When Jerry Buchek was growing up on the south side of St. Louis, he and his father, John, made the trip to Sportsman’s Park a few times a year. They would usually sit in the outfield bleachers, and one day a couple of balls came their way. “Do you think you can hit a ball this far?” John Buchek asked his son. “Not now,” Jerry replied. “But one day I might.” One day, many years later, Buchek again answered that question, on the same field.
Born on May 9, 1942, Buchek (pronounced BOO-check) grew up in a middle-class St. Louis neighborhood, playing baseball daily against older, bigger kids until he started to grow in his teen years. Buchek idolized his father, an electrician, who played third base for the local team in the semipro Central Illinois League. John Buchek led the league in home runs in 1936, and his son aspired to a future with similar power skills.
Jerry was good enough to make his McKinley High School varsity team as a freshman and became a starter as a sophomore, playing third base until his senior year, when he moved to shortstop.
In the summer between his junior and senior years, playing for the Aubuchon Dennison Post 186 American Legion team, he was the Player of the Year and began to attract the attention of major-league scouts.
In 1959 the Cardinals offered Buchek, then 18, a $65,000 signing bonus, which he accepted, passing up scholarship offers to play football or basketball at the University of Missouri and Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois.
That fall Buchek played in the Florida Instructional League. He earned an all-star selection and a ticket to start his pro career as a shortstop at Double-A Tulsa. After 36 games, in which he hit .333, he was sent up to Triple-A Rochester to replace an injured player. There, he struggled to hit breaking pitches and hit just .226 for the Red Wings.
The next year the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Buchek hit .277 for Triple-A Portland and earned a brief recall to the major leagues, where he was overmatched, hitting a dismal .133, with 12 hits in 90 at-bats. He set what was then a major-league record for most strikeouts (28) in a season by a position player without drawing a walk. The mark has been broken twice since and as of 2011 stood at 33 (Jerry Gil, 2004 Diamondbacks). “That shows you how anxious I was,” Buchek said. “When I came up, I really wanted to do well. They never threw it around the plate. They’d be wasting pitches and I would commit myself.”
“I needed more seasoning and I think the Cardinals knew that,” Buchek said. “I got a little nervous playing in my hometown. I’d have to leave tickets for a bunch of guys. My buddies would get on me for my bad games. That made it a little stressful. I didn’t have that same kind of pressure when I played on the road.”1
Buchek spent all of 1962 and almost all of 1963 in the minor leagues, as the Cardinals were set in the middle infield spots with Julio Gotay, Julian Javier, Dal Maxvill, and Dick Groat among those in front of him. Buchek had a poor season in 1962, hitting just .183 at Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Atlanta. He blamed a lack of confidence. Team consultant Branch Rickey suggested that he switch to pitching because of his strong arm, but the Cardinals decided against it. “At one point, I called my father and said I didn’t know if I could play anymore,” Buchek said. “He told me that I couldn’t give up.”
Buchek worked with Atlanta Crackers manager Harry Walker, tweaking the uppercut in his swing, which helped his hitting greatly. In 1963 he batted .287 with a team-high 92 runs batted in and worked his way back to the major leagues. He earned a spot as a backup infielder for the 1964 Cardinals. He filled in at shortstop, second base and third base, playing in 35 games.
In 35 games he went 6-for-30 (.200) with one RBI – but he considers his contribution to the team significant. In his four starts that season, the Cardinals won three. His most noteworthy contribution was a triple off Art Mahaffey in a 4-1 St. Louis win over the Philadelphia Phillies in the second game of a doubleheader sweep. The Cardinals were in sixth place at the time, seven games out of first place
“We won (the pennant) by one game, and I helped us win a game,” Buchek said. “So I helped (win the pennant).”
Buchek played in four of the seven World Series games, as a defensive replacement at second base. He got a hit in his only at-bat, a single off Jim Bouton in the ninth inning of an 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees in Game Six. As of 2011 he is one of 38 players who have a World Series batting average of 1.000.
Buchek was in the bullpen when Bob Gibson got the final out of Game Seven and ran onto the field with teammates Bob Uecker and Roger Craig to celebrate. He took his winner’s share and put a down payment on a two-family home. Years later, he said he still had his World Series ring and a ticket stub from one of the games as mementos. “When I see Tim McCarver, I kid with him that I was the leading hitter in the World Series, and he wasn’t,” Buchek said with a laugh.
Over the next two seasons, Buchek remained in a utility role, starting 80 games in 1966. His primary claim to fame was being the last baserunner at Sportsman’s Park in its final season, 1965, and scoring the first run at Busch Stadium in the first game there, in 1966.
Before Sportsman’s Park closed, he hit a home run against the New York Mets, playing in the park where he’d watched many games as a fan. “My dad was at the game,” Buchek said. “After the game, my dad told me what I had said about hitting a home run into the bleachers (as a kid). My dad said to me that you only had to wait 15 years do it. We laughed.”
Just before the 1967 season, Buchek was traded to the Mets in a five-player deal orchestrated by Mets general manager Bing Devine, who had formerly worked in the same role for the Cardinals. The deal gave Buchek the chance to become an everyday player. A month into the season, on
May 14, he hit a go-ahead home run off Gibson in a 3-1 Mets win. That snapped Gibson’s nine-game winning streak against the Mets, “I didn’t know how I was going to hit Gibson, but he hung a slider,” Buchek said. “I can still remember Tim McCarver saying, ‘Oh (bleep).’”
Buchek had a few other highlights in his Mets career, the first coming on July 9, 1967, when he hit a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth inning against the Braves, pinch-hitting for Bud Harrelson, who was 4-for-4 in the game to that point. The Mets won the game later in the inning on a bases-loaded walk to Ron Swoboda.
Buchek’s best game in the major leagues came against the Astros on September 22, 1967. With the Mets down two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, he hit a three-run home run to give New York the lead. The Astros tied the game in the ninth on a base hit off Buchek’s glove, but in the 11th inning, he redeemed himself with a walk-off home run. “The thing I remember about that game is that I didn’t particularly feel good (at the plate) that day,” Buchek said.
Buchek’s six RBIs in that game tied a team record for RBIs in a game by a shortstop that still stood as of 2011. He primarily played second base that season and his 14 home runs were the most by a Mets second baseman until surpassed by Jeff Kent’s 21 in 1993.
The Hall of Famer Buchek hit best was former San Francisco Giant Juan Marichal. Buchek hit .364 with eight hits (all singles) against him. “Juan once said to me ‘How can a .230 hitter hit me like you do?’ I said, ‘You give me good balls to hit and I don’t foul them off. I hit them.’”
Buchek wasn’t as fortunate against Los Angeles Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. He went 2-for-11 with seven strikeouts against Koufax and 0-for-17 with eight strikeouts against Drysdale. “One of my teammates, Carl Warwick, said I wasn’t going to be able to hit Koufax,” Buchek said. “I went 1-for-3 against him. The next time I went 1-for-4. I told Carl I was starting to get some confidence, but the next time around, Koufax struck me out all four times.” Buchek hit only one ball to the outfield off Drysdale. “I couldn’t pick up his ball,” he said. “I remember one night Ken Boyer and I went to a lounge and Drysdale was there. I told him how nasty he was against me. A few weeks later, I hit a shot to right center, and their right fielder goes three feet off the ground to make a great catch. Drysdale was laughing so hard, probably thinking ‘You’ll never get a hit off me.’ He was right.”
In December 1968 Buchek was traded back to the Cardinals, but was sent to the minor leagues. He did not reach the big leagues again in his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Phillies before Opening Day 1969, and he wound up with the Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League, where he teamed with future Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa on the club that won the PCL championship. He did get to meet up with his former Mets teammates in Chicago, when they invited him to a team party after the Mets clinched the National League East championship.
After the season Buchek asked to be released so he could sign with the Atlanta Braves organization. The Phillies refused to release him, and he had no interest in spending another season in the minor leagues, so he walked away from the game on his terms. He finished his major-league career with a .220 batting average in 421 games.
After baseball Buchek went to work as a meatcutter, a job he held for 25 years. After that, he was a car salesman for 10 years until he retired in 2004. As of early 2011, he lived with his second wife, Jan, on a lake in Branson, Missouri, about 250 miles from his native St. Louis, where he enjoyed bass fishing.
One of Buchek’s four sons, David, signed with the Cardinals, but was released. He worked for two years as a strength and conditioning coach in the minor leagues, and then turned to hitting instruction at baseball camps.
Buchek said he still watched baseball avidly as a fan of the Cardinals and took part in their winter fan festivals. He said he appreciated that he got to live out a childhood dream.
“I want to be remembered as someone who tried hard and did his best,” Buchek said. “The game was hard for me and I struggled with it. I was in and out of the lineup and could never really get into a routine. I admire the guys who are geared for that now.”
This biography is included in the book “Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals” (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
The author relied on Baseball-Reference.com and the Ultimate Mets Database at http://ultimatemets.com, as well as the 1968 Mets TV Radio Press Guide and the New York Times.
1 All quotations from Jerry Buchek come from an interview on January 3, 2011, and subsequent e-mail correspondence.