Friday, January 07, 2011

Tony C - I Can't Get Over You

One of the things I do on a (nearly) daily basis is visit to view the list of players born that day and read the history log. Sometimes it's the expected info, other times it's a kernel of odd or neglected history. Like the bleachers burning down at Fenway in the 1930's, or the spat between Babe Ruth and Harry Frazee through the newspapers. Players and owners taking shots at each other through the media is nothing new.

Most days it's a quick visit to the site, maybe an interesting tidbit to share with my inivisipeeps on our history page. Occasionally, it's something that gives me pause. Today is one of those.

Born this day, in 1945, Anthony Richard Conigliaro. Tony C.

Tony Conigliaro had the makings of a superstar. In an era dominated by pitchers, he maintained a .270 batting average, a .334 on base percentage, and averaged 26+ home runs a season. He led the AL in homers in his second season, hitting 32 in 1965. He reached 100 home runs when he was 22, youngest player to reach 100 home runs in the AL, younger than A-Rod, younger than Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, or Ken Griffey Jr.

Tony C, born in Revere, MA, graduated from Lynn, MA high school, was a home grown hero for the Red Sox. In his first plate appearance at Fenway, he hit a home run.

He was handsome, he was talented, he was popular. Like current-day superstars, he dabbled in show business, recording some songs, dating starlets.

Tony C gave hope to Boston's fans that the Red Sox could win the pennant and return to the World Series. He was part of the Impossible Dream team of 1967. Following a number of losing seasons, the Red Sox of 1967 were not expected to do well as the season opened, but they proved to be a new, different team, led by Carl Yazstremski as he won the last* triple crown in major league history. In August, as Boston caught up to the league leading White Sox, Tony C's place in baseball history was sealed.

On August 18, Tony C was beaned at the plate by Angels' pitcher Jack Hamilton.

The injury was big news, and the image of this baseball god-to-be became the haunting reminder of what the Red Sox lost, what Tony lost, what all of baseball lost.

He was out for the season, nearly blind in his left eye. He made a comeback in 1968, sporting a new batting helmet with an extension designed to protect his eye and cheek. He put together a couple more good seasons with the Sox, was trade to the Angels in 1971 where it became clear his career as a hitter was over. Tony was not done with baseball yet as he mounted a campaign to return as a pitcher and did in 1975 for a short time.

Tony was preparing to return to Boston, as a broadcaster, when he suffered a heart attack, quickly followed by a stroke that left him in a vegetative state. He died eight years later in his parents' home. He was 45.

Although I never saw Tony C play, I can easily imagine what it would have been like to see him play. I can do no more than sigh the lament "if only" and share his story with those who never heard of "Tony C," of "Conig." Most fans know landmarks of Fenway, Pesky's Pole and its partner that Fisk hit his historic homer off, the Green Monster, they may even know about the red seat in the bleachers where a man was hit by a Ted Williams' homer, but they probably aren't aware of Conigliaro's Corner, the small triangle of seats where the bleachers meet the left field wall. Tony had trouble seeing the ball coming out the pitcher's hand against the back drop of bright clothing, so that section is covered with tarps during day games.

When Tony made his original comeback, he wrote a book, with Jack Zanger, about his career, about the injury, and the fight to return to baseball. Written pre-Ball Four, it was an optimistic story of overcoming a serious injury, while downplaying how devastating the injury actually was. Years later, David Cataneo wrote a fuller, richer account of Tony's life, Tony C: The Triumph and Tragedy of Tony Conigliaro, a wonderfully moving book of a working class hometown hero who lost it all.

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