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Tony C.

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 18, 2010 12:25 PM

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tonyc.jpgRed Sox fans who possess a proper and nostalgic respect for the franchise's history probably require no reminder that today marks a sad anniversary. On August 18, 1967, Tony Conigliaro -- the beloved Tony C. -- was beaned, and everything changed.

It is a particularly melancholy date for those of a certain generation, for it marks the day Conigliaro, one of the most charismatic and gifted young players in Red Sox history -- and a local boy born in Revere, raised in East Boston, and schooled at St. Mary's in Lynn, no less -- was helpless as his career and life went from blessed to star-crossed in the split-second it takes for an erratically thrown baseball to travel 60 feet at 90 miles per hour from hand to skull.

During a season forever remembered as "The Impossible Dream," Conigliaro's beaning was a singular nightmare. Tony C. was impossibly talented -- he became the youngest home run champion when he hit 32 at age 20 in 1965, his sophomore season with the Sox, and became the youngest player to reach 100 career homers during the '67 season -- and it comes as no surprise that his most similar player statistically at ages 20 and 21 was Mickey Mantle. And more than one Hollywood starlet found him impossibly handsome. They say he could sing a little, too.

There really is no current or recent Red Sox who compares in terms of both appeal and ability, which is part of the reason why what happened 43 years ago tonight lingers in our consciousness today. With two outs in the fourth inning, the Angels' Jack Hamilton, a righthander pitcher of some repute, delivered a first-pitch fastball -- some insist it was a spitter -- that rode in on Conigliaro, who was notorious for crowding the plate. He had no chance. The ball connected below his left cheekbone, leaving it shattered as Conigliaro's eye instantly, gruesomely swelled. Wrote the great Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald years later:

"He was a fearless hitter, and never backed away from a fastball. Once, when sidearmer Fred Lasher of Detroit hit Conigliaro on the leg with a pitch, Tony dropped his bat, raced to the mound and attempted to nail the pitcher with a karate kick.

But the very characteristic that made him a great hitter was the one that shortened his career on that hot August night. . . A smoke bomb thrown on the field had held up the game for several minutes and I've always felt the delay might have taken away some of Conigliaro's concentration."

Shortstop Rico Petrocelli, the on-deck batter, was the first to reach Conigliaro, who was motionless in the batter's box. Recalled Petrocelli to the Globe's Maureen Mullen in 2007, "I don't think it's something you would forget. 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."

While the horrific beaning temporarily cost Conigliaro the sight in his left eye, it did not end his career -- not immediately anyway. After missing the entire 1968 season and contemplating trying to return as a pitcher, he returned to win the AL Comeback Player of the Year award in '69, batting .255 with 20 homers in 141 games. He was even better in '70, smashing 36 home runs and driving in a career-high 116 runs at age 25.

And just when it looked like he was all the way back, he had no choice but to depart again.

Traded to, of all teams, the Angels in October 1970, he hit just four homers in 73 games before retiring because of worsening eyesight. After going 0 for 8 with five strikeouts in a 20-inning, 1-0 loss to the Oakland A's on July 9, he called a press conference to announce his retirement -- at 3 a.m. But he wasn't done for good, as Fitzgerald recalled in a January 1982 column:

Four seasons later [in 1975] he came back one more time with the Red Sox. After another tumultous ovation on Opening Day in Fenway, he singled to right in his first at-bat after being away almost four years. However, despite he had a few key hits early in the season, he had been away too long. He went to the minors in Pawtucket in an attempt to recapture the graceful swing, but this time he couldn't do it.

Conigliaro batted .123 with two homers in 69 plate appearances for the '75 Sox before retiring again, this time at presumably a more reasonable hour. His career was over for good at age 30.

I suppose there are other equally tragic "What-If"s in Boston sports history to what befell Tony C. What if Len Bias had stayed home that fateful night to play Atari with his brothers? What if Reggie Lewis didn't find a doctor who told him wanted he wanted to hear? What if Darryl Stingley had heard Jack Tatum's footsteps? What if Normand Leveille hadn't had an undetected congenital brain condition? What if Harry Agganis, the Golden Greek, hadn't been stricken down? They're what-ifs that unfortunately can never be answered. But no one was tormented by a double dose of such terrible misfortune quite like Conigliaro.

On Jan. 9, 1982, Conigliaro was in town to interview for an opening as a color analyst alongside Ned Martin on the Channel 38 Red Sox telecasts. En route to Logan Airport after the interview -- he was said in retrospect to be the frontrunner for the job that eventually went to Bob Montgomery -- he suffered a massive heart attack. His brother and former Red Sox teammate Billy, who was driving him to the airport, raced to Mass General and was credited with saving his brother's life. But because Conigliaro's heart had stopped and his blood pressure had fallen to zero, he suffered significant brain damage, leaving him in what was initially described by doctors as a semi-conscious state, and later as a coma. He never recovered, living the remainder of his days under constant care at his parents' home in Nahant.

Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990. He was just 45 years old. Two days later, Dan Shaughnessy led his column with the following sentiment. It seems the appropriate way to end here today.

It seems impossible that Tony Conigliaro is dead. His was a life of infinite promise and the finality of his passing numbs the senses of Red Sox fans. Tony C was youth and hope. Always it seemed there would be another comeback.

Now he is gone and will be frozen in time -- forever tall, dark and handsome, a slugger for the ages . . .

* * *

As the snippets from Fitzgerald and Shaughnessy make clear (as if it wasn't already), there are many writers and journalists superior to me who did justice to Tony C's legacy through the years. Here are some other remembrances of his career from the Globe archives:

  • A timeline of Tony C's career and life.

  • Maureen Mullen's extended audio interviews with those who remember Tony C.

  • Bob Ryan's 2006 column on Conigliaro's beaning.

  • About Touching All The Bases

    Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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