ZiPS Time Warp: Tony Conigliaroon September 16, 2020 at 7:00 pm

ZiPS Time Warp: Tony Conigliaro

The 1960s didn’t create many new Red Sox fans. Carl Yastrzemski debuted in 1961 and ascended to superstar status two years later, but outside of Yaz’s origin story, the franchise didn’t have much going for it. Starting with Ted Williams‘ penultimate season in 1959, Boston finished below .500 in eight consecutive campaigns, being spared last place thanks only to the piles of sadness that were the Athletics and the brand-new Senators in those years. As the Red Sox started assembling the early cast of a team that would, starting in 1967, finish with a winning record for 16 straight seasons, few stars shone as brightly as Tony Conigliaro. Until, that is, one errant Jack Hamilton fastball dimmed that star.

It took Yastrzemski a few years to really get going, but as a hitter, Conigliaro arrived in the majors nearly fully formed, much in the manner of Bryce Harper. Conigliaro’s signing was back in the pre-draft days, when amateurs had more of an ability to determine their franchise, and 14 teams pursued him before he signed with Boston. Assigned to the Wellsville Red Sox of the New York-Penn League in 1963, Conigliaro led the circuit in batting average, slugged .730 (the next-best mark was .575), and finished fifth in home runs only because he missed the first six weeks with a broken thumb after getting in a fight back home.

Boston added Conigliaro to the roster in 1964, and he started in center field on Opening Day at the age of 19. He eventually moved to left field in his rookie season — he was stretched in center — but he quickly became a fixture in the lineup and was batting second by the time summer started. He made a great first impression after hitting a home run in his first Fenway at-bat, a shot over the Green Monster off White Sox pitcher Joe Horlen. Only 23 players in baseball history have tallied 400 plate appearances in a campaign before their age-20 season, and only Mel Ott had higher a wRC+ (Juan Soto passed them both in 2018).

Conigliaro wasn’t a phenom on the level of modern-day stars like Mike Trout or Fernando Tatis Jr., but he hit a lot of home runs — he notched No. 100 at age 22 — in a league environment that was particularly poor for sluggers. As the 60s progressed, Boston built around him and Yaz, and other key names started popping up on the roster. Rico Petrocelli and Jim Lonborg joined the team for good in 1965, and Conigliaro’s Wellsville teammates George Scott and Joe Foy debuted in 1966, as did Mike Andrews. Reggie Smith was also the runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1967.

After the Red Sox spent most of the decade low in the standings, their unexpected success in 1967 earned the moniker “The Impossible Dream.” Boston made it to the World Series, but only after emerging victorious in one of the best pennant races in baseball history; with under a week to play, the top four teams in the American League were separated by a single game in the standings.

But that was later. On the morning of August 18, 1967, the Red Sox were 62-54 and in fourth place, 3 1/2 games back of the first-place Twins. As Conigliario was stepping up to the plate to face Jack Hamilton of the California Angels, a pitcher wild enough to have walked 100 batters in his rookie season, there was a 10-minute delay — something Conigliario later recalled worrying him at the time.

As Conigliaro was leaving the dugout for the on-deck circle, a fan threw a smoke bomb near Angels left fielder Rick Reichardt, causing a delay of about 10 minutes.

“Just before he made his first pitch, I wondered if the delay had caused his arm to stiffen,” Conigliaro said in a first-person account published by Sports Illustrated in June 1970. “It was the last thought I had before he hit me. The ball came sailing right toward my chin. Normally a hitter can jerk his head back a fraction and the ball will buzz by. But this pitch seemed to follow me in.”

On the first pitch of Conigliaro’s at-bat in the fourth, a Hamilton fastball connected with the former’s face, striking him just below the left temple. Buck Rodgers, the catcher for the Angels, was the player closest to the scene and later described what he saw in that moment:

Buck Rodgers, the Angels catcher, looked down.

“He was bleeding from the ear, the mouth, the nose,” Rodgers, now California’s manager, said during an Angels road trip to Boston three months ago.

“And I didn’t want to look any more. I told Jack, `Get out of here, get away.’ Jack came up to the plate; he was concerned. But I pushed him back. I said, `Jack, you don’t want to see this.’ ”

Rico Petrocelli, the on-deck hitter, crouched beside Conigliaro and whispered, “You’re going to be OK, it’s going to be fine,” over and over again. By then, Conigliaro’s face was horribly swollen and the 31,027 fans had grown so quiet, Petrocelli’s whispers could be heard several feet away.

“It was like a morgue,” Rodgers said.

His eye swollen shut and his cheekbone shattered, Conigliaro was rushed to the hospital for treatment. It wasn’t known at the time just how serious the long-term consequences of the injury would be. In the coming weeks, he was told he’d suffered permanent damage to his eye, which included a blind spot in the center of his eye. Initially told that it was dangerous for him to ever play again, Conigliaro’s vision improved just enough in 1968 for him to start working out. To get around the blind spot, he adjusted by looking slightly away from the pitch and seeing the ball through his peripheral vision.

Conigliaro was able to return to the Red Sox in 1969, and his .255/.321/.427 line with 20 homers, while clearly far below his previous standards, was enough for him to be named Comeback Player of the Year. The next season was even better as he hit .266/.324/.498 with 36 home runs, but his headaches increased due to the eye strain. In a trade that was considered shocking at the time, Conigliaro was dealt to the Angels after the 1970 season as the key piece in a six-player swap. His brother Billy was not shy when he later told reporters why he thought Tony was traded:

When he heard the news that Tony had left the Angels, Billy Conigliaro exploded in the Red Sox clubhouse, telling reporters that the reason for the trade to California in the first place had been Carl Yastrzemski, that Yaz had all the influence on the ballclub. “Tony was traded because of one guy – over there,” he charged, indicating Yastrzemski. Yaz “got rid of Pesky, Ken Harrelson, and Tony. I know I’m next. Yaz and Reggie [Smith] are being babied, and the club better do something about it.”

California indeed proved to be a poor fit for the outfielder. He suffered a series of other injuries and felt that his teammates were mocking him:

Conigliaro had been on the periphery of the Angel storm center all season, though teammate Johnson’s bizarre behavior usually overshadowed his own. Tony never produced as a hitter for the Angels. His average was .222 and he had only four home runs. He suffered from a succession of injuries, the most severe being a pinched nerve in his neck. His new Angel teammates did not always accept his explanations of poor health, however, and after one trip to the hospital he returned to find a catsup-spattered uniform laid out on a stretcher alongside his locker. Conigliaro dismissed this far-from-subtle intimation of hypochondria as a clubhouse prank. But he was obviously troubled by accusations of malingering. It is odd, considering his medical history, that they should persist.

“I’ve had a broken thumb, a broken wrist, a broken hand, a broken arm, a fractured cheekbone, a dislocated jaw, a fractured shoulder blade and a cracked finger,” he protests. “And people say I’m a hypochondriac.”

Even worse, his eyesight continued to deteriorate as the blind spot in his eye grew. Disillusioned by the sport and finding it even harder to see, in 1971 he walked away from the game for the second time. As with his first departure, it didn’t take, and after being granted his release by the Angels, he rejoined the Red Sox for the 1975 season. He made it back to Boston, but after hitting .123/.221/.246 in 21 games mostly as a 30-year-old reserve, he finally retired from playing baseball.

Conigliaro did not leave the game entirely, however, and he started broadcasting. On his 37th birthday in 1982, he interviewed for a role as a color commentator for Red Sox games, replacing Ken Harrelson. The audition went well and he prepared to move from California back to the Boston area, but as his brother Billy drove him to the airport, he tragically suffered a heart attack in the car. Tony suffered severe brain damage and spent four months in a coma, later moving into his parents’ home, where he received around-the-clock care for the rest of his life:

“We’re trying to keep him motivated, because the heart attack and coma affected that part of the brain. We still get letters from fans every single day, and the nurses read them to Tony and they help. It’s overwhelming. You know, this thing has changed us all. I used to get letters from the Kidney Foundation asking for money and I threw them away. Now I’m a sucker for anyone asking for money for a worthy cause. I never realized people — strangers — could be so nice. Everywhere I go every single day, people ask, ‘How’s Tony?’ The players still visit, too — Mike Andrews and Luis Tiant and Ben Davidson (football). Billy (his brother, a former Red Sox outfielder) and I have devoted the rest of our lives to getting Tony better.

Tony Conigliaro passed away in 1990, a month after his 45th birthday.

This is one of our sadder trips in the ZiPS time machine. Some of the players we’ve talked about in this space achieved real greatness, then had their careers cut short in the middle, such as Johan Santana and Joe Mauer. Others saw their baseball careers end but their lives remain intact. Conigliaro got to do neither. Struck at 22, he never even got to play in his prime, nor did he get to enjoy what should have been some of the happiest years of his life. I never got to see him play — I was born in 1978 — but something about his story has always resonated with me. I was still in elementary school when I read a biography about him (I don’t remember which one). My dad was born a few years after him (1949) and passed away at a similar age (1997).

Nobody can restore his life, but we can at least see the numbers he could have put up if not for his tragic accident. After all, in the end, the numbers become what is most remembered about great players; if baseball is still around in a hundred years, it’s Conigliaro’s numbers that will stand forever, long after all of us or anyone who remembered him are gone.

I’m a little more optimistic that Conigliaro would get another chance to hit his 400th home run after a strike-shortened 1981 cost him that in the projections. Would it be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame? Maybe. If he had stayed with Boston and been a member of the mid-70s teams, I think there’s a good chance. Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame after all, and he is another Red Sox slugger and near-contemporary with career numbers a bit under the Conigliaro projection. It’s fascinating to wonder how team history might have changed. Would Conigliaro have been traded anyway? And if not, which of Rice, Dwight Evans, Fred Lynn, or Cecil Cooper isn’t on the team? Does one of them fetch a pitcher who could have shut down the Reds in the 1975 World Series?

History is known for its cruelty, and few cases in baseball feature as much antagonism from the fates as the story of Tony Conigliaro. It’s a good reminder to treasure every moment we get from the Trouts and Sotos of the world, players we are lucky enough to see fulfill their potential.

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