Sports Stars

Baseball

Bill Buckner

Buckner was one of many talented players in the Dodger organization in the late 1960s, joining Bill Russell, Ron Cey, Willie Crawford, Don Sutton, Von Joshua, Charlie Hough, Bobby Valentine, Joe Ferguson, Tom Paciorek and Doyle Alexander, in an amazing crop of young ballplayers who emerged from LA's farm system in that era. In 1968 alone, the Dodgers inked 55 amateur players, four of whom were Buckner, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, and Ron Cey.

Buckner was an outfielder, but the Dodgers tried him at first base as well, working to fit him into their crowded lineup. Garvey and Russell were also splitting time between the outfield, third base and shortstop. In his eight seasons under Walter Alston as a Dodger, Buckner had three seasons as a regular, splitting time with Garvey at first, and finally planting himself in the outfield in 1976. But when the Dodgers were able to get Rick Monday from the Cubs in January, 1977, they sent Buckner to Chicago in the deal, which also included shortstop Ivan DeJesus. Monday joined Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker in the Dodger outfield under new skipper Tommy Lasorda, and Buckner was converted to first base full-time by the Cubs.

Buckner blossomed in Chicago, as he was finally given a chance to play on a regular basis. The left-handed hitter batted .323 his first season, and later hit .324, .311 and .306 in the Windy City, but was unable to help the Cubs climb in the standings. Buckner, sporting a thick mustache that became his trademark, won the National League batting title in 1980, edging Keith Hernandez and Garry Templeton.

With Chicago in 1977, Buckner suffered the first of many ankle injuries which plagued him during his career. He had once been a strong baserunner, swiping 31 bases in a season for the Dodgers, but after 1976 he never stole more than 18 bases, and his range in the field was vastly limited. Buckner routinely grounded into 16-20 double plays a season, and except for 50 games in 1980, he never played much in the outfield. Cub broadcaster Lou Boudreau once said of Buckner: "He looks like he's walking on eggs and can't take another step."

Despite his gimpiness, Buckner stayed among a pack of 10-12 hitters in the NL batting race for most of the 1980 season. On September 1, he was at .312, 13 points in back of George Hendrick. On September 11, after three hits against Montreal, Buckner inched ahead of Garry Templeton, .324-.323, while Cesar Cedeno, Keith Hernandez, and Hendrick trailed close behind. On the 27th, Templeton vaulted ahead by three points, and the St. Louis shortstop held a five-point lead on the 23rd. On September 26, less than two points separated Templeton, Hernandez, and Buckner. On October 1, Templeton led Hernandez and Buckner by three points with four games to go. The next day, Buckner banged out three hits and two days later he colected three more to take the lead for good. He finished at .324, three points ahead of Hernandez.

In May of 1984 Buckner was dealt to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Dennis Eckersley in a deal which helped the Cubs win the National League East. Buckner enjoyed two full seasons with the BoSox, driving in 100 runs in both '85 and '86, due in large part because he had several RBI opportunities batting behind Wade Boggs. In 1986, for example, Buckner batted just .276 with men on base, and .242 with a .340 slugging percentage with men in scoring position, but still amassed 102 RBI because Boggs was on base more than 300 times in front of him. In the 1986 post-season Buckner batted a weak .200, with four RBI in 14 games, and just one extra-base hit. In spite of his poor performance, Boston manager John McNamara left him at first base in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six of the World Series with a two-run lead. Defensive specialist Dave Stapleton was left on the bench, and watched in horror as a ground ball skipped through Buckner's legs and down the right field line, allowing the Met's Ray Knight to score the game-winning run. The Red Sox never recovered, losing a three-run lead in Game Seven and continuing their cursed Fall Classic tradition. Buckner's name became synonimous with the team's failure, and due in part to that, and the fact that he was deteriorating as an everyday player, he was released by the Sox on July 23, 1987, to make room for prospect Sam Horn.

Buckner spent 1987, 1988, and 1989 with the California Angels and then the Kansas City Royals, seeing little playing time as his skills eroded. In 1990, the Red Sox signed him as a free agent. He played 22 games as a first baseman and pinch-hitter, with his only highlight an inside-the-park home run in Fenway Park. The sight of Buckner legging out the homer was brutal irony to Red Sox faithful, who could not forget the infamous play from the 1986 World Series. Buckner retired before the '90 season concluded, having registered 2,715 hits, 498 doubles, 174 home runs, 183 steals, 1,077 runs scored, 1,208 RBI, and a .289 lifetime batting average.

Position
1970-1976: outfielder, mostly right field, with a few games at first base; 1977-1990: first base, with a few games in the outfield and at DH. Buckner was reluctant, but happy to consider moving at various times in his career, if it would help his team. In 1980, while he was among league leaders in hitting, the Cubs pondered switching Buckner to the outfield so they could get Cliff Johnson into the lineup. "I'd rather not," Buckner said, "but if it will help the club, I'll do it. (My ankle injury) still bothers me sometimes." With Dave Kingman on the disabled list, Buckner did end up moving to left field for a time, but hurt himself shortly afterword when he dove for a ball. He missed a few games and was back at first once Kingman was healthy.

Feats
On May 17, 1979, in a famous slugfest at Wrigley Field that included three homers by Dave Kingman and two by Mike Schmidt, Buckner belted a grand slam and drove in seven runs. The Cubs still lost to the Phillies, 23-22 in ten innings.

Uniform #'s
#38 (1969), #22 (1970-1984 Cubs, 1990 Red Sox), #16 (1984 Red Sox), #6 (1985-1988 Angels), $14 (1988-1989 Royals)

FACTOID
Buckner's brother, Jim, played in the Atlanta Braves' minor league organization.

Transaction Data (courtesy Retrosheet.org)
June 7, 1968: Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2nd round of the 1968 amateur draft; January 11, 1977: Traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers with Jeff Albert (minors) and Ivan DeJesus to the Chicago Cubs for Rick Monday and Mike Garman; May 25, 1984: Traded by the Chicago Cubs to the Boston Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley; July 23, 1987: Released by the Boston Red Sox; July 28, 1987: Signed as a Free Agent with the California Angels; May 9, 1988: Released by the California Angels; May 13, 1988: Signed as a Free Agent with the Kansas City Royals; November 4, 1988: Granted Free Agency; December 6, 1988: Signed as a Free Agent with the Kansas City Royals; November 13, 1989: Granted Free Agency; February 15, 1990: Signed as a Free Agent with the Boston Red Sox; June 5, 1990: Released by the Boston Red Sox.

Best Season, 1982
Buckner set career marks with 161 games played, 201 hits, and 105 RBI. Later he topped them with the Red Sox, but in '82 he batted .306 and had a respectable .441 slugging mark. He had 34 doubles and 15 home runs, and stole 15 bases in 20 tries.

FACTOID
From 1971 to 1980, Buckner hit over .300 in every even-numbered year and hit below .300 in every odd-numbered year.

Milestones
Collected his 2,000th career hit with Boston in 1984. Interesting to note that had Buckner had the fortune of being drafted by an expansion team, he may have inched very close to the 3,000-hit mark. As it was he banged out more than 2,700 in his career, but if he hadn't been stuck in the talent-rich Dodger organization, he might have gotten a chance to play everyday at the age of 20, which might have netted him the 285 hits he needed to reach 3,000.

Hitting Streaks
16 games (1981)

Replaced
When Buckner finally got semi-regular playing time with the Dodgers in 1971, he was replacing an ad hoc group of right fielders, namely Willie Crawford, BIll Russell (who was converted into an infielder), and Andy Kosco.

Replaced By
Buckner's last fullt-ime job was as the Royals' DH in 1988. In '89, the team went with Danny Tartabull in that role, among others.

Best Strength as a Player
Batting for a high average and making contact. In 1980, when Buckner won the NL batting crown, he didn't strike out until his 112th at-bat of the season. Twice, in 1978 and 1979, he was the toughest batter in the National League to strike out. Ironically, depite his penchant for bat control, Buckner was one of the most notorious bat throwers of his era. Several times each season, the bat would fly out of his hands as he swung. Opposing pitchers grew used to ducking his errant bats.

Largest Weakness as a Player
Patience and power. Buckner's offensive value was contained almost exclusively in his batting average.


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