It was Friday, Aug. 18, 1967, and the town was alive because the Red Sox were in an honest-to-God, late-summer pennant race for the first time in 17 years. The fourth-place Red Sox (3 1/2 games back) were playing the fifth-place Angels (four back) in the first of four and it was baseball as baseball was meant to be until that awful moment in the bottom of the fourth with Tony Conigliaro batting against California righthander Jack Hamilton.
The sound. Rico Petrocelli will never forget the sound.
``It was a `squish,' " recalls Petrocelli, the on-deck hitter, ``like a tomato or melon hitting the ground."
It was the sound of a baseball hitting Tony C in the left eye.
Conigliaro was a righthanded batter who stood extremely close to the plate and who dared pitchers to pitch him inside. Hamilton had a reputation as somebody who would buzz you. ``He hangs over the plate as much as anyone in the league," Hamilton said later. ``Yes, as much as Frank Robinson [a notoriously defiant hitter]. I've not hit anyone all year. I certainly wasn't throwing at him. I was just trying to get the ball over. Tony stands right on top of the plate."
As a result, Tony C had been hit before. He had missed a month of his rookie season (1964) when a Moe Drabowsky pitch broke his wrist. He was hit in the forearm later that season by Pedro Ramos and missed more time. The next year, Wes Stock broke his hand. And in spring training of 1967, teammate John Wyatt hit him in the shoulder, causing Tony to be flown back to Boston for treatment.
But this was another matter entirely. There is no sound in sports like the silence that follows a batter being struck in the head by a pitch, and that was the sound at Fenway Park as 31,027 watched trainer Buddy LeRoux tend to the beloved Tony C as he lay motionless at home plate.
Conigliaro was not just a good Red Sox player. He was family. He was living the ultimate dream of every baseball-loving kid in Greater Boston. He had gone from St. Mary's of Lynn to the Red Sox system and then to the big club, where, while still living in his Swampscott home, he hit .290 with 24 homers and 52 RBIs in 111 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 1964. A year later, he became the youngest home run champ in American League history. He had already become the youngest player to reach 100 career home runs, and now, on this perfect summer evening, his 20 homers and 67 RBIs had been instrumental in making the Red Sox legitimate contenders.
Think Tom Brady, but make Brady a product of the North Shore and you can begin to appreciate the stature Conigliaro had in this town as he stepped into the box to start the fourth inning of a scoreless game 39 years ago tonight. We -- I was a third base box seat occupant that night, so, yes, it was ``we" -- knew Tony C was going to hit 600 home runs and would wind up in the Hall of Fame. In our minds, these were givens.
But now Tony C was crumpled at home plate. Jim Lonborg, Mike Ryan, LeRoux, and California trainer Fred Frederico would carry him off on a stretcher and he would be taken to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge. Early speculation was that he might miss three weeks, perhaps more.
Make that a lot more. Tony C didn't play again until 1969. His life would never be the same -- never. It was the beginning of unspeakable misfortune that would culminate in his death at age 45 after having spent the final eight years of his life as an invalid following a 1982 heart attack/stroke suffered while he was en route to a TV audition in Boston.
Tony C's beaning was the big story that night, but not the only one. Sox starter Gary Bell carried a no-hitter into the seventh before Jimmy Hall popped one into the nets. Hall hit another one in the ninth, accounting for both California runs.
And then there was the smoke bomb . . .
Sometime between the time Tony C was in the on-deck circle and the beginning of Petrocelli's at-bat, a smoke bomb was thrown onto the field in left. It took 10 minutes to clear, and it looked as if right fielder Jose Cardenal was enveloped in a mental fog because he overran a Petrocelli fly to right-center, turning it into a rare triple for Petrocelli that scored pinch runner Jose Tartabull with the first Red Sox run in what became a 3-2 victory.
It was the start of a spectacular series. The Red Sox won, 12-11, the following day, with Norm Siebern hitting a huge pinch-hit, three-run triple and Petrocelli coming in behind the mound to make a nice, game-ending play on a Bob Rodgers chopper with the tying run chugging home from third. The Sox then swept a Sunday doubleheader, winning the first game, 12-2, with Reggie Smith hitting homers from both sides of the plate, and taking the second game, 9-8, on a Jerry Adair homer after trailing, 8-0.
The race would continue without Tony C but he was never really replaced. Oh, sure, general manager Dick O'Connell picked up Ken Harrelson, but he would be of little use until the following season. George Scott was having a good year, but ``The Boomer" wasn't Tony C. It was up to Carl Yastrzemski to carry the team offensively, and that is exactly what he did as Tony C spent the rest of the season coming to grips with a personal catastrophe.
Tony C was gone, but never forgotten. And to this day, one thought remains . . . If only Tony C weren't so close to the plate.
``I don't think he really saw the pitch," Petrocelli maintains. ``He did move his head at the last instant, and I think that prevented him from being hit in the temple. But I think he always had kind of a blind spot, the way he looked at the pitcher."
``I was always concerned about the way he `froze' at the plate," adds Mike Andrews, who was playing second base that night and who was in the dugout when the ball struck Conigliaro. ``I guess I shouldn't say `froze.' It's more the way he wouldn't give in. You know, I had been wearing an earflap helmet that year. I may have been the first. I had been trying to get him to use one, but, unfortunately, he didn't."
Conigliaro returned to baseball in 1969 wearing an earflap helmet. He was wearing one when he had a magical, almost inexplicable season when he hit 36 home runs and drove in a career-high 116 runs (while squinting at the pitcher with one good eye). He was wearing one when he spent that miserable season with the Angels after O'Connell horrified the city by trading him away. And he was wearing one when he had his Last Hurrah of 21 games with the Red Sox in the beginning of the 1975 season.
There was so much joy attached to the 1967 season. Those of us who lived through it remember Yaz and his Triple Crown season, Lonborg and his Cy Young Award, and countless memorable games, capped off by the dramatic events of Oct. 1, when the Red Sox beat the Twins to win their first American League pennant in 21 years.
But Aug. 18 is always a somber date for me, and, I'm sure, for many others. Tony C is the greatest of all ``What-Ifs?" in Boston sports history. When he stepped into the box in that fateful fourth inning, he was 22 years old. He was the Golden Boy, en route to the Golden Career. Who among us wouldn't have traded places with Tony C?
It all changed in half a second, the time it took for a baseball to crash into his handsome face, 39 years ago tonight.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is email@example.com