Today’s Baseball Week post combines two items from August 2013, the first by me, the second by Paul, both of us fans of Red Sox rightfielder Tony Conigliaro, a Massachusetts native who reached professional stardom at a young age and whose potential seemed limitless – until the evening of August 18, 1967 . . .
Forty-six years ago tonight I remember climbing into bed at whatever time 9 year olds went to bed back then, and twisting the timer nob on my pale green colored AM clock radio so that I could fall asleep to the melodious voices of Ken Coleman and Ned Martin calling that evening’s Red Sox game. As I dozed off I remember that one of the visiting California Angels hit a fly ball to right field that was caught by – – – Jose Tartabull. Jose Tartabull? What was he doing playing right field? Where was Tony Conigliaro?
Soon one of the announcers gave “an update on Tony Conigliaro’s condition.” He had been hit in the face with a fastball and had been carried off the field on a stretcher. In 1967 there was no internet, no Twitter, no YouTube, no SportsCenter. It never even occurred to me to get up to see a replay. I relied on the words of the radio announcers and a story and photos in the next morning’s Globe (speaking of which, Bob Ryan has an excellent story about Tony C).
The season before the Red Sox had finished last. In 1967 they were more than competitive; they were very good. The team was young and exciting and all of New England followed them closely. They soon obtained Ken Harrelson to replace Tony C in right field and they went on to win the American League pennant although they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games several of which we listened to in school on the radio because in 1967 the World Series was still played in daylight. Tony C returned to baseball in 1969 and hit a lot of home runs, but he was never the player he was before being struck that night, a night that I’ll always remember.
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Dick’s post about Tony C. made me go to the vault for this short essay written in 1990. He was something to see.—PM (2013)
by Paul Marion
If a 19-year-old from Swampscott and St. Mary’s High in Lynn could make the Red Sox, then a kid in Dracut could dream. I was ten when Tony Conigliaro homered on his first swing at Fenway Park in 1964. It was as if one of the Beatles had put on a Boston uniform.
I had discovered baseball four years before. My father taught me how to catch and hit in our back yard. My older brother David took up where my dad left off. He let me tag along for games at Gendreau’s Field near our house, where I took a pitch in the head from an older kid because I didn’t know enough to duck. In those days we’d wrap a ball in black electrical tape to keep the string from unraveling after the cover had suffered a thousand clouts.
My brother had Ted Williams and the early Yaz. My half-generation had Tony C and Triple-Crown Yaz. When my chums and I played Home Run Derby, someone would always say, “I’m Tony C.” He won the American League home run title in 1965, being the youngest champ ever. “Conig” even cut a rock ‘n’ roll record. Soon he was hanging out with Joe Namath and dating nightclub singers.
That was about the same time that I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Therese’s. To prepare for this rite of passage, a young Catholic selects a confirmation name, preferably that of a saint who can be a life model and spiritual guide. Parents and godparents announce your Christian name at Baptism. Confirmation signals full membership in the church. You pick your own name the second time around. I chose “Anthony,” and the nuns thought I meant the saint.
A few years back, I paid $8.00 for an old Conig card at a baseball memorabilia show. The card is a Topps, 1965. Along the way I lost the one I’d pulled out of a five-cent pack at the Hovey Square Variety. My old Red Sox had gone the way of Beatles cards of the same period, all those holy pictures, holy cards, tossed out in a fit of adolescence. There comes a moment when it’s shameful to have heroes. The card show guy said Tony C sold well across the country. It’s my favorite Conigliaro card—he’s in three-quarter profile in his crisp white home uniform, and looks as if he’s staring a hole in a batter from his post in right field. There’s a small gold trophy in the right corner for being named a Topps 1964 All-Star Rookie.
One summer in the mid-Sixties, I bought a Conigliaro-autograph model bat at Stuart’s department store in Lowell. My father drove me to the store on a Saturday morning, then rushed me home to play ball in the meadow my friends and I had occupied at the top of Janice Avenue. The regulars were there, joined that morning by a greasy punk from Crosby Road. He was fifteen going on twenty-five: duck’s-ass hairstyle, pack of Winstons rolled up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, and pegged black chinos. He wore pointy dress shoes, which made him slip on the grass. He didn’t bring a glove either.
That day my team took the field first. I was at shortstop. The hood came up to the plate, a butt in his mouth. He had my shiny bat with the white handle and brown barrel. When he hit the ball, I heard a crack and felt sick. I knew he had hit the ball on the bat’s label, which everyone else knew not to do. We were so conscious of that, especially with a new bat—”Turn the label away from the pitch. Don’t hit it on the grain.” How many times did we hear that? I should have made him buy me a new bat. He said it was a mistake. I fumed. When I got home, I nailed and taped the bat, but it was dead.
In 1967, I was living with my family in California during Boston’s Impossible Dream summer, when Tony C took the fastball from Jack Hamilton in the side of his face. The Sports Illustrated photo of him in the hospital was gruesome, the closed left eye purplish black and swollen. He didn’t play for a year-and-a-half. By 1970, he was so far back that he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs. Still, the Sox traded him that winter.
In high school, I wore number 25 for four years on JV and Varsity, but it didn’t make me a power hitter. As a college student, I saw one of his second-comeback home runs at Fenway, a patented Green Monster job. Years later, he collapsed in his brother’s car on the way to an interview with a Boston TV station. He was being considered for the color-man position on the Red Sox broadcasting team. By the time he reached the emergency room he had brain damage. After years of round the clock care, Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990. He was a thrilling hitter with a big swing. I didn’t expect anything from him except a homer every time he stepped into the batter’s box. I tracked down that old baseball card because the cracked bat is long gone.