Bill Buckner

The passing of Bill Buckner at age 69 Monday illustrated just how many news organizations thought his error in the 1986 World Series was the most notable thing about him. Buckner played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels, Royals and Red Sox again, recording 2,715 hits, and he impressed many with his behavior both on and off the field. But ESPN, the Associated Press and the Washington Post all decided to emphasize Buckner’s 1986 error right in the ticker, headline, and/or tweets of their coverage, and they took some criticism for that.

Look, yes, absolutely, any story about Buckner should include discussion of that error, as that became famous beyond the baseball world and even the sports world. However, it arguably wasn’t the worst mistake in that inning; Calvin Schiraldi allowed three straight singles with two outs, and replacement Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch that let the tying run score before Buckner’s error. And that error didn’t end the series; it went to a seventh game, where Buckner went two for four, but the Red Sox again blew a late (3-0 in the bottom of the sixth) lead. So a lot of the popular coverage of Buckner’s error as the decisive force in that series isn’t necessarily telling the whole story. And there have since been a whole flood of pieces emphasizing that, even one from Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe, who was perhaps more responsible than anyone for the “Buckner blew it” narrative:

But whichever side you fall on on the actual impact of Buckner’s error, it’s still controversial to put that in the headline, tweet, or ticker crawl about his death. And it’s unusual; the vast majority of obituaries on athletes have headlines/tweets/ticker notices mentioning how long they played and what teams they played for, and if there is additional context about what they did, it’s usually positive (MVP awards, championships, etc). Comments about their mistakes or controversies are usually reserved for the full story. (That’s also the case with obituaries of many politicians, celebrities and so on.) And with someone like Buckner whose error became so famous, there’s also an argument that everyone already knows the negative and that putting it in the headline or tweet is an unnecessary shot at him.

This is a larger challenge with obituaries, of course; it’s extremely hard to sum up a life in a full article, much less a headline or tweet. And there have been criticisms the other way as well, especially with obituaries of controversial politicians that have headlines or tweets that don’t reference the controversies they were involved in. And there is an argument from a news standpoint that the Buckner error is what he’s most prominently known for, whether that’s fair or not. But putting that error into tweets and headlines is going to draw some backlash, as this did for ESPN, the WaPo and the AP. And it’s certainly notable that three such prominent media organizations all made that same call.

[Buckner photo from Craig Johnson on Wikipedia]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.