New York Yankees rookie right-hander Bryan Mitchell was hit in the face by a line drive Monday night, a grim reminder that baseball can be a very dangerous game.
Any time a player is hit in the face — whether he is a pitcher or a batter — I am reminded of one player.
Tony Conigliaro was ticketed for stardom. He appeared on a 1964 Topps rookie card at age 19. Before turning 23, he had 104 home runs, and in 1965 he would add 32 to his total, tops in the American League.
His Topps baseball card in 1965 included the gold trophy that signified he was an all-star rookie. He was dating sex symbol Mamie Van Doren and was living the high life.
The Red Sox came oh-so-close to ending their long World Series drought and Conigliaro’s 1967 Topps card showed a confident slugger swinging the bat.
But on the night of August 18, 1967, Conigliaro’s promising career changed forever.
With one out in the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Conigliaro was hit in the face by a fastball that got away from Angels starter Jack Hamilton. The force of the pitch damaged the retina in Conigliaro’s left eye, cracked his left cheekbone and dislocated his jaw.
The Fenway Park crowd of 31,027 sat in stunned silence as the Red Sox trainers tended to Conigliaro. A photo that ran in hundreds of newspapers the next day showed Conigliaro sporting a huge shiner on his closed left eye.
“It was a ‘squish,’ ” Rico Petrocelli told Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe in 2006. Petrocelli was the on-deck hitter. “It was like a tomato or melon hitting the ground.”
The pitch forced Conigliaro to miss the rest of the 1967 season (he had been batting .287 with 20 homers and 67 RBIs) and all of the ’68 campaign. but he still appeared on a Topps card with a photo likely taken at an earlier time. Conigliaro’s 1968 Topps card used a different pose than the 1967 shot.
That August night was the fifth time Conigliaro had been hurt when hit by a pitch. In his rookie year of 1964, Conigliaro’s left wrist was fractured when he was hit by a Moe Drabowsky pitch on May 6. A month later, Conigliaro broke his right forearm after being hit by Pedro Ramos. That sidelined the Red Sox outfielder for six weeks.
In 1965, a pitch by the Athletics’ Wes Stock broke Conigliaro’s left hand and put him out of action for 12 days. In the spring of 1967, he separated his shoulder during batting practice after being hit by teammate John Wyatt.
Conigliaro’s penchant for being hit by pitches — the 1967 season was the fourth straight year he’d been hit by a pitch five times — was partially due to the way the right-handed hitter crowded the plate.
Hamilton, who had been traded two months earlier from the New York Mets, claimed he was not trying to move Conigliaro off the plate.
“I’ve not hit anyone all year,” Hamilton said in a story published the following day by the Boston Globe. “I was just trying to get the ball over. Tony stands right on top of the plate.”
Understandably, Hamilton’s memory was perhaps a little faulty that day. Conigliaro was certainly the first American League player Hamilton hit that season. But on May 31, while still in the National League, Hamilton entered in relief of Don Cardwell in the sixth inning at the Astrodome and hit the first batter he faced, Ron Davis.
Angels catcher Bob Rodgers claimed Hamilton’s pitch sailed in on Conigliaro.
Jose Tartabull was sent in to pinch run for Conigliaro, and Rico Petrocelli then tripled to center and scored on an error by Angels shortstop Jim Fregosi. Boston tacked on another run in the sixth inning and Gary Bell picked up a complete-game victory as the Red Sox won 3-2. The victory gave Boston a 64-54 record and put them three games behind the AL-leading Minnesota Twins.
The Red Sox would embark on an incredible stretch run surge, winning one of the AL’s closest pennant races on the final day of the season — a year after finishing in ninth place.
Conigliaro did return in 1969, hitting 20 homers (including one in his first game back in action), and had an even better season in 1970 with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs. But in 1971 Conigliaro was traded — to the Angels. Topps was able to change the text on his card but had to airbrush the Red Sox logo off his cap on his ’71 card.
Sadly, his vision was never the same and he left the game. With the advent of the designated hitter, Conigliaro tried a comeback in 1975. But he gave up after 21 games.
Conigliaro suffered a massive heart attack on January 9, 1982. His health declined after that, and he died on February 24, 1990, of pneumonia and kidney failure. He was 45.
Hamilton, born on Christmas Day in 1938, has always been painted as the villain in the Conigliaro incident. He had a reputation for pitching inside, but he remains firm in his conviction that the pitch simply got away from him.
“No one lets me forget it,” Hamilton told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports in 2007.
“I couldn’t take a baseball and throw it at somebody’s head on purpose,” Hamilton told Passan. “I don’t have the guts.
“I really don’t care what the public thinks about me. Accidents happen. If I thought about it all the time, it would bother me. I know in my heart, I didn’t mean to throw it.”
Players are going to be hit by pitches and pitchers will be hit by line drives. That is inevitable. Last September 11, Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch and was sidelined for the rest of the season.
And any time a player suffers this kind of injury, I always think, “Remember what happened to Tony C.?”
Overall, prices for Conigliaro’s cards are basically pedestrian except for graded cards or offbeat issues, but he’s still fondly remembered by fans in New England. You can see all of them here.