Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series — October 25, 1986, a day of infamy for Red Sox fans — is one of the two most famous plays in series history. (Willie Mays’s catch in the 1954 classic is the other.)
Like Mays’ catch, Buckner’s boo-boo is entrenched in American folklore. Jimmy Fallon’s Red Sox fanatic in Fever Pitch, distraught over breaking up with his girlfriend, watches Buckner’s play over and over on his VCR. During Congressional hearings in 2008, Rep. John Yarmuth called former Treasury Secretary John Snow, then-SEC chief Christopher Cox and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan “three Bill Buckners.” On the TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David loses a softball game when a ball rolls between his legs; his coach screams, “You Buckner-ed me!” The blunder is even in a video game.
Everyone knows that Buckner lost the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox. But what everyone knows is wrong.
At the time, the Red Sox were burdened with 68 years of frustration; their last championship was in 1918. Leading three games to two against the New York Mets, Boston was ahead by a score of 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning. Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi got two quick outs. In the Sox locker room the champagne was iced, and the scoreboard flashed “Congratulations Red Sox.”
Then the Mets got three consecutive singles. Score: 5-4. Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley wild-pitched the tying run home. But it’s the next play that still has Red Sox fans screaming in the middle of the night.
Stanley pitched a sinker-ball, designed to produce ground balls to infielders. What was supposed to happen did happen — Mookie Wilson tapped a slow grounder at Buckner at first base. But the ball rolled between Buckner’s legs, and the Mets won in the most incredible finish to a World Series game ever.
Up to that moment, Buckner hit better than .300 seven times in his career, winning the 1980 American League batting title. He led the league four times in assists. During that crucial September 1986 stretch, he carried the team, hitting .340 with eight home runs. But all that was soon to be forgotten.
Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History magazine called him “a gallant first baseman and a veteran with a long and distinguished career.”
“For weeks,” wrote Gould, “manager John McNamara had been benching Buckner for defensive purposes during the last few innings of games with substantial Red Sox leads, but after a long and hard season, Buckner’s legs were shot . . . he could hardly bend down.”
But Buckner’s error did not lose the championship for the Red Sox; it didn’t even lose Game 6 for them, as the Red Sox had already blown their two-run lead. Two nights later, with another chance at the ring, Boston lost 8-5. (Buckner, incidentally, had two hits in four at-bats and scored a run in Game 7.)
Red Sox fans cried “Curse of the Bambino” — the punishment Boston supposedly merited for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 — but the focus of the curse that season was Buckner. Yet Buckner did not put the tying runs on base. He didn’t throw the wild pitch that made it 5-5. He did not make the decision to keep his defensive replacement on the bench. Had he made the play, the Red Sox could have lost the game anyway.
With so many others who contributed as much or more to the Red Sox defeat, why has history made Buckner the goat? Perhaps Gould said it best when he suggested that in the collective minds of Red Sox fans, “If Buckner fields the ball properly, the Sox win their first World Series since 1918 and eradicate the Curse of the Bambino. In this scenario, Buckner’s miscue marks the unkindest bounce of all, the most improbable trivial little error sustained by a good and admired man. What hath God wrought?”
What God wrought, perhaps, was a curse on both teams. The New York Mets have not won another World Series since; their greatest stars on that 1986 team— pitcher Dwight Gooden and slugging outfielder Darryl Strawberry — saw their careers cut short by drug abuse. In 2007 and 2008, the team crumbled down the stretch and missed the playoffs. And this year, the Red Sox, who seemingly broke The Curse by winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007, suffered the all-time worst collapse in baseball history, losing 20 of their last 27 games.
Meanwhile, the infamous Buckner ball, once owned by Charlie Sheen, is up for auction on eBay, asking price $1 million. The bid will close at the exact minute of the 25th anniversary of the play.
Now a successful businessman, Buckner has lived down the error by turning the joke on himself. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, he won the cheers of a New York crowd by catching a baby dropped from a burning building.
In 2008, he threw out the first pitch of the Red Sox home opener and got a standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. Somewhere, one has to feel, the Bambino himself was applauding.
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications, including Weld, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Beast. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.