Tuesday, February 21, 2012

DAHOF Top 100 -- #41 Bill Buckner

"This is a boy who can become a batting champion..."
  ~ Ted Williams on Dodger prospect Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner made his major league debut for the Dodgers on Sept. 21, 1969. He pinch-hit in the ninth inning and popped out. Giants beat the Dodgers that day, 4-3 in walkoff fashion. The game ended on a ground ball to shortstop Maury Wills. And it went through his legs for a game-ending error.

Bill Buckner was an important part of the young early 70s Dodgers that included Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and Davey Lopes. These guys laid the foundation of the franchise that enjoyed great success for almost 2 decades. In his early career, Buckner was a speedy base runner and consistent hitter. With Garvey entrenched at first, the Dodgers moved him to the outfield to keep his bat in the lineup. In fact, he was the left fielder you can see climbing the fence trying in vain to catch Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974.

Trouble was, in contrast to that steady Dodger lineup, Buckner just couldn't stay healthy. By 1977, the Dodgers had given up on his fragile ankles, sending him to the National League's version of Siberia... Wrigley Field.

On October 5th, 1980.... Bill was on the verge of delivering on Ted's prediction. The previous day Buckner had gone 3 for 5 against the Pirates, raising his league leading batting average to .326. He was firmly in control of the NL batting lead over 1979 batting champ Keith Hernandez. In fact, he could have just sat out the final game of the season and still win.

The Cubs were in last place, with the worst record in the National League. 27 games behind the Phillies, the game meant nothing in the standings and no one would have questioned him if he chose to walk away with the title already secured. When asked if he considered sitting out, Buckner replied "I did, but if I were Keith Hernandez, I would expect me to play..."

With everything to lose, Buckner decided to play in that meaningless last game of the 1980 season. It could have been a personal disaster given he went hitless in four at bats dropping his average to .324. However, Hernandez could have caught him with three hits, only went 1 for 4 and finished at .321. Buckner had his batting title.

By 1984, the Cubs no longer needed Buckner because they had Leon Durham at first base. In May, they dealt Buckner to the Red Sox for pitcher Dennis Eckersley. The 1984 Cubs would go on to win the NL East, but were beaten by the San Diego Padres in heartbreaking fashion after Leon Durham committed an error, missing an easy grounder between his legs, in the seventh inning of Game#5.

Some other stuff happened in his career, but that is not what is important to me. In the end you will find that he played in four different decades. He batted .289 for his career while pounding out 2,715 hits. That’s more hits than Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and about 70 percent of the other big bats in the Hall of Fame. And Buckner played in more games (2,517) than Babe Ruth, Rod Carew and Willie Stargell. He was a great ball player and a workhorse, I am blessed to have seen him play.


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