Tony C.

By David Nevard

(c) 1990, The Buffalo Head Society

PART I

(Tony Conigliaro died February 24, 1990; the Red Sox wore black arm bands that season in his memory).

Tony Conigliaro, right-hand hitting outfielder, was a product of Boston's North Shore born in Revere January 5, 1945, grew up in East Boston and Swampscott, played high school ball for St. Mary's in Lynn. He came from a close-knit family: parents Sal and Theresa, brothers Richie and Billy all seemed part of a group effort to take baseball by storm.

The Red Sox signed Tony in 1963 for a reported $20,000 bonus. Thirteen other teams had been chasing him (this was in the days before the draft). Tony played 83 games that year for Boston's short-season Class A team, and amazingly made the big league club the following spring at the insistence of manager Johnny Pesky. His major league debut came in April 1964 at Yankee Stadium, where the brash young Conigliaro (aged 19) accused the great Whitey Ford of throwing him a spitter.

Tony's first Fenway Park game was dramatic. April 18, 1964, the Red Sox' home opener, was an emotional tribute to President John F. Kennedy, assassinated just a few months before. Sox owner Thomas A. Yawkey was donating the proceeds of the game to the JFK Library Fund; in attendance were Robert, Ted, and other members of the Kennedy family; the governor, the mayor, Stan Musial, Joe Cronin, Gene Tunney, Frederic March, and Carol Channing. Conigliaro electrified the crowd by hitting the first pitch he ever saw at Fenway Park (a Joel Horlen fastball) over the left field wall for a home run. The Red Sox won 4-1.

Conigliaro was the tall and slim (6 foot 3, 185 lbs). He took a wide, flatfooted stance at the plate, with a slight crouch and the bat sticking straight up behind his head. He had what was known as quick wrists, and today would be called bat speed. He was a slashing, aggressive pull hitter, a .270 guy with power. In his first season Tony played left field, with Yastrzemski moving over to center, but the Sox decided Tony's arm was strong enough to play right field, where they moved him in 1965. By reputation he was a decent, if not outstanding, outfielder. He had no special gift for running, never stealing more than 4 bases or collecting more than 7 triples in a season. There was a saying in those days that singles hitters drove Chevys and home run hitters drove Cadillacs. Tony intended to drive a Caddy.

In his rookie season Tony hit 24 home runs and 21 doubles in only 111 games. He missed six weeks when a Pedro Ramos pitch broke his right forearm, but bounced back to hit .379 in September. After the season the Red Sox were impressed enough that they traded away their big power hitter Dick Stuart and gave Tony the job. Despite missing a month when a Wes Stock pitch caused a hairline fracture to his left wrist, Tony hit 32 home runs in 1965. At age 20, he was the youngest man to lead the league in home runs, and his future seemed limitless.

Unfortunately for Tony he was playing almost in a vacuum. He never drove in 100 runs, perhaps because of the lineup which surrounded him. The Red Sox finished forty games out of first place that year (62-100). They were a boring, one-dimensional team, leading the league in home runs but near the bottom in fielding and pitching. Attendance sunk to 652,201 lowest in the post-war era.

Tony Conigliaro was one of the few bright spots for the Red Sox. Many called him the most popular Red Sox player since Ted Williams. Tony C, young, good-looking, and ambitious, was everywhere. He was even signed to a four-year recording contract by RCA-Victor and made several appearances on the Merv Griffin Show. His big hit was called Playing the Field.

Two sides of his personality began to emerge. Here's Tony in a 1965 LOOK magazine feature, a nice young man in a suit emerging from Mass at St. Mary's, chatting with the nuns. Here he is again, nice young man in suit with worshipful Little Leaguers. The caption says, "He tells them he violated curfew on Red Sox road trip, got a fine, deserved it."

Possibly it is another road incident that is described in George Sullivan in Picture History of the Boston Red Sox.Conigliaro spent a wild night on the town in New York; the next morning on the team bus to Yankee Stadium he threw up all over himself and the writer seated next to him. Tony was fined $1,000.

Conigliaro was called into the Army reserves in 1967; there was an Army draft before there was a baseball draft, but teams were usually able to keep their players out of it by placing them in the Reserves. It was not uncommon for a player to a couple weeks during the season so he could fulfill his military obligation.

[The Red Sox] were having trouble with the military at that time, because one of our players allegedly told an officer to shit in his hat and the officer told him, "I'm going to have you and the rest of these ballplayers walking point in Quang Tri.' That really hurt the club's relationship with the Army. That player hadn't messed around... He picked a colonel. Somebody told me later that player had been Tony Conigliaro. That made sense -- old spur-of-the-moment Tony.

-- Bill Lee, Army Reserves 1970.

Tony is outspoken and can be headstrong. But he is intensely determined and ambitious, and his ego is half the reason he hits like he does.

-- Billy Herman, Red Sox manager 1965-66.

Tony Conigliaro, in the years I covered him, was often self-centered, ambitious, petty, crude, and impatient. But he was also gracious, charming, marvelous with kids (if the kids were polite), witty and cooperative.

-- Ray Fitzgerald, Boston Globe (1972).

You know what you can do with that slider!

-- Tony Conigliaro to pitcher Dick Ellsworth, after an exhibition-game home run.

He would sometimes taunt pitchers, and he crowded the plate, digging in with a wide, locked stance that almost dared pitchers to come inside. Even the broken bones would not move him off the plate, because that was where he made his living. The 1965 LOOK story contains an ominous line:

No one has yet found a way to intimidate him.

PART II

Tony was the kind of kid who might have wound up in a lot of trouble if it wasn't for baseball. He was always skipping school, where he was a slow learner and felt restless and confined. His parents took him out of public school after a teacher locked him in a closet and forgot about him; Tony didn't like parochial school much better. But he would stay at the playground and hit baseballs until his hands bled. He was a three-sport star in high school, was offered college scholarships, but never considered them very seriously.

After his senior year (1962) he spent the summer playing American Legion ball, and wasn't eligible to negotiate with major league teams until September. The Red Sox, after signing Tony, sent him to the Instructional League. He felt completely overmatched there, so he went home and lifted weights and swung a lead bat in the cellar all winter. By the spring of 1963, in Florida, Tony was a stronger, better hitter. The Red Sox assigned him to Wellesville in the NY-Penn league. Tony asked the team if he could go back to Boston, pick up his new car, and drive out toWellesville. OK, they said, you've got three days.

Well, see if you can picture this scene: the good-looking, rich, famous local guy shows up back in town at a former rival high school, picking up a beautiful cheerleader after school in his flashy new convertible. The cheerleader's boyfriend (captain of the football team) objects strenuously, insulting Conigliaro in front of a crowd of high school kids. Tony keeps his cool, but later that day goes over to the football guy's house and punches him out, then runs inside and screams insults at the guy's mother for good measure.

Tony came away with a broken thumb, and missed the first six weeks of Wellesville's season. The Conigliaro family concocted a story that the thumb was broken while taking batting practice from Uncle Vinnie. When he finally got to the NY-Penn League he hit .363 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs in 83 games. He was league's most valuable player. In the spring of 1964 he took spring training with the big leaguers in Scottsdale, dazzled everybody, and won a starting job. Despite more broken bones in his first two seasons, by 1967 Tony C had reached 100 home runs younger (age 22) than any player in major league history. By comparison, at the same age Jose Canseco had 38 homers, Will Clark 11.

On the night of Friday, August 18, 1967 the Sox were playing the Angels at Fenway Park. Boston was in the thick of the pennant race, and the night before the club had gone over a million in attendance for the first time since Ted Williams retired. Jack Hamilton, the California pitcher, was a mediocre starter/reliever (1967 was his best season: 11-6) who had come over from the Mets in June. Hamilton had control problems lifetime 348 walks and 357 strikeouts and had been accused of throwing a spitter. In fact according to Bobby Doerr, Manager Dick Williams had complained to the umpires about this earlier in the game. Tony C singled his first time up. He was hitting .287 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs.

He was the third batter scheduled in the fourth inning, but after Scott singled and was thrown out at second, the game was delayed for 10 minutes when somebody threw a smoke bomb into left field. When the smoke cleared, Reggie Smith flied out. Hamilton's first pitch to Conigliaro hit Tony on the left cheekbone. He went down as if shot, and lay motionless. On-deck hitter Rico Petrocelli and trainer Buddy LeRoux were the first to his side. Tony was carried off the field on a stretcher and brought to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge. He had suffered a fractured cheekbone, a dislocated jaw, and a damaged retina. Back at Fenway, the crowd booed Hamilton, and Yastrzemski screamed at him from the dugout. Jose Tartabull (Danny's dad) went to first base to run for Conigliaro, and came around to score the first run of the game. The Red Sox won 3-2.

In newspapers around the country was a photo that became engraved on the memory of Red Sox fans Conigliaro with a black eye the size of a baseball, his eye swelled completely shut. Doctors said the pitch missed by an inch or two of killing him. Jack Hamilton insisted that it was an out-of-control fastball, and that Tony was always hanging over the plate anyway. Angel catcher Buck Rodgers (now the Expos manager) said it was a fastball that sailed about eight inches inside, but most people associated with the Red Sox insist that the pitch was a spitball that got away.

The Red Sox acquired rightfielder Ken Harrelson on August 28. In September Tony C. took some batting practice and said his vision was still blurred. He was given another eye test; the right eye was 20/10, the left eye 20/100. He could not judge distances. His season was through. By special permission from the Commissioner, Tony did get back into uniform for the last game of the season, and was on the bench to see the Red Sox win their first pennant in 21 years. He remained on the bench during the World Series, cheering the team on but feeling out of place.

Tony Conigliaro came back for spring training in 1968; the first thing he saw in an exhibition game was a knockdown pitch from Tommy John. Later in the game he was hit in the ribs by Don McMahon. After that the pitchers left him alone, but Tony's eyesight deteriorated for the rest of his life his eye had a pattern of healing and then breaking down again. He left camp, and ended up missing the whole 1968 season. In 1969 he came back to hit 20 homers, but the game was no longer fun for him. He knew that despite appearances his vision would never be the same. He didn't get along with the manager, Dick Williams. When Williams had still been a player, in 1964, the two had been roommates for a time, and hadn't gotten along at all. When Tony was beaned in 1967, Dick never came to visit him at the hospital, something Conigliaro bitterly resented. Williams, for his own purposes, more or less pretended that the beaning never happened. Tony C. was now frequently booed by the fans in Fenway Park, and his habit of speaking his mind got him into frequent trouble with the press, which labeled him a crybaby playboy.

In 1970 with a new manager (Eddie Kasko) Conigliaro had, on paper, the best season of his career, hitting 36 homers and finally driving in over 100 runs. Younger brother Billy Conigliaro joined him in the outfield that year, with Yaz moving to first base. But despite many great individual achievements, the star-laden Red Sox were tearing themselves apart.

One factor was the Conigliaro family. Sal Conigliaro, the father, more or less ran Tony's career, and sometimes it seemed like he was trying to run the Red Sox, too. After one of Tony's early curfew-breaking fines, Sal called a meeting with the General Manager and the Manager, telling them to lay off the kid. Sal seemed to be always hovering around team officials, and Sal was in the trainer's room with Buddy LeRoux and Dr. Tom Tierney when they worked on Tony after his beaning. In '67 Carl Yastrzemski suddenly replaced Tony C as the Red Sox' #1 star; in some twisted way Carl became a family enemy. The arrival of Billy C helped polarize the team. In a shocking move, the Red Sox traded Tony C to the Angels on October 11, 1970; Billy, who accused Yaz and Reggie Smith of engineering the trade, was shipped to Milwaukee exactly one year later.

Tony's vision got worse again in California (he hit .222 and could no longer see a curveball), and he retired after the 1971 season. He made a brief comeback in 1975, then quit for good. His life began to seem star-crossed (the co-author of Tony's 1970 book Seeing It Through died suddenly at age 43 shortly before the book was published). In 1982, after auditioning for the job of Channel 38 color commentator, Tony suffered a massive heart attack while riding in a car with Billy. He survived it, but just barely, and lived in the constant care of his family until his death this year. [1990]

******

Carl Yastrzemski began wearing a batting helmet with an earflap a few nights after Conigliaro got hit; the Red Sox were one of the first teams to popularize the earflap. Batting helmets themselves became mandatory in 1971, and helmets with earflaps were required after 1982, except for a few grandfathered American League players.

There are about 900 seats in the left corner of the centerfield bleachers at Fenway (where the TV cameras are located). The Red Sox had traditionally kept these seats vacant, but after the 1967 pennant attendance went way up, and bleacher corner tickets were being sold when there was a full house. Tony Conigliaro complained about this in 1969 not that they had contributed to his accident, but that certain pitches seemed to come right out of the background of white shirts, and were hard to pick up (especially for someone with impaired vision). The Red Sox still sold the seats when they had to, but asked people sitting there to wear dark clothing and gave them a little card saying You are now an official member of Conig's Corner.

{Those seats are almost always filled these days, and were said to be a factor when an Oil Can Boyd curveball hit Don Slaught in the face in 1986}.

Conigliaro's career is intriguing to baseball statisticians because of his achievements at ages 19, 20, 21 when most players are in college or the minors. We have estimated that without the injury Conigliaro would have had 3131 hits, 1988 RBIs, and 636 home runs a career roughly similar to that of his contemporary Reggie Jackson, only better, and possibly even more controversial. He would be going into the Hall of Fame right about now...

****

Sources for this series:

The Impossible Dream Remembered by Ken Coleman

Picture History of the Boston Red Sox by George Sullivan

Tony Conigliaro Red Sox High Note

LOOK magazine 5/4/65

Seeing It Through by Tony Conigliaro

Touching All Bases by Ray Fitzgerald

Return to the Buffalo Head's Archive page