Tony Conigliaro baseball cards

Remembering Tony C and the Impossible Dream

By Kevin Robbie | published Saturday, October 26, 2013 |
Thursday Review Contributing Writer

As of 1967, the Boston Red Sox had not won the American League pennant in 21 years. The Sox had even finished ninth in the ten-team league in 1966. The tenth-place team was the hated Yankees. The Sox were managed in ‘66 by Billy Herman, who had been a great defensive second baseman but perhaps out of his element as a manager. Attracting only 800,000 fans to venerable Fenway Park, the team ended the ’66 season eighth in attendance. The low point of the season regarding the turnstiles was June 4 when only 2,200 fans showed up to see a game against the Yankees. In the ten-team league before divisional play, the Red Sox played each opponent 18 times. In 1966, they won none of those series and tied only the Athletics and Angels.

But those ’66 Red Sox possessed three stars or budding stars: Pitcher Jim Lonborg and outfielders Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro. During the 1966 season, Lonborg won only ten games but was establishing himself as the team’s ace. Yastrzemski batted .278 with a .378 on-base percentage while drawing 84 walks. But Conigliaro, known in Boston as “Tony C,” was the hometown hero. He hit 29 home runs that season with 93 RBI’s. Upon hitting his 16th home run that season, Conigliaro became the youngest player in the history of the American League to reach 100 career home runs.

Conigliaro was born in Revere, Massachusetts in January, 1945, the oldest of three brothers. He was signed by the Red Sox in 1962, at the age of 17 and made his full-season debut in Boston in 1964 at the age of 19. Conigliaro batted .290 that rookie season and hit 24 home runs, establishing himself as a rising star. It didn’t hurt that he was a local boy, handsome and charismatic as well. Conigliaro was probably the most popular athlete in Boston at that time. With a local hero patrolling right field at Fenway who displayed prodigious power at the plate, Red Sox fans had a young, marketable star to cheer for in the midst of another dreary season. The 1964 Sox finished in eighth place.

In 1965, Conigliaro led the American League with 32 home runs, making him the youngest home run champion in American League history. He was already being compared to such players as Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson and people were predicting that, over a full career, Tony C. might hit 500 home runs. However, the 1965 edition of the Red Sox didn’t improve their record—they lost 100 games and finished in ninth place. They repeated their ninth place performance in 1966.

The 1967 season has become known as “The Impossible Dream” in the lore of Boston sports. The Sox won the American League pennant, their first since 1946, and progressed to the World Series. They also led the league in attendance. During most of the season they were in a four-way battle for first place with the Twins, Tigers and White Sox. During the course of the season, Conigliaro hit his 100th career home run at the age of 22.

On August 18, the Red Sox were in fourth place but only three games out of first place. They opened a four-game series against the California Angels at Fenway Park. The starting pitchers were Gary Bell for Boston and Jack Hamilton for the Angels. 31,000 fans were in attendance. Conigliaro had 20 home runs at that point in the season and was hitting .287. Although he had a reputation as a fearless hitter, Tony C. also had a knack for getting hit by pitches. The reason was because of his hitting style. He would crowd the plate and almost hang over it, defying the pitcher to throw inside. Conigliaro suffered a broken shoulder blade in spring training of 1967 due to being hit by a pitch. Back sooner than expected, he recovered and rejoined the lineup. He made his home debut on April 17 against the White Sox. He hit Joel Horlen’s first pitch out of Fenway Park.

As Conigliaro came up to bat in the fourth inning on the muggy night of August 18, there were two outs and nobody on base. Jack Hamilton, the Angels starter, had an acceptable reputation for throwing inside to batters. His first pitch to Conigliaro was a high, inside fastball. Conigliaro was crowding the plate, as was his custom. That pitch, however, would change his life.

Rico Petrocelli, Boston’s third baseman, was in the on-deck circle at that moment. In a book he later wrote, Petrocelli stated that he watched the pitch sail in on Conigliaro and he didn’t try to avoid the pitch until the last fraction of a second. It was too late. The ball hit Conigliaro in the face, just below his left eye. According to Petrocelli, the sound of the impact could be heard throughout the stadium. Petrocelli believed it was the sound of Conigliaro’s cheekbone breaking.

Conigliaro crumpled to the ground and the nearly full stadium became eerily quiet. Umpire Bill Valentine and Angels’ catcher Bob Rodgers looked down and noticed Conigliaro’s face swelling. He was also bleeding from his nose and ear. Hamilton trotted toward the plate to check on the fallen batter. He was warned away by Rodgers who said “Stay away, Jack, you don’t want to see this.” Trainers for the two teams called for a stretcher and carried the now unconscious Conigliaro to the clubhouse. When he regained consciousness shortly thereafter, he told the team doctor “all I heard was a hissing sound.”

At Sancta Maria hospital, doctors informed Conigliaro that he had a broken cheekbone and a dislocated jaw. His left eye had sustained significant damage and there was a reasonable chance he could lose sight in the eye. Photos of Conigliaro’s swollen face and injured eye were circulated throughout the media. Many fans who saw the pictures marveled that Conigliaro was still alive.

Conigliaro missed the remainder of the season. His team rallied and used his absence as their inspiration in winning the pennant. However, the dream season ended when the Red Sox lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. Conigliaro also missed the entire 1968 season during which the Sox still won 86 games but finished in fourth place.

The 1969 season was, perhaps, an “Impossible Dream” for Tony Conigliaro. He returned to the Red Sox for a successful season and was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year. With 20 home runs and 80 RBI’s, it seemed that Tony C. was back. The 1970 season was also successful for Conigliaro as he had a career-high 36 home runs and personal best 116 runs batted in.

Before the 1971 season began Conigliaro was traded, ironically, to the California Angels. He played in only 74 games, finishing with four home runs and a batting average of .222. Conigliaro was unhappy in Los Angeles and he missed Boston. He also had played since 1969 with essentially one eye. By 1971, the vision in his left eye had deteriorated to the point where Conigliaro was forced to retire. He attempted a comeback with Boston in 1975 but only appeared in 21 games before retiring again. He was 30 years old.

After his retirement, Conigliaro moved to San Francisco and became a sportscaster for station KGO. In 1982, he flew to Boston to interview for a position as a television analyst for the Red Sox. Afterwards, he felt the interview went well and asked his brother, Billy, to drive him back to the airport. During the ride, Tony had a heart attack. Billy sped to Massachusetts General, the nearest hospital but his brother was already unconscious by the time they reached the emergency room. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a stroke and lapsed for awhile into a coma.

Tony Conigliaro lived another eight years in the care of his parents and brothers. He died in February, 1990, at the age of 45. Since 1990, Major League Baseball presents annually the Tony Conigliaro Award to the player who best represents the attributes of courage, determination and overcoming obstacles. The award is presented in Boston during baseball’s winter meetings. Tony’s brothers, Billy and Richie, are members of the panel that determines the winner of the award.