A Baseball Tragedy Revisited! What Would Shakespeare Have Written?

April 3, 2012

Sports

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our March 28, 2012 print edition. 

Prologue:

 In early June of 2008, I traveled with my best friend from our days at Boston College, Bill Nagle, from his home in Plymouth, MA, back to Columbus, MS.  Bill is currently a financial advisor with clients in the Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida region, and is an occasional visitor to Columbus. I had been in Boston to help my daughter relocate there for a year, before returning to MS and starting medical school.  Along the way, Bill and I took a side trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York, and then to the area known as the “Southern Tier”, specifically, the town of Wellsville.  This trip down memory lane brought back events from our younger days nearly a half century ago, and vividly recalled a story that continues to touch each of us deeply. It is a story that the editor of this publication feels should be told.

 This is a story of extraordinary baseball success and ultimate tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude.   It involves a former Red Sox player who was claimed by all of New England baseball fans as their own. A native of Revere, MA, he had starred in high school at St. Mary’s in Lynn, MA, and had gained considerable local notoriety.  But, before he was elevated to iconic status in Boston, he would start his professional baseball odyssey in New York’s picturesque southwest region of small towns and foothills of the Alleghenies. The area towns and cities of Auburn, Batavia, Binghamton, Geneva, Jamestown and Wellsville, along with Erie, PA, hosted the Class-A New York-Penn League (the NYP) in 1963. To set the perspective, in terms of minor league history, this was the year that Class B, C, and D baseball was eliminated in favor of the current Rookie, A, AA, and AAA classifications.

 This is the story of Tony Conigliaro, (“Tony C” or “Conig”), including my personal perspective, due to the curious set of coincidences, which my friends and I prefer to think of as “The Grand Design”, that has often enriched my life.

The Ascendency:

Bill Nagle was at the start of his professional career, in the Red Sox and White Sox organizations, as a left-handed pitcher.  In ’63 and ’64 he was assigned to the Wellsville Red Sox, in the New York-Penn (NYP) League.  I earned a Master’s Degree from Holy Cross in early June of 1963, and was slated to begin the career with General Tire that would, by 1965, bring me to Columbus, MS.  I had three weeks after graduation to enjoy, with absolutely no responsibility, and so I decided to visit Bill, in Wellsville.  Glad for the opportunity to visit, he obliged me with directions to Mrs. Duffy’s boarding house, where he was staying.  Setting out very early on my 425-mile journey from my hometown to Wellsville, I realized I had never driven that far alone.  Hours later, after traversing miles of two lane roads in upstate New York and doing my best to keep from being bored to death, I finally arrived in Wellsville. I found the boarding house – rather obvious, as I saw Bill and another person outside washing their cars.  I drove up, greeted Bill and he introduced me to Tony Conigliaro, who had just arrived from Boston to join the team. Tony was also going to be rooming at Mrs. Duffy’s for the rest of the season.  “Conig” said he wished he had known I was coming, as we could have ridden the boring drive together. It would have been interesting if I didn’t have the need to return to Boston in a couple of weeks.

Since he had just arrived and would report to the team before the game, that night, he was not expected to suit up until the next night’s game.  It followed that he and I would be spectators at the game with the Auburn Mets, providing me with one of those obscure trivia moments of interest, maybe, only to me.  But, then again, how often does one have the opportunity to be sitting in the stands with a future star at the outset of his significant, record-setting professional career?  His excitement and anxiousness to “get going” remains the most memorable aspect of that evening’s game.  After the game, a Wellsville win, the three of us went to the Texas Hot restaurant for a feast of chili dogs, which are memorable to anyone who ever spent time in the town. Tony said he couldn’t wait to start “feasting” on Auburn pitching in the next game.

The next night, Tony began his professional career against Auburn, with a swinging strikeout in his first at bat.  His next time up, however, he hit a “gapper” for a double that accounted for his first RBI, and so began a one-season minor league career that would see him in Fenway Park to begin the1964 season.   As an 18-year-old at Wellsville, he hit 24 home runs in 83 games in the short season NYP – the most dingers hit by a teenager in baseball history.   He batted .363, on his way to winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the NYP. In August of 1963, I was back in the Finger Lakes region, at Penn Yan, to participate in the wedding of my Holy Cross buddy, Jim Tette.  During my visit, the Red Sox were scheduled to play in nearby Geneva, NY, against the Senators.  I visited with Bill and Tony before the game in which he hit a monster home run in another Wellsville win.

I was not surprised to see Tony in the Red Sox starting lineup in the Fenway home opener in 1964, as the local papers were full of speculation of how he would do.  The answer was immediate, as he hit a home run over the left field “Green Monster”, on the first pitch he saw from Joe Horlen of the White Sox.  In a season shortened by a broken arm, he hit 24 home runs as a 19 year old.  He left me some tickets before a sold-out Yankees game in 1964, and I was able to visit briefly and congratulate him on his success.  Saying how much he enjoyed playing in Boston, he said, “You want to know what will keep me up here?…..Just the thoughts of having to play in Wellsville again will be enough!”

1964:  Aside from seeing Tony in Boston, I trekked back to Wellsville, again, to visit with Bill, who would later hook up with the Chicago White Sox, in 1965.  The Wellsville team, that year, was interesting, as a couple of members of that team would end up at Fenway as teammates of Tony C.  Pitcher Billy Rohr would join the Sox in 1967.  Rohr, in his first major league start at Yankee Stadium, would shut out the Yankees in a complete game performance, 1-0.  He would pitch a no-hitter, until 2 outs in the ninth inning, when Elston Howard would break it up with a double.  The other Wellsville player was Yazoo City, MS and former Ole Miss’ standout catcher Jerry Moses.  Because of his bonus status, Jerry appeared briefly with the Sox as an 18-year-old in 1965, but was sent to Wellsville for further seasoning at Tullar Field and nourishment at the Texas Hot restaurant.  He ultimately made it to the “show” in 1969, where he would be named to the 1970 All-Star team. 

A third 1964 Wellsville player with connections to Tony C was Bob Nash, who provided insight into Tony’s early baseball life from Little League through Legion and High School ball.  Bob went to Lynn Classical High School, where he played against Tony, but he played Legion Ball for Post 6 with both Tony and Billy Conigliaro, who would eventually play in the same outfield with his brother for the Red Sox, in 1969 and 1970. Three other members of that Legion team would ultimately sign professional contracts.  Unfortunately, Bob Nash, a promising Sox outfield prospect who hit .310 with 19 home runs for the 1964 Wellsville team, would suffer injuries that would shorten his professional career, after stints in the Phillies and Twins organizations.  It is interesting to note that other Wellsville 1963 and 1964 alumni with Major League experience were from 1963: George “Boomer” Scott from Greenville, MS; Joe Foy, and from 1964: Carmen Fanzone (.386 BA and 21 HR), Bill Schlesinger, and Ken Wright.  So, that obscure outpost, the smallest town in the country supporting a minor league team in the ‘60’s, was a proving ground for several future major leaguers.

For Tony C, the legend was growing, and icon status was just around the corner.  In 1965, at age twenty, he led the American League in homeruns with 32, the youngest home run champ in ML History.

The Turning Point:

1967 was the “Impossible Dream” year, in which the Sox would get into the World Series for the first time since 1946.

In 1967, he was named to the All Star team.  As a 22-year-old, he also hit his 100th ML home run, becoming the youngest AL player to hit that plateau, and the second youngest in ML history, behind Mel Ott.   With his good looks, he was a magnet for the young, single women of Boston.  He had also launched a singing career and was a frequent night club performer and had appeared on the Merv Griffin show.  It seemed as if a Hall of Fame career was building, and the future for both the Sox and Conig was bright.  After a poor start for the Sox, things began to turn around. Under Manager Dick Williams, the Sox were rolling and would continue to roll, right into the World Series.

But then, on the night of August 18, during a Fenway game against the California Angels, things changed dramatically.  Tony had singled off Jack Hamilton in his first at bat, the only hit the Angels’ fireballer had given up in the first three innings.  For the Sox part, Gary Bell had not given up a hit through the first three innings. In the fourth, George Scott led off with a single, and was thrown out trying to stretch it to a double.  After Reggie Smith flied to center, Tony stepped into the batters box.  Always an aggressive hitter, Conig crowded the plate.  Hamilton, who was not afraid to come inside to knock the batter off the plate, threw a fast ball in, and the pitch changed Tony’s career forever.  Not intentionally headhunting, the pitch nailed Tony in the left cheek/ eye area, just below the batting helmet, which did not have the ear flap in those days.  Later, after he had regained full consciousness in the clubhouse, Conigliaro said, “I thought I was dead…I heard a hissing sound and that was all!” Tony would not return, that year, due to the eye and retina damage.  He missed all of the 1968 season, replaced in right field by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Dalton Jones, a significant player on that 1967 team, recalls the drama of the team, of being a teammate of Tony C., and the team’s feelings about the prospects for the future.  Reached at his home not far from Liberty, MS, the Red Sox utility infielder, who is recognized as one of the Sox all-time pinch hitters, related enough comments to be worthy of a separate feature.  Regarding the overall Sox experience, he said, “If anything, what happened to Tony seemed to galvanize us and motivate us to fight harder.  Picking up Ken Harrelson, down the stretch, to fill in for Tony, when the Hawk was released by Charley Finley, and then getting Elston Howard from the Yankees, had a calming influence on us. Both players contributed greatly to our successful drive to get into the World Series that year.  At that point, we were all thinking “Dynasty”.  Then, doubts began to creep in, when Jim Longborg broke his leg in an off-season ski accident, and then Tony couldn’t come back.”

Regarding Tony, Dalton related, “He had it all right from the start, particularly a total belief in himself.  He had the skills and a perfect batting style for Fenway.  He’d hit those terrific high fly shots over the left field wall and screen.  But then, on the road, he’d adjust and hit line drive homers in the other parks. It is obvious the injury affected his career and we all thought that he was a complete player who could have had a long career, and set records others might still be chasing.  How many 22-year-olds had that type of statistical start to a career? He still had not reached his full maturity and strength as a ballplayer.  I had a lot of self-confidence in 1967, and maybe the best three months of my career down the stretch, but Tony broke in that way and never let up.” (According to SABR, the “Supreme Court” of baseball statistics, only Mickey Mantle compared overall, at the same age, to Tony.  For trivia buffs, only Eddie Matthews’ 72 home runs came close to Tony’s 84 by their 22nd birthday…Mantle had 57 and Hank Aaron had 40).

Tony did return in 1969 to earn the “Comeback Player of the Year” award, with 20 home runs.  In 1970, he appeared to have fully recovered, as he hit his career-high 36 home runs.  However, the retina damage continued to erode his eyesight, and in the 1970 off-season, he was traded to the Angels, along with 1964 Wellsville alum Jerry Moses.  Struggling in 1971, he announced his retirement, but did make an attempt at another comeback in the Sox pennant winning season of 1975.  After struggling and hitting 2 home runs, he retired for good in mid-June, a career ended much too soon.

 The Real Tragedy

After Tony’s active career ended, he became a sportscaster/ analyst at KGO TV in San Francisco.  When Hawk Harrelson, a folk hero in Boston and the Red Sox Cable TV color analyst, left for an opportunity to be GM of the White Sox, after the 1981 season, Tony saw a chance to return to Boston and he applied for the vacant position.  He interviewed for the job in January of 1982 and the smart money said the job would be his.

His brother, Billy, was driving him back to Logan Airport to return to San Francisco when Tony had a massive heart attack.  By the time Billy was able to get him to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Tony was in a coma.  While he did come out of the coma, he never fully recovered and spent the last eight years of his life in a Nursing Home in Salem, Mass. The Red Sox held annual fundraising drives, to help pay for his care.

He died on February 24, 1990, at the age of 45, tragically too young in life, but maybe, mercifully.  A Boston icon was gone. Like many another story of this star-crossed, storied franchise, Tony C’s story will be passed from generation to generation among Red Sox fans.

Footnote: Among his last visitors, just before he passed away, was his 1963 Wellsville Red Sox teammate, Bill Nagle

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