Talking about Tony Conigliaro

There have been few tragedies like that of Tony Conigliaro. By the age of 22, he had already hit 104 home runs and seemed on course to become one of the all-time great sluggers. But on Aug. 18, 1967, he couldn’t elude a high, inside Jack Hamilton fastball. The ball hit Conigliaro flush in the face, badly damaging his left eye and forcing him to miss the balance of the 1967 season and all of 1968.

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Some skeptics felt that he would never play again, but he confounded them with productive seasons in 1969 and ‘70. The Red Sox then traded him to the Angels, where he struggled badly, perhaps dragged down further by a team filled with misery and discord. Unable to see out of his left eye, Conigliaro retired.

Four years later, he gallantly attempted a comeback with the Red Sox, but his body betrayed him, once again forcing him to call it quits.

In 1980, after interviewing for a TV broadcasting job, Conigliaro suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma. Unable to recover and lead a normal life, Conigliaro was put into the care of his family. He died eight years later, at the age of 45.

The travails and tragedies of Tony Conigliaro are dramatically and skillfully told in the new book, The Tony Conigliaro Story, written by Bruce Fitzpatrick. A screenwriter and author, Fitzpatrick tracks Conigliaro’s life with special emphasis on his childhood and his struggles after the bean ball incident. Earlier this week, I talked to Fitzpatrick about Tony C.

Markusen: Bruce, I’ve enjoyed reading your book. It is not written like most baseball histories, but presented more like a novel, with lots of dialogue. You include long conversations as if you were right there in the room. Were you able to re-create these conversations through interviews with the family, or did you have to take some liberties and make educated guesses as to what was being said?

Fitzpatrick: As the acknowledgements in the book will attest, I did extensive interviews with everyone listed there. Everything was either videotaped or tape recorded. By doing that, I got a really intimate view of Tony, his personal and family life, where he came from, the environment in which he was raised, and his life as a professional baseball player. I took no liberties or poetic license. Everything there happened as presented&mash;or as close to it as I could get, using a dramatic format.

Markusen: After Conigliaro broke up with his girlfriend, Julie, she began to date Hawk Harrelson. Was there tension between Tony and Harrelson because of this?

Fitzpatrick: There was no direct tension between Tony and Hawk because they never played actively at the same time. It did pain Tony to see him with Julie – who I believe was the love of his life, and he hers—and who had also inherited his job with the team. Neither Tony nor Julie ever married, and as a close friend of hers I can safely say that even now she’s still Tony’s girl. We even visited Tony’s and his parents’ gravesites together.

That was a powerful experience to put it mildly. She still has the more than 200 letters he wrote her, along with a lot of personal and professional memorabilia from their life together and his playing days in pro ball. I feel safe in saying that they were truly soul mates.

Markusen: The beaning from Jack Hamilton is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when recalling Conigliaro’s story. Do you think that the outcome might have been different if Conigliaro was wearing a helmet with an earflap?

Fitzpatrick: Tony was wearing a helmet the night he was hit. But when watching the replay from an overhead camera in the broadcast booth, it clearly shows that Tony’s helmet was in the strike zone over home plate when he got hit. Part of Tony’s game as a power hitter was to crowd the plate and force pitchers to pitch to him—or walk him. Any other player in a normal stance would have been a step or two back from the plate, and would likely not have been hit by the same pitch.

Two weeks before the inciden,t Ted Williams had warned him about his stance, but Tony chose to maintain his normal position when at bat. However, the addition of an ear flap to batting helmets was a direct result of that beaning and his personal campaign to add the ear flap.

Markusen: Why do you think Red Sox manager Dick Williams chose not to visit Conigliaro in the hospital after the beaning?

Fitzpatrick: That was never really clear. They had a thinly veiled hostility between them, partly as a personality conflict, and partly the result as a mutual beaning incident in Tony’s rookie year when he and Williams traded bean balls. Williams missed; Tony didn’t, and dropped Williams. I think an element of resentment may have lingered.

Markusen: Given the seriousness of the injuries that Conigliaro suffered because of the beaning, is it surprising to you that he came back and enjoyed the kind of season that he did with the Red Sox in 1970?

Fitzpatrick: Actually, he came back in 1969 and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. What most people don’t know is that he [came back] with impaired vision. The sight in his injured eye never quite came back fully. He’d have to look slightly to the left of the pitcher to pick up the ball after it was released. Quite an accomplishment.

Markusen: Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the division in the Red Sox clubhouse, with Tony and his brother Billy on one side and Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Smith on the other side. How deep was this rift, and was it irreparable?

Fitzpatrick: I did some research on the much-publicized friction between them, and my conclusion is that it was more publicized that real. That really became apparent when I did my one-on-one, hour-long interview with Carl Yastrzemski. He readily acknowledged their competitiveness, and also readily acknowledged that without it they wouldn’t have made it to the ‘67 World Series at the end of The Impossible Dream Year.

He also stated emphatically that had Tony been able to play in that Series they would have been popping champagne corks in the Red Sox locker room instead of St. Louis’. When asked what he might say to Tony if Tony were to walk into the room for 60 seconds, he paused for a moment to gain control over his emotions, and then proceeded to give one of the greatest testimonials to a competitor that I’ve ever heard. Carl’s a class act, and genuinely regrets what happened to Tony.

Markusen: In 1971, Tony became part of a nightmarish situation with the Angels, a team that was disrupted by the Alex Johnson situation. How much did that poisonous atmosphere affect Conigliaro?

Fitzpatrick: Actually, the environment on the Angels’ team had little to do with Tony’s decision. Simply put, he missed playing in front of the home town fans at Fenway Park. In essence, it put the fire out. What few are aware of, however, is that his passion for baseball—and maybe a reservation about whether or not he was done for good—was demonstrated when Al Ruddy asked him to audition for a movie role they had in mind for him.

He graciously declined, stating that his heart was still in baseball. So Ruddy went out and got another up-and-coming Italian for the job. Who was that you ask? How about Al Pacino for the role of Michael in The Godfather. True story. For his part, Tony opened up a night club to pursue a singing career.

Markusen: Why do you think Conigliaro tried to make another comeback with the Red Sox in 1975?

Fitzpatrick: As stated, Tony never really let go of his notion to play again. When the Angels gave him his outright release, the Red Sox gave him his chance. By then, the American League had adopted the new designated hitter position. Tony tried out for it, and won the job. Who did he beat for the position? Someone who had just joined the team—a rookie by the name of Jim Rice.

Markusen: There were so many disappointments and difficulties for Conigliaro. How big of a disappointment was it for him to miss out on the 1975 American League pennant and that historic World Series that came with it?

Fitzpatrick: By midseason 1975 Tony’s body had begun having difficulties with his accustomed training regimen. Feeling he didn’t have what he needed (or wanted), he left the team and professional baseball in July 1975. What might have happened had he been able to play a full 12-14 year career? In addition to becoming a Hall Of Fame inductee, he’d likely have been a threat to the all-time home run record. He reached the 100-mark six years ahead of Babe Ruth, five years ahead of Hank Aaron, and seven years ahead of Carl Yastrzemski.

What most people don’t know is that he averaged 25-30 games a year on the bench with injuries due to his aggressive style of play in the field, i.e. running into barriers while chasing fly balls, etc.

Markusen: The story of how Conigliaro suffered a heart attack while on his way to a job interview is especially tragic. If he hadn’t suffered the heart attack, if he had gotten the job, how do you think he might have fared as a Boston broadcaster?

Fitzpatrick: I think Tony would have done a great job. In addition to his insights as a player, he had already gotten broadcast experience in Rhode Island and San Francisco. Add to that the passion he had for the game….

As for the heart attack, that actually happened after he’d been awarded the job by Joe Dimono, GM for station WSBK, the anchor station for the Red Sox broadcast network. Tony’s heart attack came on his way to the airport when he was headed out of town to complete a business trip, and to close out his affairs on the West Coast.

Markusen: How well is Conigliaro remembered in Boston today?

Fitzpatrick: Tony’s an icon in Boston, New England, and points south and west wherever people know of him. And of those there are many. Other than Babe Ruth, he was, I believe, the most charismatic player who ever donned a Red Sox uniform. He was—and still is—a hometown hero. The beloved “Tony C” will be remembered and spoken of highly around Boston for as long as there’s baseball in Boston. And that, we hope, is going to be a long, long time….

Published by CreateSpace, The Tony Conigliaro Story can be obtained at http://www.createspace.com/3738481. It is highly recommended, particularly for members of Red Sox Nation.

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Comments

  1. Andy R said...

    Excellent interview! I was at Tony C.‘s last game- a 21-inning game between the Angels and A’s in 1971. The game ended around 1 a.m., and Tony C. announced his retirement at a 5 a.m. press conference. He had struck out four or five times that night, and said that just couldn’t see the ball well enough to play. I still cringe when I see footage of his beaning, 35 years later. I think he would have finished very high on the HR list- he had that great Fenway Park swing…

  2. Barry Levine said...

    How could Williams and Conigliaro been involved in a beaning incident where Conigliaro beaned Williams – neither were pitchers?

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Barry, I’ll have to double-check, but I recall reading that Conigliaro used to throw batting practice for the Red Sox. It might have happened in that setting.

  4. Bruce Fitzpatrick said...

    Hey Guys, Good commentaries. The beaning exchange between Tony C and Dick Williams didn’t come during a game. It happened off the field during spring training when Williams, still playing at the time, and having a disliking of him for whatever reason, fired a ball at him from behind. Tony, sensing it, turned just in time to avoid being hit. Williams then made his classic remark, “Watch where you’re going, bush,” (as in bush leaguer). A few days later Tony caught Williams not paying attention and fired his own fastball at him, yelling “Watch where you’re going, bush.” Pitcher Dick Stuart had to seperate them, and from then on the Tony and Dick had gotten each other’s attention, and never did become close.

  5. James T in MA said...

    Aren’t predictions of the hall of fame for Tony C a bit over the top?  He hadn’t really improved much over the course of the four seasons in which he played before he was beaned.  He was a very very good player but aside from lucking out and being able to lead the league with “just” 32 homers in 1965, he really wasn’t close to leading the league in any category in that or any other year.  And even before getting hit by Hamilton he had a so-so durability record.

    • kevin said...

      well he did improve to 36 homers with one eye.rember he was 22 compar to others at that age i dont think its a hard to give the benifit of doubt.that he could of done pretty well as for carter he was just good .im not saying tony c was babe ruth.plus the mound being lowerd was a boon for hitters. yaz batting champ with a 301 hummmm

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    James, there’s no guarantee that Conigliaro would have been a Hall of Famer, but to suggest that he might have been a Hall of Famer is not really over the top. At the time of his injury, he had an .860 OPS, which was excellent for that era. Because of the eye injury, he missed all of his age 23, 27, 28 and 29 seasons—all seasons that would have fallen into his prime.

    I would have been curious to see how, with two good eyes, he would have hit in the 1970s. By then the mound had been lowered and the strike zone adjusted.

  7. James T in MA said...

    Sure, Bruce, an .860 OPS is very good for that era.  But he compiled it while playing in perhaps the preeminent hitter’s park of the day, Fenway Park.  His first couple years are particularly Fenway aided.  For his career (including one year in Cali), he had a .833 OPS at home and a .773 OPS away.  (.995 vs. .771 in ‘64, .900 vs. .798 in ‘65, .873 vs. .762 in ‘66, .810 vs. .904 (reverse split) in ‘67, .716 vs. .783 (reverse split) in ‘69, .840 vs. .804 in ‘70).  I don’t know that his defensive reputation is anything more than decent or unspectacular.  He was a very very good player and the fate he suffered was tragic.  I just don’t think we need to try to stretch the tragedy to superlatives to make the story worthwhile.  This gets done frequently and it becomes a bit exasperating.  Hurricane Carter was a good boxer who was probably framed.  He wasn’t any threat to win the championship.  But that wouldn’t be stretching the story to the superlative limits.  Sorry for being so negative.  I’m importing exasperation at other books and films into this issue and that’s not fair.

  8. Marc Schneider said...

    Without getting into whether Tony C would have been a Hall of Famer or not, James makes a good point.  Tony’s life was tragic not because he didn’t make the Hall of Fame but because he died at 45.  And, apparently, missed out on the love of his life.  That would have been sad regardless of how good a baseball player he was. 

    But his story should be a reminder of just how hard it is to be a major league player, with people throwing hard balls at you at 90+miles per hour.  Even in Little League, I could never escape that fear of the ball.  To be able do that in the way that ballplayers must is, to me, remarkable.

  9. Chitownron said...

    Nice interview… It takes me back to the days when fell in love with baseball. We all have tragedies in our personal lives. However this was one of the worst that I saw play out in public. Tony had the talent, the looks, charisma and his own city in love with him… He was special.

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