Buckner compounds error, saying ball through legs is in hands

John Steadman

August 10, 1992|By John Steadman

That famous or infamous baseball, depending on your point of view, which bounded through the legs of Bill Buckner and allowed the New York Mets to eventually win the 1986 World Series has suddenly become the subject of serious financial contention. A cause celebre. Yes, money has a way of changing things. In this case, an attempt at altering history.

To put the facts in basic focus, let it be pointed out that an official major-league ball can be bought in almost any sporting goods store for $9.99. This one, however, is different. It's the ball -- or is it? -- that Mookie Wilson of the Mets bounced toward Buckner, then the Boston Red Sox first baseman, for what appeared to be a routine play. Because it eluded his hands for an error, an apparent Boston victory turned into grim defeat.

Instead of the long-denied Red Sox celebrating their first World Series since 1918, it enabled the Mets to stay alive and send the classic to a seventh and final game -- which the Mets won. Buckner's inability to field the ground ball was pivotal. It had opened the door to opportunity and the Mets weren't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The ball, after Buckner's misplay, was retrieved by umpire Ed Montague, who was assigned to the right-field foul line, and given to Arthur Richman, then the traveling secretary of the Mets and now a senior vice president of the New York Yankees. He had Wilson autograph it and put the ball on display in his living room.

Last week, the ball was placed in a memorabilia auction and brought the astonishing price of $93,500. It was bought by an actor, one Charles Sheen. Now the fun starts. Buckner, who earlier was quoted as saying the ball was "worthless" and couldn't understand all the pre-bid excitement, took a different stance. He questioned its authenticity.

Bill said he has the ball, the real one, but, as yet, hasn't produced it. Meanwhile, Richman let the ball go in the auction and, in advance, announced where the money was going. In a grand and momentous gesture, he designated this surprising windfall to numerous charities. Not a penny for himself.

A contribution would go to the indigent players' fund of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America in memory of his late brother, Milton, who had been a minor-league infielder and then the nationally known sports editor of United Press International. Other donations were going to be made to a fund for injured umpire Steve Palermo, the Tony La Russa Animal Shelter, the St. Louis Browns' Historical Society and to Iona College because of his friendship with Ed Arrigoni, who is erecting a memorial chapel there to his deceased wife.

Richman also planned an honorarium for a cousin, who had cared for the details in putting the ball up for the auction conducted by Leland's, a company specializing in selling sports items. Then Buckner got in the act -- belatedly.

After the fact, following the purchase of the ball by Sheen, it came as a shock to the new and old owner when Buckner claimed he had the ball, the same one he earlier had described as "worthless." "I can't understand such a bush trick," said Richman.

"The films of the game show Buckner walking off the field, not chasing after the ball that went between his legs," Richman continued. "John McNamara, then the Red Sox manager, called to tell me he'd testify if I needed him. McNamara said he saw the whole thing, the ball going under Buckner and then watching him walk off the field. In retrospect, McNamara probably should have had Buckner on the bench and a defensive replacement at first base but led with his heart. I think he wanted to give him the honor of being in the game when the Red Sox won."

Richman goes so far as to say when he reflects on the error -- and Buckner's story of having the ball -- that he can "understand why bad things happen to certain unlucky ballplayers." Umpire Montague, according to Richman, marked a spot on the ball for purposes of identification.

"My accountant told me to set aside 40 percent from the auction price to cover taxes," Richman continued. "I'm prepared to do that. First Buckner insisted the ball was worthless. Next he said he didn't know where it was. And now he's saying it's in a safe. Show the ball. He can't because the ball that went into the auction is bona fide. I understand Buckner earlier traded the spiked shoes he wore in the game and his glove to Barry Halper, the collector, for four tickets to a Broadway show. If he had the ball why didn't he trade that, too?"

Unfortunately for Richman and the charities that were to be the beneficiaries, the Buckner claim has cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of the ball. Richman, who has given more than 50 years of his life to baseball, first as a writer and then a team executive, offers to take a polygraph test and would be pleased to hear Buckner is willing to do the same.

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