Remembering Tony C

Remembering Tony Conigliaro

tonyc2With the Red Sox back in the World Series to face the St. Louis Cardinals again, I began revisiting the 1967 season when a similar improbable turnaround not only propelled the Red Sox to the World Series but against the Cardinals once again.

I was very familiar with the legend of Tony C (as he is called in New England) or so I thought.  I was unaware what a phenomenon he was on the field (not to mention a singer off the field) nor was I aware that his tragic beaning happened during the 1967 pennant race. Would Bob Gibson been so invincible had he had to pitch to Tony C?  Would the Boston faithful had to wait until 2004 with his bat alongside other Sox Hall of Famers like Yaz and Jim Rice?

When Bobby Valentine became manager of the Red Sox in 2012 he wore number 25 as a tribute to his former Angels teammate.  It is a shame it is not already retired.

Teen Slugger

In 1964, a 19-year old kid from Revere, Massachusetts stood for his first at bat as the rookie right-fielder for the struggling Boston Red Sox.  He hit a home run his first at bat.  He would go on to hit a lot of home runs. Tony Conigliaro batted .290 and hit 24 home runs (tying him for 24th in the majors along with Hank Aaron) in his rookie season.  This is still the record for most home runs by a teenager.  He did not get Rookie of the Year, however, as that honor went to Tony Oliva who was the AL batting champion (.323) and hit 32 home runs. In his second season he became the youngest player to lead the league in home runs with 32.

The Impossible Dream’s Nightmare

006272813finalBy 1967, he was an All-Star and became the youngest American League player to hit 100 home runs despite missing one out of six games.  (Mel Ott was two month younger when he did it for the New York Giants in 1931).  He was an important part of the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” season that led them back to the World Series for the first time since 1946, batting .287 and was on pace to hit 34 home runs (which would have put him 4th in the AL behind teammate and triple crown winner Carl Yazstremski).

But on August 18, 1967, with the Red Sox only 1.5 games out of first place, Conigliaro was hit by a pitch on his left cheekbone and was carried off the field on a stretcher. He sustained a linear fracture of the left cheekbone and a dislocated jaw with severe damage to his left retina.  His helmet offered no protection since he knocked it off as he tried to avoid the pitch. Third baseman Rico Petrocelli was on the on-deck circle and wrote in his memoir of that season Tales from the Impossible Dream Red Sox.

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I saw Hamilton’s first pitch coming in and knew it was head high. But Tony didn’t start to react until the last fraction of a second. Instinctively he threw up his hands to protect his head, but not nearly in time. The ball crashed into the side of his face with a sharp crack that I swear could have been heard clearly all over that noisy ballpark. It sounded like the ball hit his helmet, so my immediate reaction was relief that the ball had struck plastic instead of flesh. But the sound was probably his cheekbone breaking. In his desperate scramble to get out of the way of the ball, Tony had dislodged his helmet, and the ball struck him flush in the left side of his face, just below the eye socket.

Tony went down like he’d been clothes-lined by an NFL cornerback and didn’t move. Except for umpire Bill Valentine and catcher Bob Rodgers, I was first on the scene. I didn’t like what I saw. Tony’s face was swelling up like there was somebody inside his skull blowing up a balloon. The first thing I thought was he was going to lose his left eye. Blood was pouring out of his nose. I didn’t know what else to do, so I knelt down beside him, loosened his belt a little so he could breathe easier, and whispered into his ear that everything was going to be all right. By now the rest of the team had gathered around him, worried looks on all their faces. The crowd was hushed. Suddenly Tony’s legs kicked, as if in a belated reaction to what had just happened. He started to regain consciousness, but not all the way. It was obvious he was seriously injured.. . . . 

Tony was rushed across the Charles River to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge, where a neurosurgeon, Dr. Joseph Dorsey, was waiting to examine him. The diagnosis was a shattered cheekbone.  Doctors would have to wait until the swelling went down to determine if there was any permanent damage to his eye. Dr. Dorsey said that if the ball had struck Tony an inch higher and to the right, he might have been killed.

Ironically, Conigliaro was hit 47 years to the day after another potential future hall of famer, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, took a pitch from Carl Mays off the side of the head and died 12 hours later.

The Comeback

9781596701915_p0_v1_s260x420Conigliaro would miss the remainder of the season and all of 1968 before coming back in 1969.  With 20 home runs he won Comeback Player of the Year and finished 4th in home runs the next year with 36.   In 1971 the Red Sox traded Conigliaro to, of all teams, the California Angels.  He did not last there long, as by then his vision was deteriorating and he retired mid-season at the age of 26.

He mounted a brief comeback in 1975 that lasted 22 games.  I remember there was a lot of excitement over this and all of New England was pulling for their local hero.  Petrocelli recalls:

He was rusty and struggled. But a couple of encouraging games near the end of the exhibition season convinced the Red Sox to keep him, and he was the designated hitter on Opening Day at Fenway Park. . . . When Conigliaro approached the plate for his first at-bat, a leggy, well-dressed, attractive female admirer sashayed down from the grandstand into the box seats and tossed a bouquet of red roses onto the field. At the age of 30 Tony still had the looks, the charisma, and the personality. But his talent had eroded

Tony C almost made another comeback with the Red Sox, but this time as Red Sox announcer.   He had flown to Boston to interview for the job and as his brother Billy  (also a former Red Sox) drove him to Logan Airport he said he was optimistic about his chances.  Conigliaro then suffered a massive heart attack en route.   He was in a coma by the time Billy brought to the hospital and remained in a coma for months.  He never fully recovered and died of kidney failure at age 45 in 1990.

The What If?

According to Sabremetrics (used by BaseballReference.com), the players he was most similar to by age were:

  • Age 20 – Bryce Harper- the Washington Nationals current All-Star phonom;
  • Age 21 – Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle;
  • Age 22 – Hall of Famer Frank Robinson
  • Age 24 – Six-time All Star Jose Canseco

tony-conigliaro-eye-injury-hit-by-pitchHartford Courant writer Dom Amore calls Tony C “baseball’s ultimate story of promise unfulfilled.”  Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan (who was at Fenway Park that fateful August night) recalls

Tony Conigliaro was enormously talented. Please remember, when he came back in 1969 after missing the final six weeks of the 1967 season and all of the 1968 season, he was fooling us all. He hit 20 homers and drove in 82 to become the logical winner of the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and he followed that up with 36-116 production in 1970. And then the Red Sox traded him! Don’t get me started on that one. OK, did they know he was doing it with one eye? I don’t think so. If they did, they sure didn’t tell the Angels. My only point is that he was doing it with one eye, and there aren’t enough laudatory adjectives to describe that achievement. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a man who could do that against major league pitching with one eye and who already had more than 100 homers in the books before age 23 was going to have a pretty good career. No, I don’t think we’re exaggerating anything. Tony C was going to Cooperstown the night he was hit, and he wasn’t going to have any need to buy a ticket when he got there, if you know what I mean.

ESPN ranked Conigliaro 28th on the Greatest 100 Red Sox of all time. Following his death, the Red Sox created a Tony Conigliaro award to a major leaguer who overcomes an obstacle. The first recipient, Jim Eisenreich, played 15 years in the majors with Tourette Syndrome, and most of those who followed overcame illness or injury.

When Bobby Valentine became manager of the Red Sox in 2012 he wore number 25 as a tribute to his former Angels teammate.  It is a shame it is not already retired.

tonyccoverThe Tony C Story

Screenwriter and Massachusetts native Bruce Fitzpatrick has written a novel based on Conigliaro entitled “The Tony Conigliaro Story“.  The book was well received:

  • “The Tony Conigliaro Story is highly recommended, particularly for those of Red Sox Nation.” – Bruce Markusen, Senior Executive, MLB Hall of Fame
  • “I loved it! So much I didn’t know. What a crazy story. You did a terrific job with it. I wish more young fans today knew exactly how good he really was! Thanks again!” – Jay Crawford, Sports Anchor, ESPN Fenway Nation.

I heard through the grapevine that there is talk of a movie which would be appropriate since the Tony C tragedy is similar in some respects to the Maurice Stokes story which also made it to the big screen.

The video below is from a promo for an interview with Fitzpatrick, followed by a short video interview with Fitzpatrick.

In addition, there is an ESPN Documentary on Tony C.

I did a segment on One Story about Tony C in 2015.

Career Stats

Year Age Tm G HR RBI BA Awards
1964 19 BOS 111 24 52 .290
1965 20 BOS 138 32 82 .269 MVP-33
1966 21 BOS 150 28 93 .265 MVP-28
1967 ★ 22 BOS 95 20 67 .287 AS
1968 Did not play in major or minor leagues (Injured)
1969 24 BOS 141 20 82 .255
1970 25 BOS 146 36 116 .266
1971 26 CAL 74 4 15 .222
1975 30 BOS 21 2 9 .123
8 Yrs 876 166 516 .264
162 Game Avg. 162 31 95 .264
BOS (7 yrs) 802 162 501 .267
CAL (1 yr) 74 4 15 .222
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2015.

Tony C Award Recipients

Year Player Team Adversity overcome
1990 Jim Eisenreich Kansas City Royals Tourette syndrome
1991 Dickie Thon Philadelphia Phillies A 1984 beaning very similar to the one that shortened Conigliaro’s career
1992 Jim Abbott California Angels Born without a right hand
1993 Bo Jackson Chicago White Sox Hip replacement surgery in 1992
1994 Mark Leiter California Angels Death of 9-month-old son to Werdnig-Hoffman disease during offseason
1995 Scott Radinsky Chicago White Sox Hodgkin’s disease
1996 Curtis Pride Montreal Expos Born deaf
1997 Eric Davis Baltimore Orioles Diagnosed with colon cancer early that season
1998 Bret Saberhagen Boston Red Sox Serious shoulder injuries
1999 Mike Lowell Florida Marlins Testicular cancer
2000^ Kent Mercker Anaheim Angels Cerebral hemorrhage
2000^ Tony Saunders Tampa Bay Devil Rays Broke arm while throwing a pitch
2001^ Graeme Lloyd Montreal Expos Arthroscopic shoulder surgery in 2000, and the death of his wife from Crohn’s disease
2001^ Jason Johnson Baltimore Orioles Type 1 diabetes that required Johnson to wear an insulin pump on the field
2002 José Rijo Cincinnati Reds Elbow injuries that sidelined him for five years
2003 Jim Mecir Oakland Athletics Born with two club feet
2004 Dewon Brazelton Tampa Bay Devil Rays Reconstructive knee surgery and Tommy John surgery while in high school
2005 Aaron Cook Colorado Rockies Blood clots in both lungs
2006 Freddy Sanchez Pittsburgh Pirates Born with a club foot (right) and a severely pigeon-toed foot (left)
2007 Jon Lester Boston Red Sox Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006
2008 Rocco Baldelli Tampa Bay Rays Diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder that causes chronic muscle fatigue
2009 Chris Carpenter St. Louis Cardinals Had Tommy John surgery and nerve problems in his throwing arm
2010 Joaquín Benoit Tampa Bay Rays Sat out a year after a rotator cuff tear
2011 Tony Campana Chicago Cubs Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a child
2012 R.A. Dickey New York Mets Child sexual abuse, pitches without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm

2 thoughts on “Remembering Tony C

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