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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

43 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Bill Buckner”

  1. “He was not quite a Hall of Fame-level player but he was certainly among the best batsmen of the 1970s and ought to be remembered as such.”

    The irony is that Buckner was, at the time, probably the most overrated player of the 70s. He was a 1B who didn’t hit for power, didn’t draw walks, and didn’t field particularly well. An actually useful stat, like JAWS (as opposed to batting average), rates him as the 144th-best 1B ever (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_1B.shtml), behind such stalwarts as Jeff King and Lyle Overbay, despite having a career twice as long as either. In more than half his seasons he had a net negative production compared to the infamous “replacement player.” I am sure that the length of his career was entirely due to this basic misunderstanding about how baseball games are won and lost.

    Perhaps this weekend’s movie selection should be “Moneyball”– infamy like that shouldn’t happen to anyone who’s not a bad person, but let’s get real.

    1. Indeed. Buckner finished his career with an OPS+ of 100, making him exactly an average major league hitter. Considering that he spent his whole career, save for 176 appearances in right field, at the left end of the defensive spectrum and did it poorly, that’s not a good player. He was a borderline All-Star in 1982 and was also good in 1972 and 1974. That’s the total of his seasons over 1.5 Wins Above Replacement. And, as toasters says, about half the time the team he played for probably had someone about as good as Buckner playing first base for them in AAA.

      Buckner and Enos Cabell were the two poster children for Bill James’ earliest attempts to explain how batting average is overvalued. I believe, though I don’t remember for sure, that Buckner was the player in question when James responded to some announcer saying that he was one of the toughest outs in baseball by replying, in print, “He was such a tough out he made more of them than any other player in baseball last year.”

      1. I think you’re right about the James quote. James also pointed out that McNamara pooched it himself, because Dave Stapleton should have been put in as a defensive sub, as had been done all year. Buckner shouldn’t even have been on the field.

        1. Too much worship of Bill James here, IMO.

          Buckner had a long career (that, by the way, in itself is of value). He played on a bunch of winning teams. He was paid a lot of money to play baseball by people who knew what they were doing.

          1. Yeah, great to remember all those teams that Bill James took to the playoffs over the years, like the, uh, and who could ever forgot the, uh, and those amazing uh. Never mind.

          2. Playing a long time while costing your teams runs is not valuable. And it is clear that a lot of people running baseball teams at the time did not know what they were doing. Unless you want to toss out statistical analysis altogether and basically say that the people running baseball teams now have no idea what they’re doing, Buckner was not a very good major league caliber player.

          3. Anonymous: the Boston Red Sox is the team you are looking for. You know, that team in the World Series. The team that hadn’t won a World Series in over 80 years when they hired him, and has won 2 since, not counting this year. That team.

          4. Michael:

            Baseball has too much variance to be perfectly explainable by statistics. Buckner played on winning teams. Some James worsippers think the stats explain everything. They don’t .

          5. “Buckner played on winning teams.”

            Well, that certainly shows… absolutely nothing. And it is, by the way a statistic, just and incredibly rudimentary and useless one.

            BTW, he played 6 full or half seasons for the Dodgers– all were over .500. Then he played 7 full seasons for the Cubs– 6 were losing and 1 was .500. Those were his prime years, BTW. Then he went to the Red Sox, where they were above .500 twice and at .500 once. And your explanation of the Dodgers and Red Sox winning and the Cubs losing is that they all had Bill Buckner’s services. Fabulous.

            They keep individual records for a reason.

          6. Actually, playing on winning teams shows a lot. You see, the object of the game is to win, NOT to impress Bill James or his followers. Impressing Bill James and his followers, or indeed any statistical achievement other than winning, is in the end meaningless.

            The Bill James fetishists remind me of the poker players who worship game theory optimal play. They are so addicted to a beautiful mathematical theory that allows them to never be exploited, that they don’t understand that the object of the game is to win the other guy’s money.

            In the end, baseball statistics are just as much subject to variance and wins and losses are. You can have bad statistics because of where you end up in the lineup or whether a division rival has a good pitching staff or when you go on the DL. You can even just get unlucky and run bad, just like in poker– if you hit a bunch of deep balls and the fielders make diving catches, your stats will be terrible. Statistics worshipers assume that there’s some way to program all that variance out, but there isn’t.

            You believe in garbage. You think you can measure things you can’t. And your individual statistics mean nothing– the TEAM that wins the games gets the trophy at the end. Stop ruining a great game with your computerized bullshit.

          7. “You can have bad statistics because of where you end up in the lineup” No. Bill James (and others who replicated his work) tested this repeatedly and found it to be not true.
            “or whether a division rival has a good pitching staff.” You also play division teams with bad pitching staffs. And non-division teams with good and bad pitching staffs.
            “or when you go on the DL” Huh?
            “You can even just get unlucky and run bad, just like in poker.” Buckner had over 10,000 plate appearances. I gather you don’t “do” statistics, but ask someone who does how likely it is to have “bad luck” for 10,000 trials.
            “You believe in garbage. You think you can measure things you can’t.” Now, now, there are plenty of statistics courses available to adults. Go get some knowledge before you get hissy.
            “And your individual statistics mean nothing the TEAM that wins the games gets the trophy at the end” I believe you are a socialist. Capitalist team owners, in contrast, pay players with better statistics more money.

          8. Dilan, no offense but you are clearly talking about something about which you know nothing. Absolutely nothing. You cite a bunch if objections as if no one who studies these things has ever thought of them. You’re wrong. In fact, they’ve looked at every single one of them. My suggestion if you want to add anything of value to the discussion is to learn something about what you are criticizing, because so far all you’ve done is betray ignorance.

            And I’m sorry for unloading but there comes a point at which I lose all tolerance for someone peddling bullshit despite people trying to warn them that that’s what they are doing.

    2. Most overrated player of the ’70s? There is a lot of competition for that title. I would vote for Steve Garvey, who was a fine defensive 1B, but had an empty .300 BA and a wildly overblown reputation, which he carefully cultivated.

      1. He would be my other candidate. Pick a high average, low OPS first baseman from any era and you’ve got a fine candidate.

        1. Though Larry Bowa is in the running as well. Pick an offensive black hole middle infielder from an era before decent defensive metrics and you’re likely to hear all sorts of silly claims about how much their defense was worth, overcoming all of their hitting shortcomings. (Mazeroski, on the other hand, really does appear to have been as good as his rep.)

          1. You are right. The only defensive stat they had was fielding %, and Bowa was some sort of record-holder in that.

          2. True dat, J. Michael. But Mark Belanger really did have the D to overcome his batting average. Earl Weaver said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

    3. Serious question: Is the Moneyball approach as good for baseball as entertainment as it is for baseball as business? Quite a bit of the financial optimization described sounded like it might produce dull play.

      1. It’s good for entertainment if your team does it, because winning is entertaining. It’s bad if everyone does it, because walks are boring.

      2. It isn’t so much the financial optimization as it is the proper assessment of how much certain abilities are worth. I agree with you that the greater appreciation of walks and home runs has produced a form of baseball that is significantly less interesting even as it is more successful on the field. Such is life sometimes.

        Interestingly, though, financial optimization no longer points in the same direction. Once the big market teams developed the same appreciation for OBP and slugging as the innovating small market teams did, those particular abilities were no longer undervalued. Billy Beane shifted directions dramatically a few years ago and is now investing heavily in team defense. Their belief is that they have an internal measure of defensive ability that allows them to price it better than other teams do and so that is now one of their focuses. My inclination is that one area where a cost sensitive team should be investing resources these days is on its medical staff; if they can figure out a way to keep pitchers healthy, that would be a huge advantage that they might be able to secure relatively cheaply.

        1. I honestly don’t know whether it does or not. My fascination with baseball was a thing of my youth, listening to Cards games over the AM radio. (I was an odd child. When I got bored, I’d switch to the shortwave channel and listen to WWV tick away till the solar weather came on.) I did get a good laugh out of the “pump and dump” strategy for relief pitchers. I’d always thought there was something fishy about that distinction.

          I ask because the board at our church mostly (I was out of town) got together and watched Moneyball (anyway, I figure the book is better than the movie) at part of a leadership development project, in the hopes it would get people to value non-standard traits in others. I love the book–got it a decade ago and loaned it out a lot–but I’m a little skeptical of its value in this context, and thus my question.

  2. Sports fans made similar cracks after a generally fine field goal kicker (who was a major supporter of charities at a childrens’ hospital) missed a field goal during an important game, resulting in a narrow loss. Fans were saying “Did you hear that he attempted suicide the other day? He tried to hang himself but couldn’t kick the chair out from under him.”

    Buncha jerks.

  3. I am still a sports fan likely always will be, but thinking about things like this is one cause of my drift toward cynicism. At least Buckner made an actual error; athletes such as Scott Norwood and Ralph Branca received similar opprobrium just for coming up short at a crucial moment. This is not something for sports fans to be proud of. The fact is that if a game is close enough to be exciting, that Mets/Red Sox game included, it almost certainly turns on one or more random bounces or fairly debatable officiating calls. It is strange business that so much rapture and misery follow from that “W” or “L”. But anyway, Go Pack, Go Badgers.

    1. It is striking how fans non-randomly assign blame. Donnie Moore was uniquely blamed for the Angels’ playoff collapse against the Sox the same year as Buckner’s error even though he only came into the game because the prior pitcher beaned a player and set up a rally.

      1. Actually, the rally started under the starter, Mike Witt, who gave up a 2 run homer in the 9th. Then Lucas came in, threw one pitch, and hit (not beaned) Rich Gedman. Then, Moore pitched to Henderson.

  4. “The Master Blackmailer” was an episode in the Granada Television series of Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett, and was, in my opinion, among the least meritorious of all the episodes of that largely wonderful series (the changes made to the plot rendered the whole story nonsense). However, the story by Arthur Conan Doyle upon which the episode was based is called “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”

    1. Excellent catch on mixing the title of the short story and the TV adaptation – I have corrected.

      I don’t though agree with your assessment of the Granada version, I’ve watched all the episodes more than once and think it could be the very best, especially because the story itself is not much to work with.

      1. “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is indeed one of the weaker stories.

        One other minor quibble with what you wrote. Watson doesn’t warn Holmes about his “honoured career ending in irreparable failure and disgrace”; that’s Watson’s inner reflection in his first-person narrative. The makers of the television versions mostly did a wonderful job translating the first-person narrative to the screen without the use of voice-over, which would probably have been tedious had they used it.

        1. @Herschel — you have a very good memory. I had to look it up to confirm, here is the text:
          I had a catching of the breath, and my skin went cold at the words, which were slowly uttered in a tone of concentrated resolution. As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wild landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such an action — the detection, the capture, the honoured career ending in irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of the odious Milverton.
          “For heaven’s sake, Holmes, think what you are doing,”

          @Everyone — Thread above de-snarked. Have a good weekend.

  5. Bill Buckner was a ballplayer and a half. He played his tail off for the Sox. Despite being hobbled by a bad ankle, he had a big part in their being in position to win that World Series. I’m glad that the Fenway Faithful finally came to their senses and welcomed him back a year or so ago. I’m also glad that he accepted their embrace. Any true baseball fan will admire Buckner’s skill and heart.

    1. Buckner was below replacement level in the 1986 regular season and hit .188/.212/.188 in the playoffs that year. The Red Sox came within an out of winning the World Series despite him, not because of him.

      1. “Yeah, but smart guys paid him money!” Because, you know, his .188 slugging was all clutch and character-filled.

      2. Good grief. He was an average, and sometimes above average, Major League Baseball player for years and years. Please stop and think what that means. What percentage of people who devote themselves to the game can make that claim? I stand by my description.

        1. Sure. Relative to the vast majority of people, Bill Buckner was an amazingly good baseball player. But once you start throwing around language like “. . . not quite a Hall of Fame-level player . . .” or “. . . a big part in their being in position to win that World Series . . .” you aren’t comparing someone to the world at large. You are comparing them to the extremely small set of people that have been major league baseball players. And relative to THAT population, Bill Buckner was overrated, and not by a small margin. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY enshrines the 200 or so best players ever. And within that context, there are probably several thousand players in baseball history who are not so enshrined that would deserve that honor before Buckner does.

          1. I agree that he was nowhere close to being a Hall of Fame player and that “not quite a Hall of Fame player” (which I didn’t say, by the way) is off the mark. As for his being a big part of that World Series, that’s the way I remember it and I remember thinking that at the time, but I could very well be off base with that. Sox fans rub me the wrong way – smug even when their team isn’t that good and way too hostile to Sox players who don’t cut the mustard. So, it’s entirely possible that my sympathetic recollection of Buckner’s contribution is colored by my antipathy toward Sox fans.

            That said, I have nothing but respect to for the players the Sox have had during this run of success, going back at least to when they hired Tito Francona. Sox players are A-OK. It’s their fans that bug me. They are as much anti-Yankee as they are pro-Sox.

    2. Yeah, Buckner was a detriment to the team that year. He should have been a bench player.

      That’s not to say he deserved being treated that way. He shouldn’t feel bad though. Red Sox Nation runs everyone out of town and spits on their graves. Even the good ones. I’ve never seen a fan base or a press team treat departing vets so terribly. Even the ones that got them rings. Clemens, run out of town. Beckett. Damon, booed when he returned. Classless.

      1. One small point: Clemens did not get them a ring. He was one of their greatest pitchers ever, obviously, so sure, not classy, but also he wound up with their divisional rivals. I think Red Sox fans are permitted to boo the Yankees (and Jays).

  6. I think there is a number of misconceptions in this thread. Buckner was hardly overrated–the Sox took him precisely for what he brought to the team, experience. Of course, the trouble with that is that as players age they rarely keep up the average or the ability to run (not that Buckner was ever a good runner). But he was a very competent 1B and a good hitter, with few injuries and no off-field issues. What he had done for the Sox that year in immesurable. If anyone was overrated in those years, it was Wade Boggs.

    But the OP missed the point completely. Red Sox fans did not hate Buckner because he made a mistake. He symbolized years of agony for them (just as the fan who cost the Cubs an out was blamed for the whole team collapsing and was on the brink of suicide). But, in this case, Buckner personified it in a different way, not just from the fielding mistake–Buckner was a “Cub factor” in Boston. Many Red Sox fans believed at least as late as the 1980s that it was people connected to the Cubs were responsible for many of the Red Sox myseries. Buckner was essentially given a pass during the season, but those “Cub factor” watchers were ready to pounce on him for any reason. And they did just that. This adds certain irony to your post because you specifically bring up Buckner’s Cub past, essentially reviving the “Cub factor” stories that had been put to rest over the last ten years.

    1. “Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist who died recently, told a million good stories. Here’s one involving a Baltimore boy, Babe Ruth, or at least his spirit.

      One night 20 years ago, Charles Finley, owner of the Oakland Athletics, brought a large group of Midwestern Baptists into Billy Goat’s Tavern, Royko’s storied watering hole. The church people had been Finley’s guests at a game between the White Sox and the A’s, and now he was taking them on safari to see the seamier side of life. The church people ordered Cokes. The A’s manager, Alvin Dark, stood to preach about clean living, clean thinking and being righteous and pure. He told the group how he had turned away from drinking and womanizing and being rotten to people.

      All of this made the Billy Goat regulars depressed. One of them, a red-eyed man nursing a beer, interrupted.

      “Ain’t it true that Babe Ruth used to run with all kinds of low women, and that he drank lots of booze, and he ate like a pig, and was a real disgusting sinner?”

      “Yes, I’m afraid that is true,” Dark said.

      “Well, then tell me this,” said red-eye. “If a team was made up of nine Alvin Darks, and it played against a team made up of nine Babe Ruths, who would win?”

      “Well, I suppose the Ruths would,” Dark answered. “He was the greatest player there ever was.”

      “Yeah, that’s what I think, too,” shouted red-eye. “So let’s all drink a shot to the memory of Babe Ruth and dirty living.”

      Wrote Royko: “The regular customers gave him a standing ovation. Those who could stand. And that’s how the spread of clean living was checked in Billy Goat’s Tavern that day. Hallelujah!””

      http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-05-14/news/1997134014_1_fort-carroll-columbus-terminals

    2. But he was a very competent 1B and a good hitter . . .

      In his prime he was a mediocre first baseman and he was, by major league standards, an average hitter, and by the standards of a major league first baseman he was a lousy hitter, not just by 1986 but throughout his career. To have much value as a first baseman you have to hit better than Buckner did. Positional differences are crucial.

      What he had done for the Sox that year in immesurable.

      The problem with things that aren’t measurable is that, by definition, we have no idea whether or not they actually have value and if they do, how much value. Contra Dilan, it isn’t that a lot of us think that stats explain everything. It’s that we find that the things that get lumped together as “intangibles” become a fertile field for bullshit. If “team experience” were something that consistently added wins and losses to a team then it should be measurable. But, to date, no one has been able to define it in any sort of rigorous way and then show that it makes teams better. Instead, much like the concept of “clutch” you find people defining it in ad hoc ways that are convenient for the particular case they are trying to argue.

      So, Bill Buckner may have added intangible value to the 1986 Red Sox. That hypothesized value might have been positive or negative. And the thing is that you, I, and John McNamara really have no idea whether it’s true or not. The difference is that I recognize that if I opined on it one way or the other I’d just be guessing.

      If anyone was overrated in those years, it was Wade Boggs.

      Wrong. If anything, Boggs was underrated, believe it or not. You can make a case that Boggs was the best position player in the American League in 1986 and 1988 but he finished 7th and 6th in the MVP balloting respectively. He did the most important thing you can do when you’re standing at the plate – not make an out – and he did it better than anyone else. In 1986, Boggs not only had the highest OBP in the majors, he was 40 points ahead of the next best guy (.453 to .413 for Tim Raines) in 1988, his OBP was 60 points clear of the second best guy (.476 to Mike Greenwell’s .416).

      The case for Buckner as a good hitter is limited to his batting average; he hit a lot of singles but not much power and few walks. With Boggs, the batting average is just a starting point to why he was so good.

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