Born on January 7, 1945 in Revere, Massachusetts, Tony Conigliaro's story reads like a greek tragedy. A young boy, plucked from high school to play for his home team in the majors, to play alongside baseball legends such as Carl Yastrzemski, only to have his career cut short on a single pitch during a season where the Red Sox were sure to win it all (hey, I can dream can't I?).
Tony Conigliaro grew up in Massachusetts and lived there for most of his life. After excelling in little league baseball, Tony C continued to excell when he played for his high school, St. Mary's in Lynn. At the young age of 17, Tony was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1962 for $20,000. He was sent to one of Boston's minor league affiliates, Wellsville, New York.
Not very long after, Tony's dream came true. He was playing baseball at Fenway Park. He made his major league debut when he was 19. He recieved his first hit during his first at bat. He sent the first pitch by Chicago's Hoel Horlen over the Green Monster, causing one Boston sportswriter to claim that it was the fastest start "since Paul Revere beat the British out of the gate." He continued this pace and looked like he would be the American League's rookie of the year until July 26, 1964. During a game against the Cleveland Indians on that date, Tony broke his arm, causing him to miss the rest of the season. The award instead went to Minnesota's Tony Oliva.
That was only the first incident of Tony's bad luck. He would be injury prone throughout his MLB career. Even in the 1965 season when he became the youngest home run leader in AL history, he suffered a broken wrist when he was hit by a Wes Stock pitch in game vs the Kansas City Athletics. However the worst was still to come for this handsome Italian slugger.
The night of August 18, 1967 was humid and hazy. The Red Sox were in the middle of a pennant race and were only 3 games behind. Tony C had already achieved great notice as he was voted to start the all star game in right field. The Bosox were playing the California Angels. The game progressed normally until one of Conigliaro's at bats. Pitcher Jack Hamilton was known for his fastballs that drifted high and inside. Unfortunately for all of beantown, and Tony himself, one pitch drifted more than it should have. It is said that Tony Conigliaro didn't even flinch when the 90 some odd mile an hour fastball crashed into Tony's left cheek. Needless to say, Tony crumpled like a man with all of his bones removed. A hush fell over the 36,000 fans as he lay motionless and bleeding by home plate. The crowd was still silent when he was carried off on a stretcher. Most in attendance feared him for dead. Teammate George Scott said that "It sounded like a shot. Like a popgun."
The pitch had fractured Tony's cheekbone, dislocated his jaw and damaged his retina so badly he had to miss the rest of that season, and all of the following season. Tony was able to watch the Red Sox throughout the playoffs, even their loss to St. Louis in the World Series that year.
Tony was able to play again in 1969, where it was announced, and he was awarded the Comeback of the year. In his first game back as a Red Sock, he was able to hit a homerun in the tenth inning, and score the winning run in the 12th! All of the Fenway Faithful were impressed that Tony could still walk, let alone hit a home runs. Tony's eyesight never returned completely however. He would always have a blind spot on his left eye. After going 0-4 and striking out 4 times in one game, Tony complained that it was the fault of the fans. Not exactly the fans, but their white clothing, which made it difficult for him to see the ball. Tony asked management if they could hand out blue or green vests for fans to wear. The management was willing, and posted a sign which read "Dear Patron, please do not sit in green seat section unless you are wearing dark-colored clothing. Conig thanks you. Management thanks you." Fans sitting in the area were also given cards which read "You are now an official member of Conig's Corner. The Red Sox and Tony C appreciate your cooperation in helping to provide a good hitting background."
No matter what the management, the Red Sox, or the Fenway Faithful did, Tony Conigliaro was just not playing like he used to. On October 11, 1970, Tony was traded to the California Angels in a six man deal. Even though Tony was able to hit 20 and then 36 home runs in his two seasons back after his injury, he could not help the struggling Angels. On July 11, 1971 at the hour of 5 in the morning, Tony C stood before the media with an important announcement, two days after going 0-8 in a 20 inning game resulting in a loss for California, he announced his retirement from the game of baseball. After staging one of the greatest comebacks that Baseball had ever, and probably will ever see, the 25 year-old said he was through with the game he loved.
In 1975, Tony Conigliaro tried to mount another comeback. He signed with the Red Sox, played for 21 games, and then was send down to Pawtucket. Tony announced his retirement for good 2 weeks later. After baseball, Tony worked as a sportcaster in Providence and later San Francisco. However, his tragedies were not behind him.
In late 1981, Tony decided that his days in Boston were not over, so he decided to fly out and try out for the open announcing position. Tony auditioned, but would not get the job, let alone make it home. On January 9, 1982 he suffered a heart attack while his brother and former teammate Billy was driving him to the airport. Tony would remain in the hospital until March 2, 1982. The attack damaged his brain and confined Tony C to a wheelchair. This caused Tony to require constant care from his family or from nurses. A year later, Tony C was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.
Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990 in Salem Mass of pneumonia and kidney failure at the age of 45. He was the youngest player to reach 100 home runs and holds on to that record to this day. Tony is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden. There is a push by some fans to have his number retired at Fenway, alongside Yaz and Teddy Ballgame. Tony was a great ballplayer, one whose career was cut short by one freak pitch. As a Red Sox fan, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened that year if he had never gotten injured, let alone how well he would have played or how long.
Season Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
1964 Boston 111 404 69 117 21 2 24 52 35 78 2 4 .290 .354 .530 .884
1965 Boston 138 521 82 140 21 5 32 82 51 116 4 2 .269 .338 .512 .850
1966 Boston 150 558 77 148 26 7 28 93 52 112 0 2 .295 .330 .487 .817
1967 Boston 95 349 59 100 11 5 20 67 27 58 4 6 .287 .341 .519 .860
1969 Boston 141 506 57 129 21 3 20 82 48 111 2 5 .255 .321 .427 .748
1970 Boston 146 560 89 149 20 1 36 116 43 93 4 2 .266 .324 .498 .822
1971 Cali 74 266 23 59 18 0 4 15 23 52 3 3 .222 .285 .335 .620
1975 Boston 21 57 8 7 1 0 2 9 8 9 1 0 .123 .221 .246 .467
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Career totals: 876 3221 464 849 139 23 166 516 287 629 .264 .327 .476 .803
"A star-crossed star" by Pete Goodwin. 11/30/99 edition of the Boston Globe
thanks to Etouffee
for the idea for this node, and to C-Dawg
for doing what I should have done better and proofreading.