43 Tony C.
If you were a kid who loved the Red Sox in the 1960s, you likely had one hero: Tony Conigliaro. He was the local boy from Swampscott who had played baseball at St. Mary’s of Lynn; he had so much charisma that an entire generation of baseball fans fell in love with him. He was the heartthrob of young girls in the Boston area. Conig was on his way to being a superstar and probably would have become one of the all-time home-run hitters. His wide stance, powerful frame, and sweet uppercut stroke made him perfectly suited to Fenway Park. The Green Monster looked like a tame little puppy to him.
Conigliaro stroked his first major league hit on April 16, 1964, at Yankee Stadium, a sixth-inning single against Whitey Ford, who went 11 innings that day in a loss. His first major league home run came against White Sox right-hander Joel Horlen on April 17 in the second game of the 1964 season. By 1967 it was all right there in front of him. Through mid-August he had already hit 20 homers and driven in 67 runs. On July 23 at Cleveland, Conigliaro became the youngest player, at just 22 years old, to reach 100 homers, when he stroked a John O’Donoghue fastball into the left-field seats with Joe Foy aboard in the first inning. Yes, sir, No. 25 was something special.
But on August 18, smack in the middle of the Impossible Dream season, our hero crumbled to the Fenway earth. In the bottom of the fourth inning he took a fastball from Angels righty Jack Hamilton square in the left eye. His athletic and normally limber body seemed frozen as the pitch overwhelmed him. He went down as if he’d been shot.
Conigliaro was always one to crowd the plate, something pitchers didn’t care for. He had missed a month of his rookie season when Moe Drabowsky drilled him on his left wrist (Tony was only 19 years old at the time), and in a similar incident in 1965 Wes Stock broke Conig’s left hand with a pitch. Hamilton has always denied that he threw at Conigliaro. After the beaning Conigliaro was rushed to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge. He was out of baseball for all of 1968 while he struggled to recoup some of the vision in his left eye.
Tony C. made a comeback in 1969 — and what a comeback it was. Conigliaro had found a way to see the baseball without really seeing it. On Opening Day in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in ’69, he batted fifth and played right field. He homered in the tenth
inning off Pete Richert to give the Sox a 4-2 lead. He went 2-for-4 with two walks, a sign that he was indeed back. Tony C. hit .255 with 20 homers and 82 RBIs in ’69. He came back in 1970 to have his best offensive season yet: 36 homers, 116 RBIs.
The Red Sox broke his heart when they traded him after the ’70 season to California. But his eyesight was taking a turn for the worse. He played in only 74 games before it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to play, and he was out of the game from 1972 to 1974. He again had a comeback in 1975, although this one was brief. On Opening Day at Fenway, Conig batted cleanup and served as designated hitter. The Red Sox were playing the Brewers, whose DH that day was Hank Aaron. Conigliaro, now 30 years old, who had unsuccessfully tried to make it back as a pitcher during the three years he was out of the game, received a long, warm ovation that day.
This reporter, a college student at Northeastern University at the time, was one of the people standing up to applaud. Tony C. singled in his first at-bat, but he would not be able to sustain it. He played his final game on June 12 at Comiskey Park. He went 0-for-3 to dip to .123 on the season, grounding out to second baseman Jorge Orta in the eighth inning. That was the last of Tony C.
Conigliaro became a sportscaster in San Francisco. In 1982, on his way to rehearsal for a Boston TV job, he suffered a heart attack and a stroke. He spent the last eight years of his life as an invalid and died at the age of 45.