In the winter of 1978, Chicago Cub players and coaches were barnstorming the Midwest to connect with their loyal fan base as part of the Cubs Caravan. The caravans were developed to generate fan support heading into a new season.
My memory of exactly which players were there is a little vague. One player stood out, first basemen Bill Buckner. Buckner had just completed his first year as a Cub and there was great optimism about his future with the north-siders.
That night, Buckner greeted fans, posed for pictures, and signed a lot of autographs. I was an eight-year-old kid that had just begun following baseball and the Cubs. That evening, I went home with what has remained one of my most prized baseball possessions, an autographed Polaroid picture of me sitting on Buckner’s lap.
That evening was special to me. I met a major-league baseball player and he instantly became my favorite player. Thereafter, I tuned into WGN each afternoon to cheer him and his teammates on and collected every baseball card and picture of him I could get my hands on.
Over the next few years, I watched him lead some mediocre Cub teams. But that didn’t matter much to me, I had a connection. I was hopeful that each year might just be that special year. I remember Buckner picking up many a clutch hit, or legging out a double and looking like each step he took was in pain. But he didn’t let that stop him.
A batting title in 1980 for a last place Cub team and an all-star game in 1981 meant people across the country were seeing what I had come to know, that this was a pretty good player. Life was good, until an improving Cub team shipped Buckner off to Boston in 1984 because they needed pitching help.
Buckner was a key contributor in Boston and helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series. Unfortunately, a Mookie Wilson ground-ball between Buckner’s legs and my boyhood hero would forever be remembered, for that one grounder. A few years later, he quietly retired from baseball.
Looking back, Buckner played in 2,517 games over his twenty-two-year career. He batted more than 10,000 times and reached base more than 3,200 times in his career. Only sixty-three players in baseball history have more hits than his 2,715. Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, and Ernie Banks all had less. Today, more than one hundred position players with less hits have been enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Last week, the South Bend Cubs brought Buckner to Four Winds Field for a gathering reminiscent of when I met him some thirty-nine years earlier. Though he wouldn’t let me climb up on his lap and recreate that 1978 picture, he was amused to see that picture from so long ago. Turns out several in attendance had the same picture and a similar memory of connecting with their favorite Cub on that same caravan tour.
The connection between the Chicago Cubs and people in our area is special. These days its further enhanced by the affiliation with the South Bend Cubs. While fans gather each game to get a glimpse of the Cubs of the future, the team recognizes the important connection with former Cubs and has provided fans with the chance to connect with Cub legends like Buckner.
I had a nice evening reminiscing with Buckner, I’ll remember it like I remember that day in 1978. And one of these days, I’m hoping Cooperstown remembers more than that Wilson ground ball, considers his whole body of work, and places him in the Hall among the greatest players to ever play the game.