Bucky the Great and the Foul (Ball) Affair

Few people know the name, Buckminster Bixby. But everyone knows Bucky the Great.  Three time American League MVP, home run champ seven years running, twice triple crown winner, unforgettable personality. By unanimous acclaim, his team, his fans, and all of baseball conferred on him a title no other player in the history of the game had borne, “Bucky the Great.” No story shows his greatness more than the reform which reshaped the game of baseball, now known as “Buckyball.” 

Bucky was my best friend until his tragic death. You’ll want to consult my two-volume biography, Bucky the Great, for details of his life.. But I’m writing this article for  the American Heritage magazine to commemorate his role as liberator of the game of baseball from strictures that threatened to destroy it along with its all-but-lost American ideals and to rescue his reputation from his many misguided detractors.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were pitiful; they had sunk into long-term confinement in the cellar of the National League West, until Bucky raised them up and infused them with an energy and will to win that his performance by itself cannot explain. It was his person, his presence, a smile and a manner that sent the clear message: “You’re so lucky to know me. Nothing can stop me.”  He stood 6’ 5” and radiated robustness and courage. His casual, jovial manner, his hands jammed in his pockets like an aw-shucks schoolboy, his red cheeks beaming irresistible charm, and his whole presence charged with the magnetism of his unmatched statistics, it was impossible to resist him. 

Now I know that many stodgy convention-addicted readers who cannot think beyond the rule-bound life, will howl anew at what became the program of Baseball Liberation (BL). But it’s important, especially in the present age, to appreciate Bucky’s reforms. They predicted the renewal now sweeping the country in many other areas.

The Foul Affair

“Bucky’s revolt”, as it came to be known, or to his enemies “The Foul Affair,”  began in a critical game with the Boston Red Sox. LA had good prospects for the AL penant and a shot at the world series. It lagged behind the Red Sox by a game and a half in season play, and so the post-season series was played with sweat and passion.

It happened in the ninth inning of game two, LA now trailing Boston by 1 game in the three game series, score tied 5 to 5, bases loaded for LA. Bucky comes to bat. With a count of 3 and 2, Bucky sent a towering fly ball to right field.  It was of historic length. Scientific measurement later determined it to be the longest ball ever hit out of Dodger stadium. The right field umpire’s call: “foul ball.”  

Bucky stopped his progress around first base and headed for home plate with a stride that left no doubt as to his purpose. He exchanged words with the head umpire, who called in the crew of four umpires from their stations. The formidable Dodger manager, Bronco Porsky, left the dugout. He also had seen the ball as foul, as did the fans and the players of both teams. The ball had cleared the right field tower on the foul side by a good two feet. The call seemed uncontroversial. 

A charge like an electric shock coursed through the 56,000 fans and both teams when the announcement came that the Dodgers had challenged the call, and a review of the video was in progress. In the meantime, Bucky, Porsky and the umpires stood around home plate, kicked at the dirt, and occasionally laughed. The atmosphere was light and the mood cheery.  After a few minutes, the right field umpire, Ziegfeld (Ziggie) Bernstein, stepped out from the little huddle, marched to the right field baseline and in a big swooping gesture toward the infield, right knee to the ground, left arm extended, right arm sawing the air like an archer releasing one arrow after another, declared in a voice of brass, “Fair ball.” 

Pandemonium followed. The LA base runners trotted around the bases to touch home plate; Bucky followed. The Boston bench cleared in an instant. It was a melée like none seen since George Brett’s explosion at the infamous “pine-tar bat” call.

While the battle raged, Bucky sauntered to the side of the fray and cleaned his fingernails. The LAPD took the field to hustle the umpire crew off the field and to safety. The heat of the confrontation evaporated gradually.  The Boston coach declared that he would challenge the call with an appeal to the commissioner of baseball. The Boston pitcher, Koji Fujimitsu, had to be helped from the field. The Dodgers won the game 9 – 5 and went on to win the penant and the world series.   

Ziggie Bernstein admitted later that he had seen the ball as foul, but a brief talk with Bucky persuaded him to reverse his call. He did not understand his decision at the time, and he could not explain it other than by saying that Bucky had a way about him. 

The LA Times and other papers published photographs showing the ball pass to the foul side of the right field tower.  The headline in the Boston Globe read “FAIR IS FOUL AND FOUL IS FAIR”. The magnificent height and historic distance of the hit seemed to soften popular attitudes toward the obvious truth: it was a foul ball.  

Bucky himself refused to discuss the right or wrong of the call. His defense instead focused on the placement of the right field tower.  He argued that the surveyor responsible had misaligned the post.  It was three feet out of true, and the flight of the ball was fair; only the position of the tower was in the wrong.

Bucky, the two coaches and the four umpires were interviewed in a classic series of Baseball Commission hearings.  Thanks to my research for Bucky’s bio, the transcripts of the hearings, stored in the MLB archives in Cooperstown, are now available. The two coaches, Bucky and the entire umpire crew were present, along with a large retinue attached to both sides. Koji Fujimitsu was unavailable, having sequestered himself in a Tokyo treatment center for nervous disorders.  

The commissioner at the time was the fabled Honus McGraw, better known as “Rock” McGraw, because his faith in the rules, regulations and conventions of baseball was compared by one pundit to the Rock of Gibraltar: unmoveable. In fact he had discussed the foul ball affair in an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, in which he famously compared the rules of baseball to the American constitution, and the structure of the baseball field to Euclidean geometry and Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion.

After some casual preluding, the questioning started with Commissioner  McGraw putting it hard and straight to all participants: “What are we doing here? The ball was foul.”

Porsky: “It depends on how you understand the concept of ‘foul.’”

Commissioner McGraw: “The hell it does!”

Porsky: “Let’s not be hasty here. Remember, there are four umpires present who’ll agree that Bucky’s hit was fair.  Right, gentlemen?”

The four umpires nod agreement.

Porsky: “Roy [i.e. Roy Paige, home base umpire], how long have you been judging major league games.”

Roy: “Thirty Years.”

Porsky: “And you called the hit fair?”

Roy: “Yes, I did.”

Porsky: “Ziggie, how about you?  You’ve been calling games for, what? Ten years?”

Ziggie: “Twenty, if you include the minors.”

Porsky: “ And both these men called the hit fair. So did [umpires] Scully and Robinson. These are the best there are. How can you argue?”

McGraw: “What the hell’s going on here, Roy?”

Roy: “We’ve done some rethinking, Mac. The fact is, the game is changing. We gotta change with it or be left behind.  The old rules are strangling the game.”

Ziggie: “Foul ball lines are barriers to greatness.”

McGraw: “who the hell put an idea like greatness into your hollow head, Ziggie? Just call em the way you see em.”

Ziggie: “The way I see it, Bucky here hits a ball like no one has ever seen before, and we should just act as though it’s just another strike? Toss it in the wastebin of failed swings? It’s a world record. That hit is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. What about all the kids who are dreaming of greatness? We should just throw cold water on that dream by calling it foul?”

Commissioner McGraw: “Bucky, maybe you can straighten this out. Are these guys crazy? You got a big ego, Bucky, but I know you as a straight-shooter. Now give us some help here; come clean. I mean, for Chrissake. You’re what baseball’s about, and these guys seem to want to destroy it.”

In fact Bucky had not spoken a word during the hearing.  He had polished his fingernails and whistled softly. Watching him you would think there was very little at stake, or, that the outcome was so obvious to him that he didn’t need to speak. He took his time. Put away his fingernail file in a little silver case.Then nodded and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “What more can I add? They’ve made the case.” 

Porsky stepped in. “Rock, it’s not ego. It’s the game, the game that counts. Bucky’s hit was one of baseball’s finest moments. If Bucky does great, the game is greater.”

 Roy Paige: “It’s all these foolish restrictions. Rock, we want the foul lines removed…”

McGraw: “Removed? You mean, no foul lines at all?

Porsky: “That’s right.”

McGraw: “What about foul tips. Should tips be in play?”

Porsky: “Of course not. We want to make the game greater, not smaller. Foul tips are for losers. A foul tip is an out. My God, how permissive can this game get?  Pretty soon every minor league shlub will be a batting champ.”

Roy: “We’ve thought it over, Rock. In fact we need to rethink everything. You know, we’ve had the same foul lines for a long time.  You get tired of that sort of thing. It really gets old. In the new game, there’ll be no foul or fair. There’ll be bad, decent, excellent and great. No balls and strikes.  No strike zone. Umpires have pretended for years that the strike zone is a law of nature.  But everyone, umps and batters, knows, it’s as phony as a three dollar bill. Honestly, Mac, if I don’t like a pitcher, the strike-zone shrinks. If I do, it expands.  How fair is that? And I do that balanced and equal. If I don’t like a batter, the same applies.”

McGraw: “You mean…?”

Roy: “And the sacred anger of the umpire when the coach swears at him? The umpire’s power to eject? it’s show; treats totally subjective calls as if they were God’s truth.”

McGraw: “What you’re saying is…is …”

Porsky: “Mac, what we want is simple. We want to make the game heroic again. Give all the kids at home more, much more, to admire. In the early days of the sport, the players were titans. They didn’t care a damn about balls and strikes. When they saw the pitch coming, they hit it. That’s the kind of men they were. Since then the noose has been tightening. Think about it, Rock. Could there be anything more cowardly and snivelling than a base on balls? It’s a handout; it’s a free pass. We’re choking in petty regulations and laws. We want freedom. Rock, we’re at the beginning of a great movement.  Best you don’t get in the way.  You don’t seem to realize that everyone in the game, players, coaches, umpires, fans, share that feeling that the best in us is being stifled. The commissioner and the owners have lost sight of the will of the majority.  That conference on the field in the Boston game was like a match in a powder keg. Ziggie’s call was the start; we’re taking control of the game; it’s a revolution. It’ll spread like wildfire. Ziggie will go down in baseball history as the first man brave enough to defy the tyranny of the foul line. Freedom is what this is about. We’re all gasping for it.  

McGraw: “So lemme see: abolish foul lines, end the concept of the foul ball, stop calling balls and strikes, anything else?  Shall we throw out bases and the pitcher’s mound?” 

Porsky: “Throw out the rule book! The great player is a rule book unto himself.  It’s time to rethink everything. Okay, maybe you gotta have bases to have hits and a home plate to have home runs. We might think in terms of adding some bases. Four or five would add a lot of variety to the game, don’t you think? Maybe randomly placed? Or moveable? We’ve gotta broaden the boundaries, widen the horizons.  Bring back excitement to the game. It’s dull as yesterday’s dishwater.”

McGraw: “It is what it is Bucky. Nothing’s changing. The rules of the game are sacred.”

 Porsky: “Now there you go; that’s just what I’m saying, Rock. That rigidness; that stodginess. Rock, I’m telling you, join us: Tear down those towers! Redraw the lines or erase them! Remove the outfield barriers. They’ve held us down for years. I want open fields. We’re free souls longing to realize our true potential.”

Roy: “He’s right Rock. I’m letting the word go forth: from this time on, my calls will honor the hero and disgrace the mediocrity. This  is America. We think big. We go our own way, we’re not bound by petty conventions.”  

Ziggie: “Every major league umpire will follow us. You suppose we like people belittling us? Shouting insults? Questioning our calls? All you fellow-umpires, throw away your masks and your chest guards, your shin guards and steel-padded shoes! That’s what’s holding you to the ground. We want to fly, to soar like eagles.”

Up to this point the Boston coach, Marty Steinfeld, a quiet but intense man, had said nothing. He sat there with his arms crossed, and listened. Now he got up slowly and spoke at first in the soft voice that all the players knew and respected. 

Steinfeld: “Bucky, you’re a big fat phony. You’re willing to see all of baseball tradition go down the drain to rescue one foul ball.  Porsky, this is the saddest gambit I’ve ever seen in a serious coach.  You guys are hungry enough for the win that you’d flush the whole game down the sewer. And, Roy, you poor fool! What did they pay you to reverse that call?  And where did you get these damn crazy ideas? Throw out the rule books and you also throw out the umpires.  And where would a pack of wooden-headed buffoons like you get another job? Listen to you with your tin ideals. Porsky wants to steal the game, the pennant, and the world series. That’s what this “reform” is about. Rock, listen to me: if you pay attention to these bozos, you’ll destroy baseball.”


It went on for a long time, including breaks during which the commissioner made hushed phone calls. At last McGraw left the hearing shaken, sweating, steadying himself on the wall as he walked. This rock of Gibraltar  now wobbled. He did not issue a ruling, but agreed to call a meeting of the thirty club owners, supreme court of major league baseball. 

That meeting, charged with the fate of American baseball, took place in NYC, 40th floor conference room of the Plaza Hotel. A large crowd of Bucky supporters had gathered outside of the hotel, chanting loudly in support of reform. The crowd spilled out far into Central Park. Police estimates placed the crowd at 20,000. The reports that vulgarity and threats of violence were rife among the protesters are ridiculous fabrications. If there was trouble it was because the Boston Red Sox management had hired thugs and agents to rile up the protesters. Of course the Red Sox and the Boston press made the usual claims that it was Bucky and his supporters who had bussed in violent provocateurs to intimidate the Boston fans who had poured into Manhattan by the busload for the occasion.

The club owners paused every so often in their deliberations to look out of the window at the melée below. The shouting and angry clamoring, the police sirens and ambulances coming and going provided the audio background to this meeting.

To my great regret I was not allowed into that meeting and no transcript was kept.  I rely on my notes from the luncheon preceding and the session following this history-making event, both of which I was privileged to attend as Bucky’s guest.  

Over lunch, the owners, well-lubricated with martinis, were in a festive, light-hearted mood. It seemed to one and all like one of those easily managed crises, where the right and wrong were guaranteed by the rules; one more pitiful attack on the great unassailable fortress of American baseball, whose rules were as firm and as hard to change as the law of the land. 

Then came the meeting. The executive session lasted three hours. Besides the owners, only Bronco Porsky, Marty Steinfeld and Bucky were present.  

When the doors of the meeting room finally opened the mood had changed to high serious.  The owners adjourned to a press conference in the vast Champagne Room of the Plaza, filled with journalists. Honus McGraw stepped to the cluster of microphones, and announced, “Gentlemen, I have the rare privilege of announcing the outcome of today’s session.  The owners of the thirty Major League Baseball teams have decided in  favor of a thorough revision of the rules of baseball in America. The vote was 29 in favor, one against.” He distributed a slate of ten guidelines for the new game. (See Appendix 1). The best known and most discussed of the changes are the replacement of bases with “safety zones,” larger areas randomly distributed through the field, which guarantee a more fluid progress towards home plate; base lines are abolished; an “out” occurs only when a player is tagged directly with the ball. And of course, the foul ball is abolished. 

It was Bucky triumphant. 

Chaos and pandemonium followed. The word spread quickly to the crowd outside, and it was greeted by full-throated cheers that filled Central Park like rolling thunder. Celebrating continued into the evening.  Jubilation turned to frenzy when Bucky himself, who had sat silently in the meeting whistling, beaming self-confidence, and tending to his manicure, appeared on a balcony of the Champagne Room, magnificent in his old-fashioned baseball uniform, acknowledged their ovation by stretching both arms, each extended diagonally heavenward, by the length of a baseball bat, a monumental human Victory-sign, a gesture bigger than American baseball. He looked for all the world like some Olympian Zeus wielding thunderbolts, or a Roman general returning from victory, the very pose which would later appear on the special issue Bucky-the-Great stamp of the US postal service. 

The crowd developed from a rally into a festival.  The newspapers noted, consistent with their usual bias, that the hired thugs attacked only the hold-out Boston fans, who tried to voice vociferous protests, but were either shouted, and in some cases, clubbed down. But the inference that the imported thugs were hired by Bucky supporters is just sour grapes, poor-loser posturing.  

The owners emerged from the meeting convinced, all but one, that the old, antiquated rules were destroying the game.  What could have produced such a turn-about? Bucky’s reforms promised fresh air and an expansive new conception of baseball. The reform promised increases in attendance. Also, it pulled one of the thorns in the side of owners: virtuoso players commanding high salaries. The cultivation and coddling of pitchers had reached decadent heights.  That position especially benefitted from revision. It was opened to a wider variety of talents. As the chief of the umpire’s union commented, “We can finally move beyond the absurd refinements of sliders,  split-fingered fastball, cutter, and knuckle ball.”  

From this point on, through the whole range of players and positions, personality and self-presentation would play a far greater role in hiring decisions than the tiresome statistics of fielding, batting average, earned run average etc.  The withering costs of mounting a winning team would be reduced and the box-office-take greatly increased in the new game.

The following season fulfilled these hopes, whatever protests rolled in from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Japan. Curiosity about the new game was high; its free-wheeling vitality captured fan interest immediately. Stadiums could not hold the numbers thronging them.  Games were sold out weeks in advance.  The competition for new players in the off-season grew fierce. Scouts broadened their search regions, branching out to other sports. Players from the national hockey league were especially popular, also pro football players eager to fill out their off-season in MLB. It caused a sensation when the Houston Astros managed to snag Gus Griswold from the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment Co.). Griswold was also known as “4G”, referrring to his nickname, the “Grim, Gruesome, Grizzly Griswold.”  That enlistment soon found a counterpart when the Minnesota Twins recruited Zelda Brockwinkel (Zeebee), world-class kick-boxer, holder of the prestigious WBAN belt, who also overturned the gender barrier in professional baseball. Games between those two teams were top draws in MLB. Griswold and Brockwinkel provided some of the most exciting, tense and erotically charged competition anywhere in the majors.  Griswold in his gold-spangled bikini and sweaty, greased naked upper body and Brockwinkel in her Wonder Woman outfit (uniforms were a thing of the past) could sustain a run-down of ten minutes including rough and tumble groping. The fans gobbled it up. The fashion of super-hero players was short lived, but various forms of gladiator dress and manner promised a sustained popularity.

Marty Steinfeld retired from the Redsox a few weeks after the fateful owners’ meeting. He was hit by a withering storm of hate-mails: he was a wimp, a clown, a loser, who hadn’t led the Redsox to a world series in two generations. While he was missed and many admired him, it was the kind of admiration reserved for people who are competent and nothing more.  He was a mollusk in a game of lions and eagles. The Boston Globe stood by him, called him a lone voice of reason in a time that was abandoning all values.

Then followed the glory days of Bucky’s reform movement. It had turned into a philosophy of heroism and greatness that spread rapidly to other areas of culture and politics: 

  • Siegfried Weizenbier, artistic director of the Tucson Symphony, reeling from a nasty review of his Mahler’s eighth, created a sensation by announcing a post-modernist, free-style performance of that same work based on polystylistic randomness. Weizenbier, declaring the liberation of music from the unbearable demands of convention, gave each performer freedom to perform his or her part when and how he liked. Weizenbier was immediately offered the vacant position of artistic director of the Chicago Symphony. No one to my knowledge paid any attention to the music critic of Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, who declared the performance “chaotic, disgusting cacophony.”
  • The one-time great Russian chess master, Zbiegniew Malakowski, in his second season of losses to younger men, declared the emancipation of the king, which could move in any and every pattern. The World Chess Federation has contacted Malakowski for discussions on the reform of chess.

The tragic death of Bucky Bixby only cemented his influence. Bucky was a passenger in a car driven by free range outfielder, Hecatomb Margate. He died instantly when their car was struck by a driver who ran a red light. Margate suffered career-ending injuries.  The driver of the other car claimed that the light was green. Confronted in court by twenty eye-witnesses, he argued biased judgment. He also insisted that red traffic lights were an unfair restriction on individual freedom of action. He even referred to the great reforms of Bucky Bixby, evidently unaware that the victim of his individualistic driving had been none other than his hero, Bucky the Great. 


APPENDIX 1: Guidelines for the Rewriting of Baseball Rules 

1) the concept of the foul ball will be abolished; 

2) bases to be replaced by a more fluid system of progress to home plate involving “safety zones”; 

3) Home plate will be the only fixed point on the field; 

4) The location of the pitcher’s mound will be at the pitcher’s discretion; 

5) baselines will no longer be marked; 

6) A “run” will be scored when a batter/runner procedes through all safety zones in any sequence and touches home plate; 

7) A hit ball is in play until the batter reaches a safe zone or is tagged out. A runner in a safe-zone may leave at his discretion. 

8) “Outs” occur only when a runner is tagged directly with the ball; 

9) Umpires will judge the performance quality, not the accuracy of pitches, using a rating system of one to five; balls and strikes are herewith abolished; 

10) Umpires may call outs at their own discretion.

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