Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 30, 2019

Legacies Shortchanged By Too Many

We were reminded twice this week, for the identical and worst possible reason, of how callous and how cruel we fans can be. We swear our devotion to a game, a team, a player, and there are those among our number who evidence that faith by the ability to spout verbatim all the relevant and not-so numbers of a hero’s time in the spotlight, reciting career statistics as if they were the product of athletic multiplication tables, data to be learned by rote and called forth on command.

But those sporting savants are the exceptions. For most fans, years and even decades on the field are shortened into a handful of highlights; sometimes at the extreme, almost always unfairly, into a single moment that gains acceptance as the embodiment of the long arc from fresh-faced rookie to worn veteran. The commonality of that conceit, and the extent to which it shortchanges a life’s work, was brought home first by the passing of Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, and then by news of the death of Bill Buckner, one of the finest pure hitters ever to play the Great Game.

The football general’s story is the easier one to tell. As a sophomore at his home state University of Alabama Starr led the Crimson Tide to the Cotton Bowl. But an injury cost him is junior season and as a senior he was relegated to backup duty. Green Bay took a very modest risk on the quarterback, making him the 199th pick in the 1956 NFL Draft. In northern Wisconsin football history began to be written when Starr was joined by new head coach Vince Lombardi prior to the 1959 season. The two complemented each other perfectly, much like another lightly regarded college QB who was also the 199th draft pick more than four decades later, and his head coach.

The history of the NFL is defined by the advent of the Super Bowl in January 1967, and Tom Brady calling signals with Bill Belichick on the sidelines are the model pairing of the game’s modern era. Starr’s misfortune was to have a career that extended from the old era to the new, from 1956 to 1971. As such he is remembered and praised for being the winning quarterback and MVP in the first two Super Bowls, though the game wasn’t officially known as such until its third edition. But his career prior to the day when he directed the Packers offense in a 35-10 dismantling of Kansas City before 61,000 fans who left plenty of empty seats in the 93,000-plus capacity Los Angeles Coliseum is largely ignored.

Two years ago, when Brady won his fifth Super Bowl, surpassing Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most titles in the modern era, the feat was widely hailed. But at that point (Brady’s sixth championship came earlier this year) had merely matched the total of NFL championships won by Starr, who also collected titles in 1960, 1961 and 1962. And for all his undeniable greatness, even Brady has not been able to claim five titles in just seven seasons, or win three years in a row, as did Starr. As counterintuitive as it seems to call a Hall of Fame quarterback underrated, for fans whose view of the NFL is divided into periods before and after the Super Bowl, with the latter looked upon as the football equivalent of the Jurassic Period, that’s exactly what Bart Starr is. It will no doubt come as a surprise to many in New England that the all-time leader in postseason passer rating is not Brady, but the quiet and unassuming Starr.

If Starr’s legacy is unfairly diminished by timing, Buckner’s is quite possibly the preeminent example of a career wrongly defined by a single moment. That instant came on a cold October night in 1986 at Shea Stadium. In the 10th inning of World Series Game 6, the Boston Red Sox had plated a pair of runs in the top of the frame to seize a 5-3 lead over the Mets and were now just three outs away from their first championship since 1918.

It is unnecessary and would be unfair to recount in detail what happened next. But it is worth remembering that in assigning responsibility for allowing the Mets rally that started after two fly ball outs and continued even after Ray Knight was down to his final strike against Calvin Schiraldi, that a fair assessment finds plenty of claimants to a piece of Boston’s downfall. There is Schiraldi, who surrendered three straight singles after recording those two outs, the last by Knight on that two-strike count that brought home New York’s first run. There is Bob Stanley, who relieved Schiraldi and promptly threw a wild pitch that plated the tying run. There is Red Sox manager John McNamara, who asked Schiraldi to go out for a third inning and left Buckner in at first base rather than send in a defensive replacement as usual. And there are all the Red Sox who failed to perform two nights later, when the Mets won the seventh and deciding game.

But for far too long in Red Sox lore there was only one villain, and that was Buckner, after Mookie Wilson’s ground ball bounced between his legs as the winning run raced home. That a couple of championships later Boston fans gave Buckner a prolonged standing ovation on Opening Day 2008 does not undue the vilification that was heaped on him at the time. More important, defining Buckner’s career by endless replays of the misplayed grounder obscures his incredible record. Over twenty-two seasons, playing for the Dodgers, Cubs, Angels and Royals in addition to the Red Sox, Buckner recorded 2,715 hits and won the National League batting title in 1980. He posted a solid lifetime batting average of .289, but that number doesn’t fully reveal just how tough an out Buckner was. To fully appreciate that one must consider how the Great Game has changed since Buckner played.

Last Sunday, the day before Buckner died, across a full slate of contests sixteen major leaguers struck out at least three times in a single game. Over more than two decades pf play and more than 2,500 games, Bill Buckner didn’t strike out three times even once, and in twelve seasons he walked more often than he fanned. Like Bart Starr’s five championships, that is a record that will stand the test of time, worthy of remembering in full. To the extent we fans fail to do so, it is we, not they, who are diminished.


  1. A good reminder of the old observation that success happens in private and failure happens in front of a crowd. Good stuff, Mike.

    • Thanks very much Allan. Buckner in particular was a pariah here in New England for far too long. He certainly never deserved it.


      Michael Cornelius

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