Any Red Sox fan of a certain age can remember where they were in 1986 when they watched Mookie Wilson’s ground ball bound past Bill Buckner, or where they were in 1978 when they watched Mike Torrez throw Bucky Dent’s home run, or where they were in 1946 when they listened to Enos Slaughter race home as Johnny Pesky did or didn’t hold the ball.
All prolonged what became an 86-year drought, but when it came to notoriety, Pesky and Torrez were pikers.
Whichever publicity agent first said, “I don’t care what they say as long as they spell your name right,” didn’t have Buckner as a client. Spelling a name right doesn’t have much benefit when it’s done to meet the very human need to scapegoat.
Perhaps no one better understood what Buckner, who died last month, endured more than Pesky, the victim of an earlier generation. Pesky was the Red Sox shortstop in Game 7 of the World Series who caught the relay throw from center fielder Leon Culberson, held it no more than a split second and flung the ball home weakly as the Cardinals’ Slaughter, running from first on Harry Walker’s double, slid home safely with the Series-winning run.
Maybe Pesky should have thrown quicker. And maybe he should have had a better arm.
“Pesky long ago accepted the idea that there had to be a goat, and that the honor, however dubious, was his,” David Halberstam wrote in The Teammates, 57 years later.
How much so? Pesky went home to Oregon after the Series, took his wife to a high school football game and watched the teams fumble the ball back and forth. “Give the ball to Pesky,” a sports talk radio caller of a fan before there was sports talk radio yelled out. “He knows how to hold on to it.”
Maybe Pesky handled what Halbertsam called his “honor, however dubious” more readily than Buckner. And maybe Pesky only had to hear about it, while Buckner had to hear it and watch it and replay it over and over and over again, every time the Red Sox or Mets neared the World Series. Maybe Pesky would have moved to Idaho, too, as Buckner did, if he had to watch Slaughter slide home safely every October and hear himself blamed for it.
Extenuating circumstances be damned, of course, when competing with the simple human need to blame. Culberson was in center field only because Dom DiMaggio, a superior defender in every respect, had pulled a muscle pulling into second base in the top of the inning, having tied the game with a two-out, two-run double (DiMaggio, whose brother was a center fielder of some repute himself, knocked in all three Game 7 Red Sox runs in a 4-3 loss). “I knew I was going to score,” Halbertsam wrote that Slaughter told St. Louis sports writer Bob Broeg, “because I knew Culberson was in center, not Dom DiMaggio.”
Little good Slaughter’s insight did Pesky. And maybe Buckner shouldn’t have been in Game 6 to field Wilson’s grounder, or to see Bob Stanley’s wild pitch tie the game or see Calvin Schiraldi, a strike away from victory, yield three straight hits.
The human need to assign fault, though, isn’t much interested in context. “Life isn’t fair,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy in an appreciation of Buckner. “Even in death.”
He’s right, of course, and so fans were treated to days of belated revisionism. Buckner shouldn’t be remembered for just one play, it was repeated ad nauseam, even as that one play was talked about and replayed countless more times. Even in trying to right Buckner’s legacy, the fiercer the media attempted to extricate him from his entanglement, the more the bonds of Wilson’s grounder tightened.
Like a bad bounce, that, too, is part of baseball and its history, the connection between a player and a single play or event. Almost every baseball fan knows Wally Pipp was the Yankee first baseman who took a sick day and never got his job back. Few fans know how good a player Pipp was. Playing mostly in the dead-ball era, he led MLB in homers in back-to-back seasons in 1916-17 (he even outhomered Home Run Baker), led the AL in triples in 1924, the year before he lost his job, batted .300 three times, got MVP votes three times (once after Lou Gehrig displaced him), had a lifetime 104 OPS and 31.5 WAR.
That’s certainly not good enough to play ahead of Gehrig, but like Buckner, Pipp was a pretty fair player mostly remembered for something other than his play. (In 1916 Pipp fanned 82 times to lead the AL, which probably stirred a whole lot of consternation from an older generation of fans who thought younger players were striking out too much and the game was going the way of the horse and buggy. No word on what John Smoltz thought of Pipp’s swinging so much for the fences).
Buckner was certainly better than he looked on Wilson’s grounder, but there was a great deal of overcompensation in the appraisal of his play after he died, up to and including borderline Hall of Famer. That’s nonsense. Buckner was no closer to the Hall of Fame than the Miami Marlins are to this year’s postseason.
Some of that is because of injury — Buckner long suffered, from early in his career, ankle issues — but even more is because of his own impatience. Buckner had 2,715 hits in a 22-year career, won a batting title, led the NL in doubles twice and received MVP votes five times. He was a good and dangerous hitter in the best days of his career.
He rarely struck out, but therein lies a weakness: he swung early and often. In the regular season, Buckner walked every 22.3 plate appearances; in 101 postseason plate appearances, he never walked. There are canines who are more selective at their food dish than Buckner was at bat.
Buckner never fanned more than 39 times in a season, but he never walked more than 40. Twice he gained more bases by steal than walk (1974, 31-30 and 1976, 28-26), which is also a great reminder of the player Buckner was before the injuries.
Watching Buckner run as a young player on video today is like seeing Joe Namath as a young quarterback scramble at Alabama before all his knee injuries. It’s hard to fathom that an athlete we recall so strongly as hobbled could ever move so gracefully.
Alas, even that led Buckner into mishap. In the 1974 World Series, with the Dodgers down three games to one and trailing in Game 5, 3-2, Buckner singled in the top of the eighth inning. When the ball took the kind of bounce on Bill North that came to haunt Buckner, he advanced to second and tried to go to third, only to be the first out of the inning there, Reggie Jackson to Dick Green to Sal Bando.
“There’s a play that will be talked about,” broadcaster Curt Gowdy said, and he had no idea. If only making the first out of an inning at third base in the World Series was the biggest mistake Buckner ever made.
Twelve years later came the play we’re still talking about (especially Mets fans, who haven’t had much to talk about since.) Buckner was 36, soon to be 37, when Mookie’s grounder dribbled past.
Dave Stapleton, who would have been Buckner’s defensive replacement, never played another major-league game (to be fair, he had 42 plate appearances in 1986 and batted .128). He was 32. Schiraldi was 29 when he played his last major-league game in 1991; Rich Gedman, the catcher who missed Stanley’s wild pitch, was a just-turned 33 when he played his last major-league game in 1992; Stanley 34 when he threw his last pitch in 1989.
The Red Sox released Buckner — batting .273 but slugging just .322 — halfway through 1987, but as determined to extend his career as he wasn’t most at-bats, he persisted. Buckner was an Angel and Royal over the next two-and-a-half seasons, and in 1990, at age 40 with the ankles of a much older man, he made the Red Sox as a free agent and returned to an Opening Day standing ovation at Fenway Park.
The reception is largely attributed to forgiveness of Buckner by Red Sox fans, but perhaps it was more acknowledgement and empathy. How painful must it be to have someone’s worst moment — even professionally so — played out like Buckner’s? Who among us would want that fate? And yet, undaunted, Buckner played on.
Buckner shouldn’t have needed the fans’ forgiveness because he never did anything on the baseball field that required it. He made an error. So have we all.