SABR

Don Buddin

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Don Buddin played shortstop for the Red Sox in 1956 and then, after a year of Army service, from 1958 through 1961. After leading the league in shortstop errors in both 1958 and 1959, he became the butt of near-constant abuse from sportswriters and fans alike. Because of the numerous miscues, Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan later suggested he be assigned a Massachusetts license plate with E-6 emblazoned on it. He was nicknamed Bootin’ Buddin for his frequent errors. One might wonder why the Red Sox kept him as their starting shortstop for so many years if he was so inept. Couldn’t they find any better? Didn’t they care? As he hailed from South Carolina, was he one of owner Tom Yawkey’s favorites and maybe a kindred spirit to manager Pinky Higgins?

Some of the criticism was pretty harsh. Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris wrote in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, “If there was a way to make the worst out of a situation, Don Buddin could be counted on to find it.” A half-century later, he retains this image of bumbling mediocrity. In context, it appears to be a somewhat unfair one.

Donald Thomas Buddin was born on May 5, 1934, in Turbeville, South Carolina, to Carlisle Buddin and Carrie (Willis) Buddin. His playing weight was 178 pounds and he stood 5-feet-11. A right-handed batter and fielder, he grew up in a family of seven with a father who sold insurance for Liberty Life and a mother who was a homemaker. He was the second-born in the family; his older brother was a very good ballplayer, but he didn’t have quite the desire or ability to make it professionally. Don did, with the full “100 percent” support of his parents; his father, Carl, had played some semipro ball. “My father went to The Citadel,” Don said. “He was a pretty good pitcher.”


Don played high-school ball for Olanta High School, from which he graduated in 1952. Olanta was a small community of some 400 people. Author Peter Golenbock described the young Buddin as “perhaps the most highly rated prospect the Red Sox signed in the early 1950s.” Sometimes a dozen or more scouts came to watch him play high-school ball. He played “infield, shortstop, and pitched. I signed as soon as I finished high school.” We can’t know today whether Buddin was as highly rated internally as some others such as Billy Consolo, but he was certainly a prized prospect.

Scout Mace Brown of the Red Sox had been following Buddin’s career, and had seen him play several times in the previous year. The day after he graduated, each scout was granted 15 minutes to meet with Don and his father. They met in the parlor of the town’s undertaker, which offered the only spot in town that was air-conditioned. Brown and the Red Sox offered a reported $50,000 bonus, quite large at the time. The money was good, and several clubs bid the same amount, but the Buddins thought Boston might be a good fit for two other reasons: one, Fenway’s left-field Wall (he thought it offered a good target for a right-handed hitter); and, two, the Buddins thought the Red Sox might be most likely to have an opening at shortstop after Don’s minor-league seasoning.

Buddin, 18, signed on with the Red Sox. He came up to Boston for a couple of weeks and worked out with the team. Eventually the Red Sox assigned him to Roanoke in the Piedmont League to get some playing time under manager Owen Scheetz. He got into 69 games that summer and collected an even 250 at-bats, hitting .252 with 20 doubles and three homers. The next year, after working out at the Red Sox minor-league camp in Deland, Florida, he played for Greensboro and manager Eddie Popowski in the Carolina League. For Greensboro, Don improved dramatically, batting an even .300 in 543 at-bats and leading the league both in total bases (289) and RBIs (123). He showed power, with 25 home runs, and hit 37 doubles and 7 triples. After this fine first full season of professional ball, he was promoted from Class B Greensboro to Triple-A for 1954, and earned praise from the Boston Globe’s Roger Birtwell, who wrote in February 1954 that Buddin “could become one of the top ballplayers of his time.”

In his first year with the Louisville Colonels in the American Association, Buddin struggled a bit more against better pitching (at one point he had only one hit in nearly 50 at-bats), but he played 148 games as the starting shortstop for manager Pinky Higgins and hit a decent .246 with 11 homers and 62 RBIs. Don was a favorite of Higgins, who in late 1954 told Sox owner Tom Yawkey, “You’re going to like that little Buddin. He’s a peppery kid who is a battler down to the last pitch.”

Married by the age of 20, Don and his wife lost a premature baby in June 1954. That tragedy and the pressure of his suddenly bright reputation may have caused him to get off to a slow start. Higgins noted that two-thirds of his errors came in the first part of the year. “But he never quit and he really came back fast at the finish.” 1 Higgins was later criticized for sticking with Buddin too long as Boston’s shortstop. The Colonels won both the American Association playoffs and the Junior World Series in 1954. Don played winter ball for the Venezuela Patriots and had an excellent season.

He again played for Louisville in 1955. Higgins went to manage in Boston and Red Marion, Marty’s brother, skippered the Louisville club. There was a stretch early in the season when Buddin endured a horrendous 2-for-56 slump, but he poured it on and boosted his average all the way up to .292, with 18 homers and 82 runs driven in. In a sign of things to come, his 48 errors led the American Association.

Buddin went to spring training with the Red Sox in 1956, and on the trip north the team stopped in Charlotte to play an exhibition game. While there, Higgins announced that Buddin would be the Red Sox’ Opening Day shortstop. He had made the big leagues. “I was very happy,” he recalled more than 50 years later.

To make room for Buddin, Higgins moved incumbent Billy Klaus to third base. In his first game, Don slapped hits on the first two pitches he saw. “He played like he’d been up here in the big leagues all his life,” enthused Higgins after the game. By the end of the first week, though, he was 2-for-17. A three-hit game against Don Larsen and the Yankees on April 27 broke the slump.

Higgins favored Buddin, whom he’d known in Louisville, and stuck by him throughout his time with the Red Sox. In Don’s first full year, he hit .239 – not unusual as an average for shortstops of the era, though with less power than one would have liked: 5 homers and 24 doubles in 377 at-bats. He did not field particularly well, but he improved as the season progressed -- he made 18 errors in his first 40 games but only 11 more the rest of the year. Bobby Doerr, the Red Sox’ stellar second baseman and later a coach and hitting instructor, had commented on Buddin in the middle of his rookie season: “He looked good. He grinds in there at the plate. He seems to have good speed and his arm is good. All he needs is a little more experience. Let’s hope nothing ruins his confidence. Confidence is half the battle in the major leagues.” 2 Some observers had already gotten on Buddin for his error-prone play. Correspondent Bob Holbrook reported that in one game he’d been “booed so vociferously that he had tears in his eyes when he walked to the plate at Fenway Park.” Buddin responded with a three-run home run. 3 Higgins warned the doubters, “He’s going to be a fine ballplayer. Don’t quit on that kid.” Higgins did bench him late in the season, and Buddin’s season was shortened further when he fractured his hand on a slide on September 5.

After the season, assistant general manager Bucky Harris praised Buddin to Boston Globe writer Hy Hurwitz: “He knew the strike zone better than any young ballplayer I ever saw. He’s a better defensive shortstop than Harvey Kuenn. He’s got terrific possibilities.”

But the United States Army soon called and Buddin spent the entire 1957 season stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and Fort McPherson in Georgia. He played a lot of baseball in the Army, traveling to play teams on other bases and keeping in shape. There had been some uncertainty whether he’d be able to join the club before June or July 1958, but Corporal Buddin was mustered out just in time to get to part of spring training in 1958.

Billy Klaus had returned to shortstop in 1957; when Buddin returned, Klaus was relegated to backup duty. Billy Goodman had been Buddin’s double-play partner playing second base in 1956; for the next three years it would be Pete Runnels, whom the Red Sox had acquired from the Senators. Goodman had won the batting crown in 1950; Runnels had two batting titles in his future. Buddin was diplomatic about their work around the second-base bag, but lit up when he went on to describe 1961 partner Chuck Schilling: “Goodman was a good hitter. So was Pete Runnels, a great hitter. They weren’t the greatest [defensively], but you know, they did a good job. Chuck was great! Great fielder, great double-play man.”

Buddin, as mentioned, led the league in shortstop errors in both 1958 and 1959. That dubious honor was partly a reflection of the number of innings he played, but he did commit 31 errors (fielding percentage of .958) in ’58 and 35 errors in 1959 (.949). After two errors led to seven unearned runs in the July 13, 1958, game against Cleveland, the “Fenway Park wolves” got on him so badly that Higgins had almost no choice but to bench him. “He needs a rest,” Higgins said. “The fans have been riding him hard. It’s begun to affect Don’s play. On the road, where he doesn’t have to listen to the raspberries, he is a capable performer. He hasn’t been able to settle down in Boston.”

Buddin’s too-frequent errors gave birth to the reputation that besmirched him. Hy Hurwitz wrote, “No player of the Tom Yawkey era has undergone the blistering vocal barrage from the fans as severely as Buddin has since he first broke in with the club.” It is worth noting, though, that in both 1958 and 1959, he led the league in double plays -- this again perhaps reflects how frequently he played.

Writing in The Red Sox Fan Handbook, Leigh Grossman expanded on Buddin’s overall contribution, terming the Boston shortstop a “victim of his times”: Buddin “was a solid offensive and defensive shortstop in an era when the most important measures of quality were batting average, runs batted in, and errors made -- and when his strengths as a player were invisible. Buddin hit for a decent average, but walked a lot (more than he struck out over his career, which is very rare), giving him a strong on-base percentage for a shortstop at a time when most middle infielders were light-hitting defensive specialists. He made a lot of errors, but he also had excellent range, making plays that other shortstops wouldn’t.”

Buddin was distinctly better than average among shortstops offensively. Coming back after his time in the Army, he got off to a terrific start and in 1958, he led all American League shortstops in OPS (on-base average plus slugging), and in 1959 he was second only to Woodie Held. Typically batting eighth in the lineup, he hit 12 and 10 homers respectively and he drew 82 and 92 walks in the two seasons. Kansas City’s Joe DeMaestri had the best fielding percentage in 1958 (.980), and Luis Aparicio and Chico Carrasquel did in 1959 (both had .970), but their batting averages were .219, .257, and .223. Buddin hit 10 homers, while DeMaestri and Aparicio hit but six, and Carrasquel just four. DeMaestri’s OPS in 1958 was .537. Aparicio’s in 1959 was .648 and Carrasquel’s was .587. Buddin’s OPS figures for 1958 and ’59 were .717 and .723. Evaluated overall, he was in the middle of the pack among AL shortstops and probably better than average.

These were disappointing years for the Red Sox, though; they never finished closer than 13 games out of first place and, after 1958, they didn’t have a winning season again until 1967. It is clear that Buddin unfairly bore the brunt of a little frustration. But despite a few brief benchings, he held onto his position.

Buddin’s most dramatic offensive contribution came in a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway Park on July 11, 1959. The Red Sox and the Yankees were tied 4-4 when Buddin came up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 10th. He was 0-for-5 on the day to that point, with two strikeouts and three balls that he failed to get out of the infield. Bob Turley was pitching for New York. Manager Billy Jurges stuck with Buddin, who admitted he was hoping for a sacrifice fly. No one expected the walk-off grand slam that won the game for Boston, 8-4. The slam was one of two in his career; the other came when he was playing with Houston in 1962.

One thing that helped Buddin was a belief in himself. A February 1960 article in The Sporting News was headlined “Shrinking Violet? Buddin Says He’s Equal of Aparicio.” Bucky Harris, now the Red Sox GM, said, “I’ve always admired Buddin’s confidence. He has never lost faith in himself, although he has had a hard time in Boston.” Harris reminded the interviewer that it took Joe Cronin himself a while to establish himself. But the 1960 season proved to be just another year of treading water, and Don missed 17 games after his skull was fractured by a Jim Bunning pitch on August 30.

In 1961, Buddin faced a challenge from both Pumpsie Green and Carl Yastrzemski for a berth at shortstop – Yaz had originally been signed by Boston as a shortstop, but was soon definitively placed in left field. Don pulled a leg muscle in spring training and it hampered him badly, he said. “I had a terrible spring. I just couldn’t run. It killed my spring.” Frank Malzone, who’d played next to Buddin for several years, acknowledged that Don had suffered slings and arrows in Boston right from his bad start in 1956. “The fans got on him and they’ve kept on his back. If the fans just forget about Buddin, they’ll find that Don is a capable ballplayer.” 4 Don knew that 1961 was probably his last chance to prove himself and he really wanted to stick with the Red Sox. Coming down with a virus in spring training, Buddin lost the Opening Day start to Green. When Green had an appendectomy in mid-May, Buddin took over again. Chuck Schilling later credited Buddin with really helping him with positioning against opposing batters during his 1961 rookie year. Buddin raised his average to a career-high .263 and he cut his errors dramatically, down to 23, though that was in part because Green played in some 57 games at short. The Red Sox weren’t really satisfied with either and when they saw an opportunity after the season to go for a perceived upgrade, they swapped Don to the Houston Colt .45s for Eddie Bressoud. Because Bressoud was Houston’s first pick in the expansion draft, they must have thought pretty highly of Buddin to give up their first pick.

Dan Daniel quoted an unnamed Boston writer who told him, “Mike Higgins would not have dared to open the 1962 season with Buddin still on the club. The fans hooted Don all last summer.” 5

Had it bothered him to be criticized in Boston as he had been? Did it get under his skin? “No. I gave it 100 percent.” The Red Sox would not have kept him on for so many years if he was considered on balance a liability. As a fellow South Carolinian, had he ever had the occasion to visit Tom Yawkey’s estate on the coast? “Once. It was beautiful. I’d like to have lived there!”

The Colt 45s were a brand-new expansion team. In the winter, Buddin traveled with the club as it made a goodwill tour of 20 towns in Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to drum up support for the team. “It makes a big difference to play in a town where you know you’re wanted,” he told writer Mickey Herskowitz. 6 When it came time to play, he suffered another pulled muscle in spring training (“I pulled a muscle in both leagues,” he later said) and again it held him back. Not only that, Houston had him play in nine games at third base (“That was very odd. But I did the best I could”). The best he could wasn’t really good enough; he was hitting a miserable .163 after 80 at-bats, and on July 20, he was waived to the Detroit Tigers. As backup to shortstop Chico Fernandez, he got 83 at-bats with the Tigers but only a .229 average. After the 1962 season, the Tigers assigned Don to their Syracuse club, and then offered him for sale at the minor-league convention. Finding no takers, they released him. Don was offered a minor-league contract by the Yankees and played for their Richmond farm club in 1963, batting .243 in 440 at-bats, with 17 homers, while playing third base, second base, and shortstop. In 1964, he went through a bewildering succession of ballclubs all in the one year. He began the year with Columbus, Georgia, a Yankees affiliate in the Southern League, but was released before the season started. He then played for Rochester (affiliated with the Orioles), Indianapolis (White Sox), Denver (Milwaukee Braves), and Toronto (Senators and Tigers). Throughout, his batting averages were still in the .240s, but now with few extra-base hits and only a total of 218 at-bats. He started 1965 with Atlanta (of the American Association) but was released in April and wound up with the Knoxville Smokies, a Cincinnati affiliate. He played a full season of 130 games, with a .242 average but was not re-signed. The Macon Peaches made a pitch, but he decided it was time to look for other work and announced his retirement.

Don was then living in Lake City, South Carolina, and went to work for his father selling life insurance for Liberty Life. After doing that for seven years, he took on a position combining public relations and writing for his hometown newspaper, the Lake City News.

Don and his wife, Barbara, had two daughters and one son. Their oldest daughter teaches high school in Charleston, South Carolina. The other is a physical therapist in Columbia. His son played baseball at the University of South Carolina, and his father described him as “a pretty good baseball player, but not good enough to play pro. He played all three sports. He’s a teacher and a coach. He’s doing that now.”

After the newspaper work, Buddin spent seven years as a salesman for Kayot Pontoons, a boat company based in Mankato, Minnesota. Then he opened what he called “an alcohol liquor store” in Greenville, just as Joe Jackson had years earlier. He owned Don’s Party Shop – one in Lake City and the other in Fountain Inn -- though a partner ran the enterprise before Don sold his share. After a heart attack and a stroke, Don lived in a nursing home in Greenville. Fortunately, it was one that he described as “real nice. It’s expensive as all hell, but they treat you good here.” Barbara passed away around 2004.

He remembers playing with an array of great ballplayers. And he had quite a number of roommates as well: Billy Consolo, Gene Stephens, Ike Delock, and Mary Keough. It’s not surprising to hear any ballplayer from this era chime in, as Don did, with the evaluation that “Ted Williams was the greatest hitter that I ever saw.” He added, “Jackie Jensen was a great player, all the way around. He was a great ballplayer. I played with some pretty great players -- Malzone, Piersall, Sammy White. Frank Sullivan, a pretty good pitcher.” The final year of Don’s stay in Boston was Carl Yastrzemski’s first. He wasn’t as impressed that year: “Carl improved from when he first came up. You could see the potential there.” But it was Ted Williams who impressed the most, even as a fielder: “He got to the ball. He could come up with it. I never saw him screw up.” As a hitter, though, he had no equal. “He was great. He could tell you what was coming. He was a mind reader, I think. Maybe that was my problem. I didn’t have psychic powers.”

He still heard from the Red Sox through their active alumni outreach effort, and from several of his old teammates. He remained loyal to the team that first signed him: “I still pull for the Red Sox. I’ll pull against the Yankees forever!”

Don Buddin died in Greenville on June 30, 2011 after a long illness. He was preceded in death by brothers Willis and David, and survived by sisters Linda and Delores, and his two daughters Susan and Cindy, and one son, Michael.

 

Sources

Don Buddin, telephone interview, March 19, 2007. All quotations from Don Buddin are from this interview unless otherwise noted.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, December 15, 1954.

2 The Sporting News, July 25, 1956.

3 Ibid.

4 The Sporting News, February 15, 1961.

5 The Sporting News, December 13, 1961.

6 The Sporting News, February 7, 1962.

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