In life and in baseball, the word ‘tragedy’ is sometimes overused. A minor tragedy is what happened to a player such as Fred Merkle, Fred Snodgrass or Bill Buckner; someone who makes an important error and takes abuse from fans but is able to continue on with his career.
Other times, there are real tragedies and the story of Tony Conigliaro is one of those.
Tony C, as his fans called him, was a good-looking local kid who had a very nice rookie season at age 19 with the Boston Red Sox and did seem to keep getting better each year. He hit .290 with 24 homers in just 111 games for Boston in ’64 when kids were pulling his rookie card from Topps packs. In ’65, he hit 32 homers, becoming the youngest American League home run champ ever.
By 1967, he had become the youngest player to reach the 100 career homer mark and even his defense was improving. With Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Smith, the Red Sox had a phenomenal trio of outfielders, all of whom were age 27 or younger. The 1967 Red Sox looked like a team set up for a long stretch of contention. The Sox of ’67 also had Mike Andrews, Joe Foy, Rico Petrocelli and George Scott, all promising young players—all under age 25. Little wonder why the team had begun to capture the hearts of Sox fans across New England.
However, for Tony Conigliaro, life would take a sudden and tragic turn on a hot August night in 1967. A journeyman pitcher, Jack Hamilton, threw a pitch inside and struck Tony C in the face. His vision was never the same but amazingly, Conigliaro adjusted. He would return with a bang.
On April 8, 1969, he belted a two-run homer in the top of the tenth inning and then scored the eventual winning run in the top of the 12th, giving Boston a 5-4 victory in Baltimore. That season, he won the Comeback Player of the Year, hitting 20 homers and driving in 82 runs. The next year, he exploded with 36 homers and 116 RBI, playing the outfield alongside his younger brother, Billy. A shocking trade to the Angels came next and Conigliaro struggled. He made it back one final time to the Red Sox, where he spent a brief time with the 1975 American League champions, but retired during the season.
Conigliaro became a television sports anchor in his 30s and was in Boston to interview for a color commentator job in 1982 when he suffered a heart attack while driving to the airport with Billy. Rushed to the hospital, he survived but had suffered irreversible brain damage. He lived another eight years, unable to communicate.
Conigliaro is always going to be a popular player among fans of a certain generation in New England. He appeared on Topps cards from 1964-1971, his final issue a sadly airbrushed photo turning him into an Angel for the only time in his career.
His status with Red Sox fans is so legendary and his story so well-known that his 1964 Topps rookie card is priced almost as if he made the Hall of Fame. PSA 9 graded examples sell for $250-350, those graded 8 bring $100-150 while ungraded EX/NM examples can be acquired for around $20 (you can see his cards on eBay here).
If had avoided that Jack Hamilton pitch, it’s likely Tony C would have been signing autographs for card companies and appearing at card shows today. His baseball fate and early death were indeed a tragedy but to Red Sox fans, he remains forever young, a local boy who made great even for just a few, fleeting seasons.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]