The gods gave Bill Buckner a great talent for hitting a baseball and because every gift comes with a balance, the gods also arranged for Bill Buckner to make an error by which much of the world would forever remember his 22 years as a baseball player.
When Buckner died Monday, of Lewy Body Dementia at the age of 69, the first sentence of virtually every obituary noted not his 2,715 hits, but the Mookie Wilson ground ball that went through his legs in the 10th inning of game 6 of the 1986 World Series between Buckner’s Boston Red Sox and Wilson’s New York Mets.
The error enabled the Mets’s Ray Knight to score the winning run, tying the Series at 3–3 and setting the stage for the Mets to win the deciding seventh game two nights later.
Since moments earlier the Red Sox had been one strike away from winning game 6, which would have clinched Boston’s first World Series championship since 1918, Boston fans were, let’s say, disappointed.
Buckner hadn’t given up the hits that had already tied the game. He nonetheless became the Boston fans’ lightning rod, with about the same poll numbers as the British before the Tea Party.
Once the Sox finally did win a World Series, in 2004, the need for a fall guy dissipated, and Buckner ultimately returned to Fenway Park and received a standing ovation.
He remarked afterwards that it really wasn’t the fans who built him into Darth Vader. It was the media.
It wasn’t, actually. It was the fans. But either way, he got a lousy deal. The gods exacted a steep price, and it’s terribly sad that he couldn’t enjoy the full respect and admiration his career deserved.
It provided no consolation, of course, that he was not the first baseball player whose legacy, for better or worse, was not his total body of on-the-field work.
I was thinking about that when I heard that Bill Buckner had died and already knew how all the obits would read.
So, like so many people who probably don’t have enough to do, I started making a list, and it wasn’t hard to think of a few dozen players whom you’d immediately associate with one moment or event.
But after a while I decided against Carlton Fisk and his game 6 home run in 1975, and against Johnny Podres for pitching the shutout that won Brooklyn’s only World championship in 1955, and against Enos Slaughter for scoring from first to win the 1946 World Series, and against Aaron Boone for the walk-off home run that won the 2003 ALCS, and even against Bucky Dent (Bucky F. Dent, if you live in Boston) for the home run that beat the Red Sox in the 1978 AL playoff game.
You could argue they were all career-defining. You could also argue they were indelible mostly to the fans of the teams involved.
I was looking for players whose moment or event entered wider baseball lore. It’s a shorter lineup and looks like this.
Bobby Thomson. With full respect to Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and the juice guys — there’s the gods with that asterisk again — Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run that lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1951 NL playoffs remains the most famous home run in baseball history.
Thomson had a pretty solid career otherwise as well. He drove in more than 100 runs in four seasons. In 1951 he hit 31 other home runs and finished in the top-10 in MVP voting. But his name is synonymous with that home run and unlike Buckner, my guess is he’s okay with it.
Ralph Branca. Branca threw the pitch Thomson hit. Thomson also had hit a home run off him a few days earlier, so the big mystery might be why Branca was in the game in the first place. No matter. He was, and Dodgers fans live with it forever.
Branca otherwise had an okay career. He was 88–68 and was a solid member of the starting rotation for the 1947 and 1949 pennant-winning Dodgers teams. He won 21 games in 1947. Like Buckner, one play branded him. But he made what he could out of it. In later years, he and Thomson appeared together before baseball-fan audiences to talk about it. It’s good that he got closure, I guess, even if some Dodgers fans still can’t.
Fred Merkle. Merkle was a 19-year-old rookie with the New York Giants in 1908. On Sept. 23, with the Giants locked in a tight pennant race against the Cubs, Merkle got his first start of the season. In the bottom of the ninth, scored tied 1–1, Merkle hit a two-out single that advanced potential winning run Moose McCormick to third.
Al Bridwell followed with another single. McCormick trotted home. Merkle, following standard practice of the day, didn’t run all the way to second base, but peeled off to the dugout once McCormick had scored. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, eventually got one from the umpire (not the one Bridwell hit) and appealed, saying Merkle had been forced out.
The appeal was upheld, the win was negated and the Cubs eventually won the pennant by one game. They also immortalized “Merkle’s Blunder,” even though the kid was really just doing what everyone else did then.
Merkle would go on to play 16 seasons, with 6,435 plate appearances, which is pretty impressive. Hall of Fame? No. But a lot more than a screwup.
Don Larsen. Larsen was the flip side of some other guys here. He was an unremarkable player who had one glittering moment of glory. Sometimes the gods do it that way, apparently.
On Oct. 8, 1956, pitching for the Yankees against the Dodgers, he threw the only perfect game in World Series history. And that’s a long history.
Larsen pitched for 14 years, most of them without being noticed. He never won more than 11 games in a season and he had two of the worst seasons ever for a pitcher. He was 1–10 for a bad Kansas City team in 1960 and 3–21 for an even worse Orioles team in 1954. For his career, he was 81–91. And none of that is what he will be remembered for.
Tommy John. It sounds silly, but think about it. Tommy John pitched 26 seasons. He won 288 games. He was 87–42 in six seasons with the Dodgers. He won 20 games twice for the Yankees. At the age of 44, he went 13–6.
And does anyone except stat geeks and Hall of Fame bloggers remember this? Nope. We remember that he had ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, in which a damaged arm tendon is replaced with a better tendon.
Now known as Tommy John Surgery.
In 1974, John became the first player to undergo this then-untested procedure, performed by Los Angeles Dodgers physician/surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe figured it had about a 1% chance of working. Now it’s considered not much more risky than a mani-pedi.
Tommy John Surgery should, of course, be called Frank Jobe Surgery. But John was more famous, so his name is on it — and his 288 wins drop to second place on his resume.
Cy Young. Ask your average fan about Cy Young and they’ll say it’s an award given annually to the best pitcher in each league.
That’s true. But there was a real Cy Young, too, and there’s a reason a best-pitcher award is named after him.
He pitched 22 seasons. He won 511 games. Do you realize what it takes to win 511 games? You would have to average 25 wins a season for 20 years — 20 years — and you’d still have to pick up 11 more somewhere. Maybe eBay?
Okay, he pitched from 1890 to 2011, when pitchers threw more often. That’s why most pitchers of that era, even the good ones, burned out after a couple of elite seasons. Old Cy never did. For 15 consecutive seasons he threw at least 320 innings, and he won at least 20 games for the first 14 of them. For his career he threw 7,356 innings.
Now it’s true that in a real sense, the Cy Young Award does honor Young’s whole career. But in baseball as in life, the details often float away into the mists of time, and that should not happen — because, friends, Mr. Young was not just an award. He was an arm. And Cy Young is part of the good company kept by Bill Buckner.