The Tragedy of Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner is a sad example of how a single bad moment can define public memory

buckner1In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Dr. Watson warns Sherlock Holmes that a single high profile mistake will lead to the Great Detective’s “honoured career ending in irreparable failure and disgrace”. This is one of most terrible potential costs of fame: One misstep can define how you are remembered. It happened to Senator Ed Muskie, it happened to Admiral James Stockdale, and it happened to a fine baseball player 27 years ago today, when he committed the most famous error in the history of the World Series.

Even though he never played for my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates, I followed Bill Buckner’s career because of a chance encounter. My dad took a business trip to Cincinnati, and my older brother and I got to go with him. Ken and I walked down to Riverfront stadium, bought two cheap tickets and sat down to watch the hometown Reds play the visiting Chicago Cubs. The Reds, who were very good that year, pounded the Cubs into the ground right up to the moment that a torrential downpour began.

It rained very hard for a very long time, and the game seemed in the bag for the Reds, so almost all the fans left. After the deluge finally abated, my brother and I moved to the much-desired but now vacated seats directly behind the dugout. As the ground crews pulled away the sodden tarp and began to prepare the field for a resumption of play, up popped Buckner (he played for the Cubs then) to chat with the few remaining people in the stands. It was a thrill for a teenage baseball fan, as was the post-rain delay part of the game during which the Cubs pulled off an epic comeback and won after being behind 7-0.

Buckner had a hit that game, one of over 2700 he would garner in his career. Hitting a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher is one of the hardest things to do in professional sports, so much so that a player who can do it 3 times out of 10 is a star. Buckner hit over .300 in seven seasons and had a .289 batting average over his 22 years in the majors. Early in his career, before ankle injuries slowed him down, he was also an accomplished base stealer. He was not a Hall of Fame-level player but he was certainly a very talented player over many years and ought to be remembered as such.

But of course Buckner isn’t remembered as such, because he booted a critical ball hit in the World Series when he was playing first base for the Red Sox. That manager John McNamara should probably have made a defensive substitution for Buckner at that point in the game didn’t matter to angry Boston fans. That other Boston players made critical mistakes in the same game and in the ensuing Game 7 didn’t seem to matter either. That Buckner had helped Boston win many games that season which got them into the playoffs in the first place was also viewed as irrelevant. Many Red Sox aficionados pinned the blame for the painful World Series loss uniquely on him.

He and his family were mistreated by much of the press and the public. Cruel jokes abounded (“Did you hear that Buckner tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a bus? It went between his legs.”). He was traded away by Boston’s management after the season ended. When he was traded back to Boston later, he was booed when he walked onto the Fenway Park field.

This ESPN story about Buckner and his family describes what they went through after the 1986 World Series. It clearly took a long time, but it’s good to see that Buckner was eventually able to come to peace with everything, indeed even to find humor in it. That may be as much a credit to him as are his many fine years as a top baseball player.

A word about Alex Karras

Most reports of Alex Karras’s death noted that he had dementia, but not that he attributed his dementia to his years playing in the NFL. Nor did they mention that he was one of the players suing the League for concealing what it knew about the long-term effects of concussion. These omissions do a disservice to Karras, to his family, and to all of us who love football.

I grew up watching the Colts, by which I mean the BALTIMORE Colts of the 1960s, of Johnny Unitas-Ray Berry-Lenny Moore fame. (If you don’t recognize the names, just trust me: we shall not see their like again.) That team included the tight end John Mackey. So when I saw a bit of news tape showing Mackey sitting in a nursing home while his wife tried to help him recognize himself–himself!–in his football jersey, I was sickened by the damaging effects of the sport I love to watch. Later that year Mackey died of fronto-temporal dementia; but still I kept watching.

Six months before, a member of my beloved 1985 championship Chicago Bears had killed himself, leaving behind a plea that his brain be autopsied. Dave Duerson too proved to have had extensive brain injury, in the form of chronic traumatic encephelopathy; but still I’d kept watching.

I thought of both men when I heard of Karras’s death, and it finally took. No matter how exciting and graceful the game–and, having been taught to watch it by my father, I’ve relished both the excitement and the grace for nearly 50 years–their lives are too high a price to pay. It’s time to stop watching.