In 1964 I was eight years old and baseball was my favorite game and Boston Red Sox rookie Tony Conigliaro was my favorite player.
Born in Revere and a star at St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, he was signed by the Red Sox in 1962 at the age of 17. Rooting for “Tony C” was rooting for the “home team” exemplified!
He was tall, he was handsome, he hit home runs and every little leaguer emulated his batting stance and swing. He was a favorite of the ladies too. Long before “pink hats”, Tony C enticed females to Fenway Park. In 1965 the slugger recorded “Little Red Scooter” and performed it on the popular “Merv Griffin Show”. Tony C was a talented athlete with a dynamic personality.
In 1964, his rookie season, he hit 24 home runs in an injury shortened season. He only played in 111 games. In his sophomore season (’65) he became the youngest player to lead the American League in home runs, depositing 32 balls in various bleachers and into the netting above the green monster. The team however, lost 100 games that year and remained in the cellar of the American League.
In 1967 new Red Sox Manager and former utility infielder Dick Williams predicted his team would “win more ball games than we lose”. Tony C immediately became the catalyst for that promise.
Selected to the All Star team in ’67, Tony C became the youngest player in the American League history to reach 100 home runs. Red Sox fans knew they had a legitimate super star and a homegrown one at that. With a chase for the pennant full-on, life was good at Fenway Park!
Then on August 18th Tony C was hit on the left cheekbone by a high and tight fastball thrown by Angel’s pitcher Jack Hamilton. On deck hitter Rico Petrocelli heard the god-awful sound which he compared to the crushing of a melon.
Conigliaro had always been a “plate hanger” and opposing pitchers not wanting to give in, pitched him inside. Without the benefit of today’s batting helmets that have earflaps, Tony C took a direct hit. He went down and suffered a broken cheekbone, dislocated jaw and a damaged retina. He was carried off the field on a stretcher while a stunned and silent Fenway crowd looked on.
Conigliaro would not return to baseball until 1969 and was named “Comeback Player of the Year” hitting 20 home runs with 82 RBI in 141 games. In 1970 with his brother Billy in the Red Sox outfield with him and Yastrzemski at first base, he put up his best numbers with home runs (36) and RBI (116), but from there his eyesight worsened.
After a brief stint with the Angels in ’71, Conigliaro returned to the Red Sox in ’75 in an attempt to regain his form.
In 1975 while attending Boston University two friends and I decided to go to Tony C’s first game back at Fenway. We got on a BU bus on Commonwealth Ave. by Nickerson Field and we were told once it filled it would start to move. We snuck a couple of “pony packs” of Miller on and we were content to wait for the bus to fill before it started its journey down Commonwealth Ave. It never even partially filled and with the beer depleted we had to consider “Plan B”-
We got off the parked bus and started a fast walk down Commonwealth. By the time we got to Kenmore Square it was packed with fans and the seats were sold out. My good friend Jay and I were all but defeated, until Gil, a BU Wrestler with long straight brown hair, dark skin, bright green eyes and the slinger of some of the best BS this side of the Mississippi, came up with “Plan C”-
In those days most of the red uniform clad Ushers at Fenway Park weren’t a day under 75 years of age, old silver tops with lots of facial wrinkles and easy prey for a slick young guy like Gil. He went up to one usher and proclaimed “We’re BU students who work for the Ogden Food Company and we’re late arriving because we had an exam. We have to get in immediately-” This Usher was overwhelmed with Gil’s request and so he referred us to second usher standing inside the turnstile. Gil was allowed in to speak with him. We didn’t hear much of what was said, but Gil pointed to us standing with the first Usher. After a moment on indecision, the second usher began waving us in- We got in to Fenway Park through the front door and without a ticket. The Ogden Food Company was a real food company, but they had nothing to do with Fenway Park or the Boston Red Sox. Gil was immediately declared a genius and we hurried in.
We got booted all over the park pregame, not having any tickets to claim any seats was at once a problem. I’m not sure how it happened, but Gil negotiated seats in the second row, between the Red Sox dugout and home plate. I’m sure by now Gil is either a successful CEO or serving time, but at 19 he was relentless and because of his negotiating skills we had great seats.
When Tony C stepped to the plate for the first time the place went crazy! I have never heard a louder, longer ovation for any Boston/New England athlete. When play resumed Tony C stood in. He went through all his regular at bat preps and his stance was exactly as we all remembered- perfect! The kind they teach you in little league.
The first pitch he saw had to be to his liking and he took a big cut at it and sent it high and deep and over the “Green Monsta”! It was an incredible moment, one I’ll always remember. Fenway went wild as Tony C rounded the bases. Electrifying!
It wasn't long after that an ‘o-for something large’ forced Conig’s retirement from baseball. Looking back, during his short career Tony C had won the hearts of baseball fans everywhere and he will never be forgotten...