Baseball’s an inherently cruel game, the ultimate sport of failure, grinding down the toughest of men. By those standards, Bill Buckner was made of cast iron, as if he had an impenetrable barrier against the hurricane winds that could have blown him apart.
One of the most popular and enduring Cubs of the last quarter of the 20th century, Buckner could have been crippled by a bad, surgically-repaired left ankle that required extensive treatment before and after games. Yet after missing chunks of the season in his first two years (1977-78) with the Cubs, Buckner rarely missed games, winning the 1980 NL batting title, until he was traded to the Boston Red Sox two months into the fateful 1984 season.
Then, after re-establishing himself at Fenway Park, Buckner was pilloried like few others in baseball history for allowing a potential game-ending Mookie Wilson grounder to go through his legs and allow the New York Mets to pull out Game 6 of the World Series. Raised from the dead , the Mets went on to snare Game 7 and extend Boston’s baseball neurosis another 18 years.
Amazingly, Leon Durham – the man who replaced Buckner at first for the Cubs – let a similar ball through the wicket in the deciding Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS against the Padres in San Diego. But Bull never got the guff from title-starved Cubs fans going forward. Buckner vitriol went to an unprecedented level. The man bent. He was human. But true to his form, he did not break.
Memories of Buckner’s steadfastness flowed on Memorial Day when his death at 69 from Lewy Body Dementia was announced. The debilitating disease that slowed body and mind still did not stop Billy Buck from enjoying the baseball life. As recently as spring training, he joined Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, his Cubs teammate in 1982-83, and other ex-Cubs in greeting fans at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz.
“He was moving around very slowly,” Jenkins said. “His hands shook from time to time. But he took photos and signed autographs. Bill still wanted to be a part of the baseball family and scene. Pete LaCock went and picked him up every day.”
Buckner brightened when he saw his Tony Garofalo, his old Cubs trainer, at the Sloan Park table.
Billy Buck brightens over old trainer
“He got out of his chair and gave me a hug and apologized for taking so long to walk over to me because of his disease,” Garofalo said, still digesting the passing of Buckner.
If Buckner had to push his limited physicality amid deteriorating conditions to show up for autographs, imagine what he had to do to keep himself in the Cubs lineup, playing first base and batting third for the better part of seven seasons.
“The preparation kept him going,” said Jenkins, whose 14-win season in 1982 greatly benefited from Buckner’s then-career-high 105 RBIs, amassed via 201 hits in 161 games played. Despite his gimpy condition, Buckner’s 657 at-bats led the NL.
“It was pretty much the same routine every day,” said Garofalo, who arrived in the same season as Buckner. “About two hours before batting practice, he would come in and we would ice both quads and hamstrings while he soaked his ankle in the whirlpool. After that we would ultrasound his ankle then we would tape him up.
“After batting practice we would re-tape his ankle for the game. Finally, after the game he would ice both legs again, and soak his ankles in an ice bucket.
“We had our differences from time to time being both stubborn people, but that was all forgotten when he came to me about 11 years ago and said ‘I never thanked you for everything you ever did for me.’ A couple of years ago in Arizona, when he was signing at Fergie’s booth, he told a couple of players that were sitting there that I was the best athletic trainer he ever had in the big leagues.”
On WGN-TV, Jack Brickhouse always took note of Buckner’s triumphs over pain. In the famed Cubs’ 16-15, 13-inning win over the Cincinnati Reds on July 28, 1977 at Wrigley Field, Joe Morgan hit a shot over the bag, snared by Buckner. Then commenced a race to the bag between Morgan and Buckner, who won by a hair by umpire’s call in the pre-replay days. Narrating the replay, Brickhouse verbally grimaced describing Buckner pushing himself through the pain to beat Morgan.
“I was so competitive, I was able to do that (make great plays),” Buckner said in 2003 for my book, “Where Have All Our Cubs Gone?,” published in 2005. “Usually the first of the game it felt best. As games rolled on, it would get more sore. In a 15-inning game, it was really sore.”
Cubs get best of Monday-for-Buckner deal
Buckner came to the Cubs in a moderate roster makeover upon Bob Kennedy’s arrival as general manager in the 1976-77 off-season. Only a half-year after heroically stopping an attempt to burn a U.S. flag in the Dodger Stadium outfield, center fielder Rick Monday was traded back to his Los Angeles hometown for Buckner and shortstop Ivan DeJesus.
Finally, after the pitching-rich Dodgers had spirited away even more mound talent from the Cubs over the years in snaring Ron Perranoski, Jim Brewer and Burt Hooton, the Chicagoans were able to get a return tapping into the bountiful Dodgers farm system. Even though Monday provided post-season heroics for the Dodgers, the Cubs came out way ahead in the deal, and DeJesus eventually brought them Ryne Sandberg in a 1982 deal.
Buckner was part of a golden group of hitters groomed in the Dodgers system in the late 1960s. He was the left fielder among the likes of infielders Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Davey Lopes; outfielders Bobby Valentine and Tom Paciorek, and catchers Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson. DeJesus joined the Chavez Ravine-bound group, signing in May 1969 as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico.
Buckner had seasons of .319, .314 (in the 1974 World Series season) and .301 in even-numbered seasons starting in 1972. He originally injured the ankle sliding in 1975, with a staph infection making matters worse. His 193 hits in spite of the bad ankle in 1976 cemented Kennedy’s attraction. Arriving in Chicago, he immediately became a popular Cub. He batted .323 on the bad ankle in 1978, far outlasting moody slugger Dave Kingman, who wore out his welcome quickly after a 48-homer season in 1979.
If some media weren’t exactly enamored by Buckner’s press relations and manager Herman Franks basically walked out on the team with a week to go in 1979 due to the perceived negative clubhouse, Buckner was hardly dented in the court of public opinion.
His production and durability increased as the Cubs’ fortunes declined.
He won the batting title with a .324 mark in 1980, a season when he briefly moved back to left field in an all-first baseman outfield with Scot Thompson in center and Larry Biittner in right. The outfield transfer was necessitated by the arrival of dreadnought slugger Cliff Johnson, who absolutely could not move in left.
Ankle cut down on power
Buckner always wondered about his production given a healthy ankle.
“I would have loved to have been close to normal,” he said in 2003. “I could have probably gone up another scale. I could have hit a lot better with more power. You couldn’t put enough drive into that back leg. But I’m proud of what I did. You put the effort in, do the best you can do.”
But the ground shifted under Billy Buck when Tribune Co. bought the Cubs in mid-1981. He was not a Dallas Green guy, becoming a trade chip not long after Green took over as the new owners’ first GM. Green apparently had a deal for Buckner with the Phillies, his old team, after the 1982 season. But the GM could not get approval from corporate boss Stan Cook, flying home from Europe on the supersonic Concorde in these pre-cell phone days. Green had to sheepishly nix the deal with former boss Paul Owens.
Green also sought to sign Steve Garvey as a free agent for first base, while having the insurance of the up-and-coming Durham, a natural first baseman, on the roster.
Buckner continued as a regular in this uneasy relationship in 1983, but became truly excess baggage when Durham was finally moved to first for the 1984 season. He was finally moved, to Boston, for starter Dennis Eckersley on May 25, 1984. The trade was fateful for Buckner.
He was still a productive middle-of-the-lineup run producer, playing in all 162 games in 1985 with 110 RBIs. Then, he complemented Roger Clemens’ breakout pitching season with 102 RBIs in 1986. But all that nimbleness amid the pain at first went for naught at Shea Stadium on the night of Oct. 25, 1986 at Shea Stadium. The pain in NBC announcer Vin Scully’s voice more than matched Brickhouse’s description nine years earlier, and this time it was complemented by utter shock, when Wilson’s grounder snaked through Buckner’s legs.
The Red Sox’s post-season failures dating back to 1946 could not be compared with the Cubs’ tale of woe, which was beyond the pale in all sports. But Boston fans with their East Coast intensity take things far more to heart than the forgiveness factor inherent in Midwestern Cubs fans. He was virtually hounded out of Boston. Even in his longtime new home in near Boise, Idaho, he could not find escape the brickbats.
Time heals the 1986 wounds
Over the years, however, Buckner found peace and perspective.
“It’s just part of sports,” he said in “Where Have All Our Cubs Gone?” “There’s a lot of tension with (would-be) winners. That’s all the East Coast people (reaction). Most people know what the real story was. Now, to my face, people are nice.”
Amazingly, Buckner returned to Boston to finish out his career in 1990 after role-playing gigs in Anaheim and Kansas City. He toe-dipped in baseball in ensuing decades, coming back to Chicago as White Sox hitting coach under manager Terry Bevington in 1996-97.
Total forgiveness took place on April 8, 2008 at Fenway Park. Buckner threw out the first pitch to former teammate Dwight Evans as the Red Sox unfurled their 2007 World Series championship banner. Buckner received a two-minute standing ovation from the crowd.
“I really had to forgive, “ he said afterward, “not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”
But like many who played in Wrigley Field, all roads invariably came back to the Cubs Universe. Buckner was a fixture at the Cubs Convention and Fergie’s spring-training table.
“Wrigley Field and the fans helped,” he said in 2003. “I was very lucky it happened. LA was a great place to play. Boston, too. When I think back at places I played, Chicago was the best.”
Buckner seconded that notion when he saw Garofalo in spring training.
“He said again I still think you were the best,” said the old trainer.
“RIP, my friend.”