Buckner’s death was confirmed by his wife, Jody, to ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap. He had suffered from Lewy Body Dementia.
“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” the family said in a statement. “Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
William Joseph Buckner was born Dec. 14, 1949 in Vallejo, Cal. and grew up in nearby American Canyon. In addition to playing baseball, he was also an all-state wide receiver in high school.
Buckner was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the second round (25th overall) of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft. He played for the Dodgers (1969-76), Chicago Cubs (1977-84), Boston Red Sox (1984-87, 1990), California Angels (1987-88), and Kansas City Royals (1988-89).
He was an extremely underrated left-handed contact hitter who never struck out more than 39 times in a season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other player in the Expansion Era with at least 10,000 plate appearances who struck out less frequently than Buckner was the Hall of Fame right fielder Tony Gwynn.
Buckner was the National League batting champion in 1980 (.324) and made his only All-Star Game appearance the following season. His lifetime batting average was .289 with 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, 1,077 runs scored, and 1,208 runs batted in. However, Buckner’s career in the majors would be immortalized by one play.
Oct. 25, 1986: the Red Sox were one out away from a series-clinching victory in the bottom of the 10th inning when Mookie Wilson stepped up to bat. With a 3-2 count off reliever Bob Stanley and Ray Knight on second base, Wilson hit a soft grounder that bounced up the first base line. It was a seemingly routine play, but Buckner went down to snatch the ball up it went between his legs and rolled into right field.
“Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner!” legendary sportscaster Vin Scully said in the broadcast for NBC.
Knight scored the go-ahead run to give the Mets a 6-5 victory. Two days later, the Mets bested Boston 8-5 in Game 7 for the franchise’s second and most recent World Series crown. The so-called Curse of the Bambino wouldn’t be exorcised for another 18 years.
Buckner’s teammates rallied around him, saying Boston wouldn’t have been in the World Series without him.
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“No one played harder than Bill,” right fielder Dwight Evans said. “No one prepared themselves as well as Bill Buckner did, and no one wanted to win as much as Bill Buckner.”
The sentiments of Buckner’s teammates were not shared by many Red Sox fans, despite the fact the Mets tied the game on a wild pitch before the infamous play.
“When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally,” Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan said years later.
After his 1990 retirement, Buckner and his family remained in Massachusetts. He was subjected to constant heckling from fans and criticism from the media that escalated into death threats. It proved to be so much that Buckner moved his family to a ranch he bought in Idaho.
When the Red Sox invited him to a ceremony at Fenway Park honoring the 20th anniversary of the 1986 team, Buckner declined. However, the relationship between Buckner and Red Sox Nation eventually thawed. The first step towards reconciliation was in 2004, when the Red Sox vanquished the Yankees and swept the St. Louis Cardinals en route to the franchise’s first World Series title since 1918.
At the 2008 home opener, the Red Sox celebrated their second World Series championship in four years. It was a festive occasion with many current and past Boston sports legends. Among them was Bill Buckner. He came out from an enormous American flag draped over the Green Monster. When he was introduced to the Opening Day crowd, they gave him a standing ovation that lasted nearly 2 minutes. Buckner delivered the ceremonial first pitch to his former teammate Evans with tears in his eyes…and the crowd at Fenway went bananas.
“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner said when asked why he returned to Fenway. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that. And I’m just happy that I just try to think of the positive. The happy things.”
Buckner became a coach at the conclusion of his playing career, including a stint as a hitting coach with the Chicago White Sox in 1996 and 1997. He also served as manager of the Brockton Rox, an independent team based in Brockton, Mass. In addition, Buckner also worked in real estate.
Former Major League outfielder/manager Bobby Valentine was selected by the Dodgers in the first round of the ’68 Draft and played three seasons with Buckner. He offered his condolences on Twitter: “As I clear my head and hold back the tears I know I will always remember Billy Buck as a great hitter and a better friend. He deserved better. Thank god for his family. Ill miss you Buck.”
Wilson, who became linked to Buckner because of one play, was “saddened” over Buckner’s passing.
“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said in a statement. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball, whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”
Buckner is survived by his wife, Jody, daughter, Brittany, and sons Christen and Bobby.