Conley's stories fit to print
He's 74 years old now and he's got more stories than just about anybody. There was the time he struck out Ted Williams in the All-Star Game. Then there was the time he had to separate Tom Heinsohn from Wilt Chamberlain during a heated exchange in an NBA game.
And of course, there was that memorable episode in 1962 when he got off the Red Sox team bus and was not seen again for 68 hours. Gene Conley bought a plane ticket to Israel during his three-day bender in 1962, but the folks at the airport wouldn't let him board the plane without a passport.
Yes, there are stories. Stories no one else can tell. No one else ever won a championship ring in two major sports. No one else played against Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Oscar Robertson. No one else played with Carl Yastrzemski during the summer, then joined Bob Cousy for the winter. No one else lockered next to Hank Aaron and Bill Russell in the same calendar year.
Finally, the stories are in a book and today you can meet Conley and wife/biographer Katie at the FleetCenter Pro Shop from 3 p.m. until the start of tonight's Celtics game against the Denver Nuggets. Gene and Katie have been married for 54 years, and have three grown children and seven grandchildren. For years, folks have been telling them to put Gene's stories into a book and now you can buy "One of a Kind," published by Advantage Books.
Gene was born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1930, son of a Cherokee woman who stood 6 feet tall. When Gene was 11, the family moved to Richland, Wash., and Gene grew to be 6 feet 8 inches. On a recruiting trip to Washington State, he was kidnapped by students from Idaho.
"Now I know why they're the Idaho Vandals," said Conley with a laugh. "They really were vandals!"
He played baseball and basketball for Washington State for two years before signing a professional baseball contract with the Boston Braves. The Braves called him to the big leagues in 1952 and later that year, Celtics guard Bill Sharman recommended Conley to Red Auerbach. During the 1952-53 NBA season, young Gene lived in the Lenox Hotel, one floor below Coach Auerbach.
The Braves paid him an extra $5,000 to quit basketball a year later and Conley won 14 games with Milwaukee in 1954. In July 1955, he struck out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon, and Al Rosen in the top of the 12th inning of the 22d All-Star Game, then picked up the victory when Stan Musial homered in the bottom of the inning. He pitched in the All-Star Game for the third time in 1959 and fanned Teddy Ballgame. That was in-between picking up championship rings as Russell's backup with the 1958-59 and 1959-60 Celtics.
Think about that for a minute and try to put it into context today. Let's try to imagine Rick Fox striking out Barry Bonds in the 2001 All-Star Game -- in his spare time between Laker championships. No one else will ever do anything like that. Conley's peak professional salary was $30,000.
Wearing No. 17 (since retired by John Havlicek), he was in the second month of his final Celtic season when the Phillies traded him to the Red Sox for righthanded pitcher Frank Sullivan Dec. 15, 1960. The Celtics won the title against the St. Louis Hawks in the Boston Garden April 11, 1961, and Conley went right to Leesburg, Fla., for a belated spring training after collecting his NBA hardware.
"I worked out for nine days, then called the Red Sox and said I was ready," he remembered. "I came to Fenway and pitched against the Washington Senators and hit a double in my first game. Russell and K.C. Jones came to see me play for the Red Sox."
He compiled an 11-14 record with the '61 Red Sox (Yaz's rookie year) but came back to post a 15-14 record with an eighth-place ball club in 1962. That was the year of his excellent adventure in New York.
It still ranks as one of the most bizarre episodes in Red Sox history, on par with the great stunts of Oil Can Boyd and Wade Boggs. Conley had been the losing pitcher in a 13-3 rout in Yankee Stadium and spent the late innings in the clubhouse drinking beer. When the Red Sox team bus stalled in traffic after the game, Conley asked manager Mike Higgins if he and Pumpsie Green could get off the bus to use a public restroom.
"So we got off and went in this bar, and when we came back out, Pumpsie said, `Hey, that bus is gone,' and I said, `We are, too!' "
Pumpsie came back after a day, but Conley got a room at the Waldorf, watched the TV news, and learned that people were searching for him. They should have tried Toots Shor's, a Manhattan saloon favored by DiMaggio, Sinatra, and the rest.
When Conley came back to Boston, after he was turned away at Idlewild Airport, Tom Yawkey called him into his office and fined him. Yawkey also offered Conley a drink, but the tall pitcher said, "No way, Mr. Yawkey. I wouldn't touch that stuff."
Done with the Braves, Phillies, Red Sox, Celtics, and Knicks, he was through with professional sports at age 33. He quit drinking three years later.
There have been a lot of ups and downs in the post-sports era, but Gene and Katie stayed together through illness and several relocations. They've worked diligently to improve pension and medical benefits for ballplayers from the old days, but they've experienced their greatest joy in watching the growth and progress of their children and grandchildren.
The kids have been hearing Gene's stories for years. Now it's all down on paper, in between the covers of "One of a Kind."
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.