy outfielder he’d once been, although somehow he’d gutted out 28 stolen bases in 1976. Want to see that speed? He didn’t catch this ball, but he’s the outfielder trying to scale the bullpen wall (at 0:42 if you want to scroll) and catch Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in Atlanta in 1974:

So Buckner became a first baseman for the Cubs, and if you go back that far as a fan you’ll surely remember his gimpy-legged runs toward first base, when he could get there. Cubs pitchers routinely led the league in putouts at first base when Buckner was there, because he’d insist on having them cover the base on plays most first basemen would have made solo, simply because he didn’t have speed. I’ve got scorecards from that era where there are three 3-1 putouts at first base in an inning while Cubs visitors batted at Wrigley Field.

Bill Buckner was an outstanding hitter, a throwback to earlier eras. He had 2,715 career hits. Between injuries that cost him dozens of games in multiple seasons plus the 1981 player strike, I suspect he lost enough playing time that he would have made it to 3,000 hits if those events hadn’t occurred.

Should that have been enough for a Hall of Fame nod? Maybe, as reaching that milestone helps Hall voters look back at the rest of a player’s career and evaluate it as a body of work. Buckner was never the best player in his league and he led the N.L. in only a couple of things while in his prime as a Cub: batting average (.324) in 1980 (for a horrid 98-loss Cub team, it should be noted), and doubles in 1981 and 1983. Further note on that doubles lead in 1981: Buckner hit 35 doubles in 106 games in that strike-shortened season, and likely would have had 50 or more if not for the labor dispute. Only two Cubs have hit 50 or more doubles in the last 82 seasons: Mark Grace (51 in 1995, another labor-dispute shortened season) and Derrek Lee (50 in 2005). It would have been nice to see Billy Buck on that list.

But beyond that, Buckner’s throwback style meant he rarely walked — or struck out. Since the Deadball Era (post-1920), only five players have had 10,000 or more plate appearances and fewer than 500 total strikeouts. Four of them are Hall of Famers (Paul Waner, Charlie Gehringer, Tony Gwynn, Nellie Fox). The fifth is Buckner, who nearly finished up with fewer strikeouts than walks, missing by only three: 450 walks, 453 strikeouts. That, and this, will tell you something about Buckner’s approach to the game, compared to how it’s played now:

More on Buckner’s ability to avoid striking out:

That’s all pretty impressive. Perhaps some future Veterans Committee will revisit Billy Buck’s career and induct him into the Hall in Cooperstown.

During his time in Chicago, Buckner bought a home in Lincoln Park, in an old church building that was being renovated for housing, one of the first such buildings re-used for that purpose in the heart of the city. He was often seen around the neighborhood and became part of the city’s fabric for seven and a half seasons. His Red Sox years included, of course, that World Series appearance (12 years after he had appeared in one for the Dodgers) and the only further mention I’ll make of his connection to Boston will be this, his return to Fenway Park to throw out a ceremonial pitch on Opening Day 2008, to a rousing ovation:

Tributes have poured in to Buckner from around baseball, and here are some of them:

Buckner often appeared at Fergie Jenkins’ autograph sessions at Sloan Park, and was there for almost all of them this past spring, just a couple of months ago.

Buckner served as batting coach for the Boise Hawks, then part of the Cubs system, in 2012 and 2013. During that time, he had significant influence on Willson Contreras, as the Cubs catcher told Paul Sullivan of the Tribune:

“He meant a whole lot to me,” Contreras said. “He was a great friend, a great coach. He was sincere and humble. He taught me a lot of things to do with baseball and life. And I appreciated everything he did for me, and he is one of the reasons I am where I am now. I made sure I let him know that every time I saw him.

“He’s always going to be in my heart and thoughts and hopefully he’s in a better place now.”

Buckner was also batting coach for the Chicago White Sox in 1996 and 1997.

That game happened September 29, 1976.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts issued this statement:

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Buckner, a great ballplayer and beloved member of the Cubs family. Bill’s remarkable 22-year career included eight years with the Cubs during which he won a batting title in 1980 and earned an All-Star appearance in 1981. After his playing days, Bill served as a valued member of our player development staff and was a fan favorite during his appearances at our Cubs Conventions. On behalf of the Cubs organization, I extend our sympathies to Bill’s family and his many friends.”

Bill Buckner was indeed a great baseball player, from all accounts a better human being, and a significant figure for the Chicago Cubs during some rough years for the franchise. He always worked hard and put together some fine years despite major injuries that slowed him down. And he loved — loved — being a Chicago Cub.

Thanks for the memories, Billy Buck. Rest in peace.