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A hometown hero's fall still echoes after 40 years



Time has a way of smoothing the jagged edges of memories, wearing away the pain and leaving a varnished patina of nostalgia.

But there are certain events for which even four decades are not enough to erode the pain of a single day, a single moment, a single pitch.

"I think about it every Aug. 18," said Richie Conigliaro. "Not the 20th or the 21st. It's like remembering your birthday. Forty years ago. It's really, really strange. It's going to be a little scary."

It will be 40 years ago Saturday that Richie's brother, Red Sox slugger and local legend Tony Conigliaro, was hit below the left eye by a pitch from the California Angels' Jack Hamilton, shattering his cheekbone, severely damaging his vision, and derailing a career that seemed destined to end in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Anthony Richard Conigliaro, born in Revere, raised in East Boston, and later a Swampscott resident, was the ultimate local-boy-makes-good story. He played for Lynn's American Legion Post 6, and high school ball for St. Mary's in Lynn. In 1962, amid a long losing stretch that left many empty seats at Fenway Park, the Red Sox signed the 17-year-old Tony C for $20,000. Two years later, when the White Sox were in town for the 1964 home opener, Conigliaro homered in his first Fenway at-bat. There would be more losing seasons, but locals started tuning in their radios to follow the rising star until the Impossible Dream team of 1967, when Tony C was at the center of a baseball renaissance that took the region by storm.

He remains a household name throughout the North Shore and beyond. St. Mary's has the Tony Conigliaro Gymnasium. The North Shore Spirit retired his No. 25, where it hangs beyond the outfield fence at Fraser Field in Lynn along with those of Harry Agganis, Johnny Pesky (both No. 6 for the Red Sox), and Dick Radatz (No. 17). Before the start of the season this spring, the Red Sox opened Conigliaro's Corner, a 200-seat metal bleacher area where for $25 fans can watch the game from high above the right-field expanse Conigliaro once patrolled.

Richie Conigliaro, a teenager in 1967, was with his parents and brother, Billy, a Sox minor-leaguer rehabbing a leg injury, at Fen way Park on the night of Aug. 18, 1967.

With two outs in the fourth inning of a scoreless game against the Angels, the right-handed-hitting Conigliaro, then 22, dug in. Batting .287 with 20 home runs and 67 RBIs in 95 games that year, Tony C liked to crowd the plate. It was the first game in which he would face Hamilton, who was known to throw a spitball and liked to work inside. Hamilton's first pitch -- a fastball -- was high and inside.

Tony C was wearing a batting helmet, but it resembled a baseball cap made out of hard plastic, without the protective earflap that is now standard.

In its detailed box score of the game, retrosheet.org, a website that chronicles baseball, simply lists the play as "The Beaning."

"It was a nightmare," Richie Conigliaro said, "because everything just blew up in smoke, and that's a pun because there was a smoke bomb before he got hit in the head. So, it was eerie. The smoke bomb went off, there was a delay. I've been telling people for years, I said, 'Something's going to happen here. I don't know what.' I just had a premonition, and bang."

Bang.

"The sound that it made, when it hit him, it was a pretty distinct sound that you don't hear very often, but when you hear it, you know that it's serious," said teammate Jim Lonborg, Boston's ace and the American League Cy Young Award winner that season.

"I would say it was a very loud thud, as opposed to a crack or a ping or whatever. It was a sound that you could tell was very solid."

The sound of the ball shattering Tony C's cheekbone could be heard throughout Fenway Park. Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli, in the on-deck circle, was the first to reach Conigliaro, who lay in the dirt at home plate.

"I don't think it's something you would forget," Petrocelli said last week. "I knew he was hurt bad, and when I went up there, I just saw his face balloon up. The swelling, the blood was going to the side of his face, and, of course, to his eye. I actually thought it hit him in the temple. That's why I was really concerned."

Conigliaro was rushed to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge, the same hospital where another local legend and budding Red Sox star, Lynn's Agganis, had died in 1955 from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 25.

Tony C did not play for the rest of the Impossible Dream season, and missed all of 1968, while he recuperated from the injury to his retina.

"I just remember him going down and everybody in the dugout pointing their bats at me," Hamilton said. "I remember there was a loud thud and he just went down."

Hamilton, speaking by phone from the Plaza View restaurant in Branson, Mo., where he is the manager, said he tried to visit Conigliaro in the hospital after the game but was not allowed in.

"I felt very bad about it," he said.

Mike Andrews was the Sox second baseman that night and was in the dugout when Tony C went down. "I don't think any of us thought it was as severe -- it was obviously severe because he got hit in the eye, but I don't think any of us thought it could be career-ending, or have a major impact on his career," said Andrews, now chairman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund charity. "I had just never seen an injury that did that to anybody else, other than maybe a pitcher who threw his arm out. So, I think my first response was, 'Oh, my God.' "

Lonborg, Petrocelli, Andrews, and Richie Conigliaro do not think Hamilton hit Tony deliberately. Billy Conigliaro, who turned 60 yesterday, believes differently.

"Oh, yeah, there's no debate. It's definite," Billy Conigliaro said. Hamilton is "going to say he didn't, but it's definite. . . . I was there. I know he threw at him. You don't throw a ball up there at someone's head like that. You're a major-league pitcher. You can control your pitch better than that."

Hamilton hit only 13 batters in his eight-year career. After being acquired from the New York Mets on June 10, 1967, he hit only one batter that season with the Angels -- Tony C.

"Oh, no, I had no reason to hit him deliberately," Hamilton said. "I had enough trouble trying to hit someone if I tried to. I was too wild. No, I had no reason to hit him. No reason whatsoever. There was nothing going on."

Jim Fregosi, the Angels' Gold Glove shortstop that season and now a special assistant to the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, said of that night: "I was there, and he wasn't throwing at him. I think the ball jumped in on him.

"First of all, there is a sign to knock somebody down and, on that pitch, I did not see a sign to have him knocked down, and I have a better view than probably anybody has. People that want to speculate, I think that's a bunch of [expletive]."

In 14 appearances since joining the Angels that season, including the Sox game Aug. 18, Hamilton had a 2.30 earned-run average. In 12 games after Aug. 18, his ERA was 4.80.

The incident had an effect on Hamilton, Fregosi said. "I don't think there's any question . . . because nobody wants to seriously injure anybody."

Hamilton disagrees about the effect of the pitch, and said the difference was because of his own injury and not a lasting emotional issue.

"It didn't really affect me at that time," Hamilton said. "Later in the year, I pulled all the muscles away from my rib cage pitching. So I could hardly throw very good after that, anyway."

Returning to the Red Sox for the 1969 season, the 24-year-old Tony C earned the league's Comeback Player of the Year award, batting .255 with 20 home runs and 82 RBIs in 141 games. But he played just 241 games after that -- 146 with the Sox in 1970 before being traded to the Angels in 1971. He announced his retirement in July 1971, after 74 games with California.

He attempted another comeback with the Sox in 1975 as a designated hitter, but, with his skills and his sight significantly eroded, he lasted just 21 games and retired for good at the age of 30.

Tony C had embarked on a new career, as a baseball announcer, when he had a heart attack on Jan. 9, 1982, while in Boston to interview for a Sox broadcasting job. He never fully recovered and died in 1990 at the age of 45. Richie Conigliaro is among those who wonder whether the impact of the pitch in the face ultimately led to his death.

The doctors said "it might have been a little clot that was released from up there," Richie Conigliaro said. "They don't know. I'm not saying it did. But, it could have."

That thought disturbs Hamilton.

"Oh, yeah, if it did. I'm only human," he said.

Forty years later, the Red Sox are planning to remember Tony C in a pregame ceremony Saturday, part of their seasonlong tribute to the Impossible Dream team that went on to win the American League pennant and play the Cardinals in the World Series, falling short in seven games -- without Tony C.

Richie Conigliaro, 55, plans to be at Fenway Park on this Aug. 18 as he was on that date 40 years ago. This time he will be joined by his sons, Tony, 6, and Billy, 3, and other family members.

As fate and the quirks of scheduling would dictate, the Sox again will be playing the Angels.

Northtalk
Were you at Fenway Park or listening to the Red Sox game on the radio the night of Aug. 18, 1967? What are your memories? Log on to boston.com/northtalk, e-mail globenorth@globe.com, or write to Globe North, Suite 200, 1 Corporate Place, 55 Ferncroft Road, Danvers 01923.

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