Today in 1984 Cubs history: Dennis Eckersley acquired in trade for Bill Buckner

When the Cubs acquired Bill Buckner from the Dodgers in January 1977, he wasn’t happy with the deal. He’d come through the Dodger system with Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey and others. They’d won the 1974 NL pennant together and he strongly felt part of that group, “bleeding Dodger blue,” for lack of a better term.

Over Buckner’s first seven years in a Cubs uniform, 1977-83, though, he became not only a productive player, but a Cubs fan favorite.

With the Cubs’ acquisition of Gary Matthews to play left field just before the 1984 season began, Leon Durham was moved to first base.

That left Buckner, then 34, as not much more than a pinch-hitter. Over the Cubs’ first 40 games of 1984, Buckner started just six of them (after playing 153 or more games for the previous two seasons). Overall he played in just 21 of those 40 games, going 9-for-43 (.209), all singles.

Dallas Green had already looked for a taker for Buckner before the season even started. Buckner was nearly sent to the Phillies in the March deal that brought Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier to the Cubs. Meanwhile, though the Cubs had gotten off to a fairly good start, their starting pitching still needed an upgrade, especially when righthander Dick Ruthven had shoulder surgery in mid-May. Ruthven wouldn’t return to the team until after the All-Star break.

That’s when Green started talking trade with the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley, and on May 25, he completed that deal, acquiring Eckersley and backup infielder Mike Brumley for Buckner.

Buckner broke down in tears at a farewell news conference:

‘It’s a very tough moment for me,’ said Buckner, whose voice cracked and eyes teared in making his statement Friday to the media. ‘I’m going to miss everybody. There’s been some tough moments. I think you can tell it’s a pretty emotional time for all of us.’

Tribune writer Steve Daley wrote a column headlined “At best, the trade is a necessary evil,” and in it called Eckersley’s career “in steady decline” and claimed he had “an ongoing reputation as a perpetually unhappy ballplayer.”

At first, the trade worked out quite well. Eckersley helped the Cubs to the NL East title with a good year the rest of 1984, posting a 3.03 ERA and 3.9 bWAR in 24 starts. He also pitched well in 1985 (25 starts, 3.08 ERA, 4.6 bWAR, but missed some time with injuries, as did the rest of the Cubs rotation).

Then Eckersley had a mediocre year in 1986 and was traded to the Athletics for three minor leaguers, none of whom ever played in the big leagues, one of the worst trades in recent Cubs history. Dallas Green had suggested making him a reliever, but Jim Frey had resisted. Between that and an alcohol problem, Eckersley was deemed expendable. But Eckersley, spurred by his family, had gone to alcohol rehab, and between that and Tony La Russa making him the first modern closer (ninth inning, only with a lead), Eckersley wound up in the Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Buckner recovered most of his previous performance level with the Red Sox, hitting .283/.319/.435 combined in 1985 and 1986, but by ‘86 his defense had become a liability due to multiple knee and ankle injuries. You’re surely familiar with what happened in the 1986 World Series. Buckner passed away in 2019. Here’s the obituary I posted at the time, which has some of his career numbers and highlights.

This was a great deal, for a while, and did help the Cubs make the postseason. This deal was completed 40 years ago today, Friday, May 25, 1984.

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