Tony Conigliaro Forty Years Later
By Shaun L. Kelly, Greenwich, CT.
Forty years ago. 14,600 sunrises have come and gone. And yet, for those of us who were around in the early spring of 1964 - the times then seemed to scrape our collective hearts. After all, we had only recently experienced a cataclysmic tragedy that had cast a tangible aurora of gloom over the Bay State and beyond.
After President John F. Kennedy had lost his life in the glare of Dealy Plaza in Dallas, a genuine pall set over the region that winter. Political reporter Mary McGrory, a Bostonian - and Irish to the core - was supposed to have said on Air Force One, "We'll never laugh again," as the president's plane flew back to Washington from Texas. For those of us residing in Massachusetts, it seemed as if our beloved Commonwealth was in a perpetual state of purgatory; our parents walked around in unyielding, comatose stares as they attempted to sort out the meaning of Jack Kennedy's murder. Truly, the assassination hurt most in the greater Boston area - the martyred president was, after all, "one of our own."
Happily, the communal melancholy was somewhat diminished - at least in the minds of the young - by the advent of a quartet of musicians from Liverpool, England who débuted on the Ed Sullivan Show that February. The black-and-white avante garde pictures of the four Beatles on their unveiling album in the States served as an elixir for New England's youth; we began to rediscover the bounce in our collective steps as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There" made its way to the top of the 1510 WMEX survey as introduced by Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg. The days grew warmer, and our hearts began to beat once more.
Still, as the Red Sox began to assemble in Scottsdale, Arizona in early March 1964, only the most passionate of fans seemed to take notice. After all, they were the Red Sox - baseball's updated version of the St. Louis Browns. They were perennial, lovable losers who were forever blowing games by 11-10 scores. Indeed, the franchise had accumulated enough 90-plus losing seasons to have developed an appropriate nickname, "The Red Flops". But there were enough of us who were either too ignorant or dense to dismiss them as a passion. As a nine-year-old, whenever I heard the jingle - "You're just in time/for the ballgame/You're just in time/for excitement and fun/WHDH has reserved your place/We're glad you could make it/We know you'll have fun/Here's Curt Gowdy standing by/The "Voice of the Red Sox"/A real nice guy...." - a surge of adrenalin always resulted. I was still guileless enough at the time to feel an air of excitement when they played.
In 1964, Johnny Pesky was once again the manager of the squad, a team that consisted of the reigning American League Batting Champion, Carl Yastrzemski, and the majors' most prominent reliever, Dick "The Monster" Radatz. For the few of us who were listening to the occasional spring training game from the Arizonian desert, one name seemed to be on the lips of announcers Curt Gowdy, Ned Martin, and Art Gleason that March - Anthony Richard Conigliaro. In a region where tribal affiliation has always meant a lot, here was another "one of our own." He was only nineteen at the time, a right-handed hitter and outfielder who possessed a faultless, transcendent swing seeming designed especially for Fenway Park itself. Tony Conigliaro had graduated from St. Mary's High School in Lynn less than two years before but had spent most of his life in the back alleys of East Boston. The lyrical Ned Martin soon began describing the teenager as a "New England thoroughbred who just might possess the right mix to paint permanent smiles on the faces of Red Sox fans". We all waited - impatiently - for young Conigliaro's arrival north.
As March faded into early April, the Boston nine made their home debut that year after a series with the Yankees at the Stadium. To the surprise of very few observers, Tony had made the team at the end of Spring Training and was inserted in right field in the Bronx on Opening Day. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had decided to honor its most prominent departed fan by calling the inaugural game to be played that year at Fenway Park as "John F. Kennedy Day". We could never seem to say goodbye.
I rushed home from school early that afternoon in order to witness the festivities firsthand on the Red Sox television station at the time - WHDH TV - Channel 5. I soon noticed that the field was sheathed in the brilliant hue of the springtime sun, a "scrubbed up" afternoon, the kind of day that Jack Kennedy loved to sail the Honey Fitz along the azure waters of Nantucket Sound.
As every Sox player was introduced, an amicable smattering of applause could be heard. Each player seemed to be forgiven for the previous year's sins. Interestingly, the biggest reception was reserved for Tony Conigliaro, the hometown kid, who ended up receiving a tumultuous response from the Fenway faithful as he trotted out to the first base line. Afterwards, as the team sprinted out onto the grass, Conigliaro hustled towards right field, his newly assigned patch of turf at the old park on Jersey Street.
The starting pitcher on that gorgeous April afternoon for the Red Sox was none other than number 36, Jack "The Old Tomato" Lamabe, a journeyman pitcher who would hurl the game of his life that day. Given his memorable nickname by Johnny Pesky because of his infatuation for pizza, Lamabe was called on to pitch the only opening day game of his eight-year career in the majors. As I witnessed the proceedings from my home in Wellesley, little did I know that Jack Lamabe would play a prominent part in my future - he would serve as both my coach and mentor in college ten years down the road.
After "Tomato" dispatched the Chicago nine efficiently over the first few batters, my mind began to reflect on the significance of Tony Conigliaro's first at bat at Fenway. As someone who had devoured every John R. Tunis baseball novel in existence at the time, my heart was absolutely pulsating as young Conigliaro approached home plate for the first time at home. Through the glare of spring sun and cigarette smoke, public address announcer Sherm Feller's treasured voice clipped through the haze: "And now batting for the Red Sox.... number 25..... Tony Conigliaro.....right field.....Conigliaro." Chills began to consume me as Tony dropped an array of weighted bats he had been swinging on the on-deck circle and began to finger his own particular Excalibur, a thirty-four inch long Louisville Slugger.
I took a deep breath and smiled as I heard as a genuine wave of appreciation reassuringly begin to envelop him - a warm cocoon for the native son as he approached home plate for the first time in a big league uniform.
I listened and watched intently as Curt Gowdy described on television Tony's methodical approach as he neared the batter's circle. After he had settled into the home plate area, Conigliaro took a practice swing and then got into his stance - his feet wide apart, his arms forming a circle as his hands cupped the bat close to his head. He pointed his bat at the pitcher and waited for the pitch, rearming again when the hurler took too long. His stance seemed to encompass the plate; his head hung over home plate itself. The opposing pitcher delivered the ball as I watched with hopeful eyes from our living room in Wellesley as the ball darted toward home plate, belt high.
Tony's swing was deliberate, a savage punch through the air as the ball met the barrel of his 33 ounce bat. From my lens, the ball seemed to leap off his bat as he extended his arms and followed through, his eyes already looking toward the thirty-nine foot green wall in left. The quintessential pull hitter had just pulled a fastball high over the leftfielder's head. The eyes of New England collectively watched as the projectile began to sprout into an elegant arch and sailed high over the screen. As Conigliaro rounded the first base bag, he realized that he had hit a towering homerun on the first pitch in his first at bat at Fenway Park.
I jumped up and down in my living room just twelve miles from the Fens as Tony gleefully circled the bases. Among those applauding the young hero as he pranced around the infield that afternoon were President Kennedy's parents, his widow, Jacqueline, and the Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy. John R Tunis, indeed.
Thus began the myth of Tony Conigliaro, the young man from Massachusetts whose career was launched on John F. Kennedy Day and who partially replaced Jack Kennedy in the hearts and minds of thousands and thousands of native Bay Staters. Before long, the literate Ned Martin had bestowed upon him two nicknames - "Tony C." and "Conig". Within a year, Conigliaro had developed a following worthy of such other Massachusetts legends as Harry Agganis and Rocky Marciano. He was leading all American League rookies in both hitting and homeruns until he fractured his arm in August 1964. In 1965, he recorded an upbeat pop song, "Playing the Field," a Freddie Cannon-like rocker that received considerable air time on WMEX and WBZ, the two most renowned rock stations in Boston at the time. Because of his exploits both on and off the field, Conig soon appeared on both "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and disc jockey Murray the K's national radio show in New York. He even had a few dates with a genuine Playboy icon - the voluptuous Mamie Van Doren.
On television, Tony C. turned out to be a most lucid interviewee - a genuine favorite of local sportscaster, Don Gillis. Each time he appeared on Channel 5, Conigliaro spoke in a supple baritone shaded by a distinct New England-accented tone. His demeanor was decidedly oxymoronic - an inescapable brazenness coupled with salient humility. By April 1965, the girls in my fourth grade class in Wellesley began to talk about Tony's "gorgeous brown eyes". The boys in my class - including me - began imitating Conig's classic signature stance. One could attend a Little League game that year and observe twelve or thirteen boys trying to out emulate one another with their own original interpretation of the Conigliaro stance and swing.
Tony C. ended his second season with aplomb - he led the American League in homeruns with 32 round-trippers. He also began to foster an emerging reputation as a brilliant fielder. Early on, Mickey Mantle was quoted as saying, "That kid out there is very close to approaching Al Kaline - he's that good as a fielder." Longtime Red Sox fans liked the fact that Conigliaro seemed to play the game hard no matter what the score was at the time. He would never, ever be accused of dogging it - his heart would not permit it. In the end, Tony seemed to have as many hits as the Beatles during that time - both the group and Conig were truly relentless that year. Tony Conigliaro was just twenty years old.
Beginning in the summer of 1964, I embarked on a five-season stint as the head bat boy for the Orleans Cardinals of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Because my grandfather resided in the town of Eastham, just north of Orleans, I ended up spending the months of June, July, and August at the majestic ball field adjacent to the old Nauset Regional High School. Consequently, I followed much Tony Conigliaro's early career through the reassuring voices of Ned Martin, Curt, Gowdy, and later on, Ken Coleman. Obviously, the numerous Red Sox games broadcast on 850 WHDH radio, became the soundtrack to our summers within the house. Everyone in my family seemed to pause whenever Tony Conigliaro made a plate appearance; a homerun or a glorious play in right field was invariably received by a succession of hosannas throughout all four corners of my grandfather's cottage.
Still, I did manage to see Tony's exploits, firsthand, on approximately fifteen occasions at Fenway between 1964 and 1967. On one sun-splashed afternoon, my father and I watched transfixed as Conig took batting practice prior to a game with the Twins. Until I actually witnessed Mark McGuire smack thirteen prodigious homeruns in the 1999 Homerun Hitting Contest the evening before the All-Star Game, Tony's prowess that afternoon remained the Gold Standard. In the end, he hit eight blasts over the screen - with two projectiles hitting the left-centerfield light tower. My dad, who had seen the great Babe Ruth play in his younger days at Fenway, whispered to me after Tony had left the batting cage, "Only Jimmy Foxx could have hit like Tony C. just did. This kid is a future Hall-of-Famer."
In May 1965, I was invited by my childhood friend, Trevor Gowdy, to sit in the broadcast booth as his father and Ned Martin described the action. For a fervent Red Sox fan, this was nothing less than viewing a game from Mount Olympus. I ended up sitting next to engineer Al Walker, who even gave me an extra headset to wear. Mr. Gowdy, who was always the most cordial of men, chatted with us between innings, as did the gracious Ned Martin. I was truly gratified - even relieved - to discover that Mr. Martin turned out to be same generous man off the air as he was on the air. I was also thrilled to watch Tony C. hit two moon shots into the screen that splendid afternoon. Ned Martin was lucky enough to have described both homeruns. At the close of the recap, Mr. Martin turned to me and asked, "So Shaun, who is your favorite on the team?"
"Tony, of course," I replied.
"Me too," Martin rejoined with a wink.
In the summer of 1966, as Tony Conigliaro continued to develop into a heralded major league player, I rejoined the Orleans Cardinals in June, as the third summer of my bat boy experience lay before me. On the team that season were two brothers from rural New Hampshire, Calvin and Carlton Fisk. Calvin played first base while Pudge served as our catcher. Since I spent so much time with the squad during those three months, the Cardinal players were decent enough to let a certain eleven-year-old have some fun as well during practices. Even then, I was strictly a left-handed pitcher, so Carlton let me throw to him off the mound. Because I had only tossed from a Wellesley Little League diamond previously, the first time I ever flung a baseball from sixty-feet, six-inches was to Carlton "Pudge" Fisk. Inevitably, he and his brother soon began calling me Koufax. Once, at the old ballpark in Chatham, they even let my take a few swipes in the batting cage. "Hey look, fellas," shouted Calvin Fisk, "Koufax bats like Tony C.!"
As the 1967 Sprint Training began in Winter Haven, Florida, Tony Conigliaro was a three-year veteran, an All-Star with a boundless future. After finishing one-half game ahead of the last place Yankees in 1966, the Bosox had replaced manager Mike Higgins with Conig's first Red Sox roommate, the blistering Dick Williams. The Sox' new skipper had successfully managed the team's triple A team in Toronto in 1966 and brashly proclaimed, "We will win more than we lose," when he was announced as Boston's new manager in December 1966. Still, the vast majority of fans were rightly skeptical as the season began.
Thus, on Opening Day, only 8,234 fans greeted the Red Sox as they played their first game of the season at the Fens. In the end, they won a 5-4 contest behind the starting pitching of Jim Lonborg, the power hitting of Rico Petrocelli, and the superb fielding of Tony Conigliaro who made a brilliant stab in right field on a ball smoked by Ron Hansen with one out in the ninth.
As usual, I made it home from school in time to see the proceedings. The losing pitcher that afternoon was none other than a certain journeyman right-hander, Chicago's Jack Lamabe. Later that year, "The Old Tomato" would be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. In August, he would be named the National League Player for the month for his stellar work out of the Cardinals bullpen. In the 1967 World Series, Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for St. Louis at Fenway in the sixth game of the Series. Thus, Jack Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for the Red Sox' first and last wins of that historic season.
"I never really liked Yaz for a variety of reasons, but I still closely followed Tony's career," Lamabe told me years later at Jacksonville University, where he served as my head coach of the varsity baseball team from 1973 until 1977. Even then, ten seasons after he had last played with Conigliaro, Lamabe's eyes lit up whenever I brought up his name. "What a hitter," Coach admitted to me once at dinner in 1974. "Tony had that classic stroke. As a pitcher, he put the fear of God into you. And yet, he was also an excellent base runner and a superb fielder who had an absolute cannon for an arm. When I was on the mound for the Sox, I always knew that Tony would get to that ball in the corner. He willed his way to it. He was the best teammate one could have - he was always supportive, enthusiastic - just loved the game. He would do anything to win." When Dwight Evans made his extraordinary catch off of Joe Morgan in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, Lamabe motioned to me at fall practice the next day. "Did you see Dwight Evans last night, Shaun? Tony would have done that! Evans pulled a Conigliaro."
As both Tony C. and the Red Sox began to soar in the first six weeks of 1967, we Boston fans began to enter The Twilight Zone; the perpetual losers were now playing like proverbial winners. My father, still embittered that his Braves had suddenly departed for Milwaukee fifteen seasons before, finally began to passionately follow the Red Sox because, as he admitted, "they are actually playing a National League style of ball now." Daddy's favorite, "his boy" - became second baseman Mike Andrews, who always played with both his head and his heart. As you might expect, Tony Conigliaro was already firmly ensconced at the top of my personal Everest.
In mid-May, after the Red Sox had closed to within a couple of games of first place, I began to look closely at the 1967 schedule that adorned my bedroom wall, next to a picture of my latest Boston sports hero, a certain crew- cut-haired teenager named Bobby Orr. When I observed that the Sox had a home game against the best team in the league, the feared Minnesota Twins, on the last day of the season, October 1st, I ran down to my father's study. "Dad," I shouted, "do you think that Mr. O'Connell can get us tickets to the game on October 1st? I have a feeling it might be an important one." Dad and Dick O'Connell, the team's general manager at the time, were old Navy friends who had served in the South Pacific during World War II.
"I'll call Dick tomorrow," Dad replied. "He will surely like your optimism, son."
Ten days later, I received an envelope in the mail with a Red Sox insignia adorning the front. When I tore it open, four tickets tumbled out onto the floor. Inside the envelope was a short note. "Dear Shaun," it read, "I wish all Red Sox fans had your faith. May these tickets bring you great joy. Sincerely, Dick O'Connell."
As we packed for another summer on Cape Cod, Dad kept the tickets "in his special drawer" in Wellesley. The 1967 Orleans Cardinals had another talented squad, battling with their arch-rivals, the Chatham Red Sox, for first place throughout the sun-drenched weeks of the Cape season. With Pudge gone, the best catcher in the Cape Cod League that summer was a determined young man from Ohio named Thurman Munson. He played with a ferocious style that made us all sit up and take notice. I detested his perpetual sneer and rejoiced every time the Cardinals defeated Chatham that year.
As was our custom on the Cape, we listened to each and every Red Sox game on radio - and watched whatever games were televised on Channel 5. Because that season was so riveting in the end, I can still replay in my mind scores and scores of highlights from nearly every game, including an extra-innings homerun by Tony Conigliaro that pulled the Red Sox into first place in late June for a spell.
We also listened to the radio the night that the Angels' Jack Hamilton hit Tony in the face, nearly killing him in the process. Eventually, I got an eye-witness account of the tragedy after I had befriended a longtime usher who had frequented the bleachers since the early '40's. The attendant, a portly curmudgeon we always called, "The Whale", gave me the particulars as I watched a game with him from centerfield in July 1969. "Just as Tony was about to hit, some @#%$ let off a smoke bomb which encircled the field in no time," the Whale informed me. "It took about five minutes for the smoke to settle. During that time, Jack Hamilton never even warmed up. When the smoke finally cleared, he threw a high fastball to Tony. The kid never had a chance. The sickening thing about it was the fact that when the ball struck Tony's cheek, it sounded like a loud clap. I knew he was badly injured."
I was obviously bereft after Conig's injury but was also swept up into the pennant fever that was sweeping like a warm breeze across New England that year. The initial word from the Red Sox was that Tony C. would miss the rest of the season but would be back in fine form in 1968. Still, The Boston Herald published a photograph of Tony a few days after he was struck, his left eye socket closed, his face bloated and black. My father, who opened the paper first that morning gasped from the kitchen, "Jesus." He silently handed me the paper.
Despite the tragedy, I wasn't too vexed for Tony, just upset that he couldn't be a part of what had become the Red Sox version of a Magical Mystery Tour. In my mind, Conig would return to the club as good as new in 1968. Days after Tony's injury, the astute Dick O'Connell was able to sign Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson from the Kansas City Athletics after a dispute with owner Charlie Finley on an airplane over the Great Plains. Even though Conigliaro's season was over, the Sox had not given up. In the end, Carl Michael Yastrzemski would not let the Red Sox fail.
On the last weekend of the season, four teams were impossibly within one-half game of one another for the American League title. My farfetched epiphany in early May had actually been realized. On the last Friday, the White Sox were swept in a doubleheader by a rejuvenated Kansas City team that featured such future superstars as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi. The next afternoon, the Sox defeated an injured Jim Kaat and the Twins at Fenway.
Sunday, October 1st, 1967. My father, brother, and I arrived some ninety minutes before game time. As we took our seats, we all began to smirk; Dick O'Connell had indeed been generous - we were sitting in the ninth row of the box seats directly adjacent to the Red Sox batting circle! Instinctively, I noticed that a large group of youngsters had formed a semi-circle around the backstop. I scuttled down there, pencil and program in hand, and soon saw what the commotion was about. Wearing an NBC blazer and signing autographs for a few lucky kids was none other than the great Koufax himself. Sandy was serving as the colorman for Curt Gowdy's national broadcast that day. Just as I arrived at the back of the circle, the former Dodger hurler looked up and said to all of us, "Sorry, boys, but I've gotta go. I need to conduct an interview."
"Sandy!" I called out in panic. "But I read your book with Ed Linn!"
"Who said that?" Koufax shouted out to the group.
"I did," I retorted.
"Well, son, I'll sign for you then."
As Koufax rolled my program through the backstop screen, I checked to make sure that he really had signed it. In a steady hand, he had scrawled his name, "Sandy Koufax", with the pencil I had given him on the back of the scorecard. He then slowly walked out to a spot near the batting circle, a microphone in his hand. Koufax was clearly about to tape an interview. The entire group of boys around the batting caged soon noticed his appointed interviewee who slowly made his way from the Red Sox dugout. We all exploded as we recognized him. "Tony! Tony!" How are you, Tony?" we all shouted.
"Hi, boys," Conig turned to us. "We're gonna win this won today. Right?"
"Right you are, Tony!" we replied in unison.
Tony gave us a little wave and then began a short interview with Sandy Koufax as the autumn sun began to drip is splotches over the infield.
Three-and-a-half hours later, as I gripped the program with Sandy Koufax's autograph on the back cover, my father and I instinctively hugged one another as shortstop Rico Petrocelli enclosed a dying quail from Rich Reese to end the game. My Red Sox had won the pennant! Within an instant, every Red Sox player rushed out onto the green diamond to smother pitcher Jim Lonborg. Only one player remained behind, Tony Conigliaro, who reportedly had tears in his eyes, watching in silence as his teammates made their way out to join the emerging pandemonium that was forming around the pitcher's mound.
My family stayed at the old ballpark for several minutes after the final out, drinking the nectar of pure elation. When my father nudged me and stated that we needed to go, I pleaded with him, "Dad, wait, I need to remember this moment forever. Let me look for just one more minute, okay?" Eventually, we crept out of a nearly abandoned Fenway Park - the shouts of thousands of revelers could be heard outside on Jersey Street - and away from the scene that had convinced an entire region of people that the impossible was not just a dream.
As Spring Training 1968 approached, reports began to surface from Winter Haven that Tony C. was experiencing difficulty "picking up" the ball. Actually, a hole had formed in his retina; Conig was partly blind his left eye. He stayed behind in Florida as the team headed north. When word spread that he was attempting to make the team as a pitcher, a pit began to form in my stomach. I knew something was terribly wrong with Conig. Later that spring, as I began my first season playing in the Babe Ruth League in Wellesley, my father attended my first game. In the end, I pitched a complete game, a seven-inning shutout, but he still looked concerned as he put his arm around me at the end of the contest. "Why did you seem to flinch when you batted? You were always so aggressive."
I gulped and looked at Dad for a long time. "Because of Tony. I'm scared of the ball now."
Several thousand boys seemed to recoil in the batter's box that spring in New England, the memory of Tony Conigliaro's shattered face etched permanently in their memories.
By the middle of the summer, Conig's future in baseball seemed uncertain at best. We heard that he was undergoing a series of treatments to improve his eyesight after his pitching experiment had failed. Whenever I thought of Tony at that time, a wave of melancholy usually resulted.
Spring Training 1969. Tony Conigliaro attempted another comeback, this time as an outfielder. The word out of Winter Haven was that "Tony's eyesight had returned to normal." By late March, Dick Williams announced that Conig would be returning to right field, forcing the popular Hawk Harrelson to eventually be traded to Cleveland. Making the Red Sox that spring as well was Conigliaro's twenty-one-year-old brother, Billy. I waited impatiently for the Opening Day of the season to commence - a day affair in Baltimore.
Once again, Mom let me come home early from school. My heart was in my throat as Tony was introduced as the starting right fielder during the pre-game warm-ups. As he approached home plate for the first time in nearly a year-and-a-half in the big leagues, he received a tremendous ovation from the Orioles' fans. In the tenth inning of that first game, Conig came up to the plate for the fifth time in the contest. On a 1-1 pitch, he launched a tremendous homer to left off of Baltimore reliever, Dave Leonard. When I realized that the ball was gone, I unleashed a primal scream unmatched until Super Bowl XXXVI. Tony sailed around the bases and was mugged in the dugout by his teammates. Dick Williams gave him a peck on the cheek. In my mind, only Dave Henderson's dramatic homerun in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 1986 ALCS Series has ever surpassed it for both drama and emotion. Ned Martin said later that he almost felt like crying as he watched Tony sprint around the base paths. The Great Conigliaro was back.
Still, it was obvious that Tony was struggling at times to pick up the ball. Little did we know that Tony's vision had not healed completely - there was still a blind spot in his left eye - a perilous situation for someone who tried to make a living as a baseball slugger. During the first few games that were played at the Fens that year, the Red Sox administration began to comprehend that Tony C. could barely pick up the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand with so many Red Sox fans wearing light tee-shirts in the background.
Back then, the centerfield seats behind the television camera were open to the public - $1.50 a ticket. In May, the Red Sox announced that from then on, patrons would be expected to wear black or Navy blue attire in that part of the bleachers. For agreeing to such a proposal, each participant would receive an engraved card, stating that he or she was a member in good standing of "Conig's Corner". I soon became a regular member, sitting out in centerfield at least fifty times in both 1969 and 1970. Manning that unique section both years was the legendary usher, "The Whale", who made sure that Tony C. had the proper backdrop as he approached home plate.
Scores of New Englanders, resourceful if not inventive, began to tote two shirts with them if they planned on sitting in "Conig's Corner". When the Red Sox came out to bat, a large flock of customers would adorn their dark-blue shirts or sweaters, depending on the weather. However, when the opposing team came to bat, many of us whipped out white tee-shirts and put them on over our dark ones, hoping that it would somehow help the traditionally run-of-the-mill Sox pitching staff.
Tony was always gracious to us in "Conig's Corner", waving to us regularly as he took his familiar spot in right field. A young woman from the North Shore habitually began to serenade Tony C. as he made his way to the outfield. She used the melody of the old Beatles' fan song and inserted instead Conigliaro's name: "We lo-ov-ve you, Tony....oh yes, we doo-ooo-ooo...." Once after Conig hit a prodigious homerun to left, he sprinted out to right field, turned around to face us, and made an elegant bow with a twist of his arm. We loved him for that.
For two years, Tony Conigliaro continued to defy science, hitting a career high forty homeruns in 1970. Our little world was therefore jolted when on October 11th, 1970, the Red Sox announced they had traded Tony C. to the California Angels for - among others - Jarvis and Ken Tatum. "We just cornered the market on Tatums," my despondent father muttered as he threw down The Globe the day after the trade was announced. I could barely talk as I walked to school that morning. My hero was now an Angel. "Conig's Corner" was soon quietly disbanded.
The following summer, Tony Conigliaro and the California Angels came to town to play the Red Sox. Reflexively, I lined up to purchase one bleacher ticket two hours before game time. As I made my way toward the old "Conig's Corner", I noticed "The Whale" checking people's clothing. He was going to make damn sure that Tony still had the right background to hit from - even though he was now wearing an enemy uniform. While patrons in the old "Conig's Corner" had been wearing white while the Angels were batting, they quickly changed to black and Navy blue as Tony approached home plate for the first time. He received a two-minute standing ovation from the Fenway faithful. When he sprinted out to his familiar spot in right field for the first time that day, we rose as one and began calling out to him. He turned around and blew us a kiss. Eventually, the crowd quieted down and the game commenced. Slowly, sadly, a familiar refrain could be heard coming from his old corner: "We lo-ov-ove you, Tony, oh yes we doo-ooo-ooo." Even "The Whale" brushed away a few tears. Conig turned around and waved to us all. At the end of that season, he retired from baseball, saying that his eyesight had deteriorated. The word on the street, however, was that he was lonely out in California. He needed us as much as we needed him.
Two years after Tony C. retired, I enrolled at Jacksonville University and secured a spot on the varsity baseball team. When I met Jack Lamabe for the first time, I impulsively barked, "Coach, you pitched a hell of a game on John F. Kennedy Day back in '64!"
He looked stunned. "Shaun, I haven't heard anyone tell me that in a long, long time." Over the course of the next four years, I would spend hundreds of hours with the former Red Sox hurler. Because of his palpable baseball connections, Coach Lamabe would eventually bring in several baseball luminaries to talk to us including Robin Roberts, Ted Simmons, and most memorably, Theodore Samuel Williams
When the Spendid Splinter showed up during a practice session one year, he informed me that I was incorrectly throwing my slider. After repairing the flaw, Teddy Ballgame looked me in the eyes and roared, "Son, now when you go back to Boston, I want you to tell your friends that Ted F--king Williams taught you how to throw a f--king slider." I couldn't wait to get to the telephone to tell my dad the story.
In the winter of 1975, I ran to Coach Jack Lamabe's office one morning after I heard on the radio the astounding news that Tony Conigliaro was going to attempt to make a celebrated comeback with the Red Sox after a four year absence from baseball. Lamabe's eyes blinked a few times as Conig's former teammate took in the fact that number 25 was going to give it another shot. "Oh, I hope Tony can make it," Coach Lamabe sighed. "He deserves all the success in the world."
I cheered Tony from afar that spring as it was announced that he had beaten out the talented Jim Ed Rice as the team's designated hitter. My heart nearly burst when I heard the accounts of the spirited reception he received at Fenway on Opening Day 1975 from my emotional, aroused father on the phone. I burst into Coach Lamabe's office to tell him the news. "Conig's Corner is back in business!" I bellowed. The Old Tomato's smile spoke worlds.
In mid-May, I returned home to Wellesley from Jacksonville absolutely determined to see Tony C. hit once again at the Fens. The old centerfield section where Conig's Corner had once held forth was now permanently closed by the Red Sox in hopes that a dark green background would provide a safe backdrop for both teams. Still, I wore a black jersey the first game back in the bleachers upon my return to old ballpark. "The Whale" greeted me effusively, remarking, "Kell, a lot of your old friends are here as well!" I glanced at the centerfield stands and realized that a gaggle of "Conig's Corner" veterans were all there, still rooting with all of their fervor for the kid from Eastie.
As the game began, I adjusted my transistor radio to my ear, listening to the affirming voices of Ned Martin and Jim "Possum" Woods - the preeminent broadcasting duo in Boston over the years. When I look back on that night now, I am most appreciative of the fact that I was able to hear "The Possum" broadcast what would one of Tony's last appearances in a Red Sox uniform.
As my ear was pressed against my tiny transistor in the bleachers, it was almost surreal when Conig sauntered to home plate and immediately crouched in his distinctive stance, waiting for the pitch, his bat held upright. The luminous left-handed flame-thrower, Vida Blue, was pitching for the Athletics that night when Tony connected on a monstrous homerun that went over the screen and landed onto Lansdowne Street. I can report here that the last homerun of Tony's career - the 166th - mirrored his first. The crowd reacted as if Bobby Orr had just scored another Stanley Cup-winning goal. After several moments, my "Conig's Corner" friends high-fived each other as number 25 took his seat on the bench. A few days later, Tony Conigliaro was sent down to Pawtucket, never to return to the Big Leagues. The youngest man to reach one-hundred career homeruns in baseball history had just cashed in his chips. He was just thirty years old.
Even though he was no longer playing organized ball, I still cheered for Tony as he began his new career as a sportscaster - first in Providence - and then in San Francisco. By 1982, I was teaching at an American school outside of London, visiting my folks in Wellesley for Christmas, when I read in The Herald that Red Sox television announcer Ken Harrelson had just signed on with the White Sox as their lead telecaster. It was reported that Tony Conigliaro was flying back to Boston for an audition with Channel 38. Ned Martin and Tony Conigliaro together again. Mercy.
However, the day before I was to leave for London, I was completely galvanized to hear the stunning news that Tony had suffered a catastrophic heart attack on the way to Logan Airport. Ironically, his tryout as the second Red Sox announcer had so impressed the WSBK officials that he had unofficially been offered the job. His brother, Billy, had heroically saved Tony's life by reconnoitering his car in the tunnel the wrong way in order to get Tony to Mass General as quickly as possible. I stared numbly at The Globe as I read the follow-up report. It was a long flight back to the United Kingdom that evening.
In the end, it would take seven years for Anthony Richard Conigliaro's heart to stop beating. His parents, his gallant sibling, Billy, and his other brother, Ritchie, were continually at Tony's side during his extended convalescence. The massive stroke that he had suffered as a result of his heart attack had left him a shell of a man. Some years after Conig's death, I conversed with acclaimed journalist Mike Lupica, who visited Tony up in the North Shore and wrote a stunning piece on Conigliaro in Esquire that was eventually included in David Halberstam's anthology, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century. "What I most remember about the visit was Tony's violent coughing," Lupica told me. "It shook me to the core. You just wanted it to stop. It broke your heart to see him in that condition. It was an absolutely searing experience. After he died, I remembered thinking, 'At least he doesn't have to cough anymore.'"
Tony Conigliaro died on February 24th, 1990. He was forty-five years old. By that time, I had moved on to Greenwich, Connecticut, where I began teaching at a local independent school. After I heard that Tony had passed, I put on my old "Conig's Corner" shirt, drove to the local high school baseball field that was shrouded in a nighttime snow squall, and cried my eyes out on the pitcher's mound.
Twelve years later, when it was revealed that Tony Conigliaro had fathered a child out of wedlock, and that his daughter was now an elegant young woman, I stared in wonder at the copy of The Boston Herald that had published her picture; she had her father's eyes. Tony's legacy had indeed been passed on.
Not long after that story broke, I found myself in being interviewed in New York by Black Canyon Productions for an HBO original movie that was to be entitled, The Curse of the Bambino. During the two-hour interview, I touched on a number of subjects pertinent to the film, from Luis Aparicio's stumble around third to Rich Gedman's passed ball. As the interview began to wind down, I glanced over at producer John Stone and exclaimed, "There is a lot of pathos involved with this franchise, for sure. But can I share with you my thoughts about one special player? Can I tell you about Tony Conigliaro?"
Later that year, I would be interviewed by author Rhonda Sonnenberg for a book that became known as For Red Sox Fans Only. Unlike The Curse of the Bambino, Rhonda thankfully inserted many of my Tony Conigliaro remembrances into her final edition. When I finally attended the premiere of the HBO film in Boston in September 2003, the only time that a well of emotion swept over me occurred early on in the documentary when director George Roy showed a young Tony Conigliaro, effervescent and seemingly impenetrable, signing an autograph for a young fan. The short clip captured the essence of Conig so poignantly that I let out an audible sigh. Glenn Stout, the sagest Red Sox historian of our time, happened to be sitting next to me. We gave each other a quick smile; Stout loved Tony Conigliaro as well.
Two years previously, I had the pleasure of chatting with both Jim Kaat and Bobby Mercer in their cramped MSG broadcasting booth at Yankee Stadium. As we all began to reminisce, I took out a 1966 Topps baseball card of Tony that I have kept in my wallet for more than thirty years. "Ah, Tony," said Kaat as he fingered the card delicately. "He would have hit 600 homeruns. He always put the fear of God in me when he came up to the plate. I tried to pitch him low and away. When I made a mistake to him - watch out."
Mercer glanced down at my card as well and held it reverently in his right hand. "What a talent", he said. "I am so glad people like you keep the flame going for him. As a player, I always looked up to him. And what courage." Later that evening, when the venerable Yankee public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, asked me who my favorite Sox player was of all time, I proudly informed him. "A fine, fine choice," he replied.
In August 2003, I took my youngest son, Max, to Fenway Park for the first time in his young life. After we settled into out seats, I pointed out to the green expanse and whispered to Max, "Son, a giant once played out there in right field." When I peeked up at the retired numbers near the Jimmy Fund sign, I was not at all upset when I failed to see the number 25 hanging up next to all the other honored numbers. I had retired Tony C's number in my own mind years ago. Hours later, as I walked down Brookline Avenue and headed for the Green Line that evening, holding little Max's hand, I thought a lot about fathers, sons, and baseball heroes.
March 2004. Incredibly, it's been forty years since we all fell in love with the great Tony Conigliaro. Jack Kennedy's been dead for well more than a third of a century. The two most significant Beatles are also gone. Tom Yawkey, Dick O'Connell, Haywood Sullivan, Ned Martin, Jim Woods, Ken Coleman, Johnny Wyatt, Bob Tillman, Ellie Howard, Joe Foy, and a handful of other Red Sox principles have also passed on. Jack Lamabe and Curt Gowdy are both in frail health as I write this. When my own father expired just two days before his beloved Patriots were victorious in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, I wore a Red Sox tie to his funeral. Part of growing old is seeing everyone you love go before you. And yet, I swear that my father had something to do with both Adam Vinatieri field goals.
Now, as I approach my forty-second summer of following the team on a pitch-by-pitch basis, I was asked recently by one of my students to imagine what scene I would like to observe in the very instant before my death. Because I have more than "paid my dues" with the franchise, you would think that I would want to actually witness what most Sox fans have waited their entire lifetimes to see - the last out of a World Series championship for the Olde Towne Team. Imagine the absolute ecstasy!
But if I could vibrantly relive something - or even experience something immortal right before the moment of my own demise - the scene I would like to be magically transmitted to in the end would not show some miraculous Red Sox team finally securing a World Series championship in the future. No. I would venture back to the early summer of 1967 - before the smoke bomb and Jack Hamilton. I would be sitting next to Daddy, alive again, watching the game that served as a bridge for both of us as long as he was on earth.
I would open my eyes and look up at the scoreboard in left - it's the bottom of the first inning and my father and I are huddled together, sitting in our crowded seats behind the Sox dugout. Tony Conigliaro is swinging a few weighted bats in the on-deck circle. As he approaches home plate - healthy, brisk, and eager - public address announcer, Sherm Feller, blares out, "Now batting fourth, number 25, Tony Conigliaro, right field, Conigliaro." The crowd begins to rhythmically clap around us, and we reflexively join in the refrain as well.
Tony settles into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his coffee eyes staring out assertively at the pitcher. A fastball is tossed at the catcher's tattered glove. As soon as the sphere is delivered, Conig's vigorous eyes become wide ovals as the ball whistles towards the strike zone. He swings with the panache of a bullfighter; his bat strikes the red numbers on his back as he completes his stroke. In less than a second, Dad and I quickly rise from our blue seats as the white ball make its way towards Lansdowne Street. In the last moment of my life, all would be finally right with the world.
- Shaun L. Kelly