Bill Buckner, an outfielder and first baseman whose long, solid career was overshadowed by a crushing error that cost the Boston Red Sox Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets, who went on to win the championship in seven, died on Monday. He was 69.
His death was confirmed in a statement by his family and shared on Twitter by the ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap. The statement said Buckner had Lewy body dementia.
Buckner was tough on the field, battling injuries for much of his career, and dependable at the plate, registering a .300 batting average in seven seasons and amassing 2,715 hits and 174 home runs during his two decades in the Major Leagues.
Buckner came up through the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, starting in the minors under Tommy Lasorda, who would go on to manage the Dodgers themselves to great success. With Los Angeles, Buckner played in the 1974 World Series, which the team lost to the Oakland A’s in five games.
Moving to the Chicago Cubs, he won the National League’s batting title in 1980 with a .324 average, led the National League in doubles in 1981 (with 35) and 1983 (38) and was an All-Star in 1981.
Buckner began his career mainly as a speedy outfielder, but he had a bad ankle injury in 1975, and by the time he went to Boston, in a trade in 1984, he had become a full-time first baseman.
It was at first base that he made the error that would haunt him. Boston, facing the Mets, was looking for its first World Series championship since 1918.
It was the bottom of the 10th inning at Shea Stadium in New York, and the Mets had scored two runs to tie the score, 5-5, with Ray Knight on second base. There were two outs, and outfielder Mookie Wilson came to the plate.
With a full count, Wilson, batting left-handed, hit a slow bouncer up the first base line off reliever Bob Stanley, and to the fans at Shea and in the television audience, it looked like an easy third out. All Buckner had to do was scoop it up, touch first base, and the Red Sox would have had another chance to come to the plate in the 11th and possibly win the title that their fans had hungered for for 68 years.
It was not to be. The ball unaccountably skipped between Buckner’s legs and into the outfield. Knight dashed home, scoring the winning run as Mets fans went wild and sending the Series to a seventh game in New York.
The Mets won that one, too, 8-5, ensuring that Boston’s long dry spell would, to the bitter consternation of Red Sox fans, drag on, and cementing the most amazing Mets season in memory.
Buckner, who endured heckling for years as the goat in Boston’s defeat, told The New York Times in 2011 that his error remained, unfortunately, unforgettable.
“You can never really forget it because it comes up all the time,” he said. “I’m a competitive guy, so it’s something I didn’t enjoy. But for some reason, the stars were all lined up just right for the Mets that year, and here we are, 25 years later, still talking about it.”
Buckner underwent ankle and foot surgery during the off-season and started the 1987 season slowly. The Red Sox released him partway through the campaign, and Buckner went on to play for the California Angels and the Kansas City Royals before ending his career back in Boston in 1990, when he was 41. By then the fans were more forgiving: On his return to Fenway Park, they cheered.
Released by the Red Sox that same year, Buckner retired and moved with his family to a ranch in Meridian, Idaho, in 1993.
Ten years later, he told The Boston Globe that his World Series error did not weigh too heavily on him.
“There could be somebody in my shoes who would think that life sucks,” Buckner said. “I chose to look at it that life is great. You can make those choices. Everyone in life has things that don’t go according to plan.”
William Joseph Buckner was born on Dec. 14, 1949, in Vallejo, Calif., to Leonard and Marie Buckner. His father died when he was a teenager. His mother was a stenographer for the California Highway Patrol. Bill grew up in American Canyon, Calif., north of San Francisco.
Buckner excelled at football and baseball as a youth, and the Dodgers selected him in the second round of the 1968 amateur draft. He spent some years in the minor leagues, playing for a spell for Lasorda, and attended the University of Southern California before he spent a full season with the Dodgers in 1971.
He married Jody Schenck, who survives him, in 1980. They had two daughters, Brittany and Christen, and a son, Bobby. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.
After his playing days, Buckner invested in real estate and automobile dealerships in Idaho. He also worked as a hitting coach, including with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago White Sox, and as a minor league manager.
The Red Sox finally ended their World Series drought in 2004, when they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals. They won the title again in 2007, beating the Colorado Rockies. The following April, for Boston’s home opener of the 2008 season, Buckner threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
He was greeted with a standing ovation.