Former Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner — best known for his error in the 1986 World Series — died Monday at 69, his family announced.
“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” his 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.”
Before the 1977 season, Buckner was sent from the Dodgers to the Cubs in the Rick Monday trade. Before coming to Chicago, Buckner was primarily an outfielder, but he was moved to first base by the Cubs, who eventually traded him to the Boston Red Sox during the 1984 season.
Those moves set up one of the most famous errors in World Series history. A Mookie Wilson grounder to Buckner bounced between the first baseman’s legs, allowing the New York Mets to rally for a Game 6 victory over the Red Sox, who then lost Game 7 — prolonging their World Series drought that had stretched to 1918.
“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,” longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan once said.
That single moment ended up defining Buckner’s career, and even followed him after it.
When the Red Sox invited him to take part in a ceremony at Fenway Park honoring the 20-year anniversary of the 1986 team, Buckner declined.
But time heals most wounds, and while it took years, the relationship between Buckner and Boston fans eventually warmed.
“At some point you have to realize that it’s just a game, even if people don’t understand that one person doesn’t lose the World Series,” he said in 2016. “I had to live with the fact that I was getting blamed for something that really didn’t happen. It was just how the stars lined up, with Boston and New York, and Boston (nearly) 100 years from winning. You have to get the point where it doesn’t mean that much.”
Buckner played for five different MLB teams as his career spanned 22 years from 1969 through 1990.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Buckner, a great ballplayer and beloved member of the Cubs family,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement. “Bill’s remarkable 22-year-career included eight years with the Cubs during which he won a batting title in 1980 and earned an All-Star appearance in 1981. After his playing days, Bill served as a valued member of our player development staff and was a fan favorite during his appearances at our Cubs Conventions. On behalf of the Cubs organization, I extend our sympathies to Bill’s family and his many friends.”
In contrast to that one mistake, Buckner was known throughout his professional career as an outstanding left-handed contact hitter. In 1980 with the Cubs, he won the National League batting title with a .324 average and finished 14th in the NL MVP voting.
Buckner was named to his only All-Star team the following year in 1981, when he finished 10th in the MVP race.
He finished his career with a lifetime average of .289. He made his big league debut at the age of 19 and retired at the age of 40.
After his playing days, Buckner retired to Boise, Idaho. Buckner served a short stint as the White Sox’ hitting coach in 1996 and ‘97, and later spent two seasons as hitting coach for the Cubs’ Boise Hawks minor-league affiliate from 2012-13.
He is survived by his wife, Jody, and three children, Brittany, Christen and Bobby, who played baseball collegiately.
“Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life,” his wife, Jody Buckner, told ESPN.