On July 30, 1962, pitcher Gene Conley returned to the Red Sox after having wandered off from his team and attempting to…actually, you won’t believe it until you hear the whole story.
Among the many endearingly bizarre characteristics of early baseball was that players occasionally would disappear from their team without any warning and (sometimes) reappear with equally little notice. Longtime Philadelphia A’s and Yankees third baseman Joe Dugan was known as “Jumping Joe Dugan,” based on his habit of “jumping” from the team.
After World War II, however, this practice fell—not surprisingly—into disuse. Leaving the team in the middle of the season was no longer seen as something that prompted amusingly alliterative nicknames.
All of which made Gene Conley’s actions in the middle of one July afternoon in 1962 all the more curious. On July 26, Conley started for the Red Sox against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Conley was rubbish. He lasted fewer than three innings, gave up eight runs. All eight runs scored with two outs as Conley walked in two runs and then, with the bases still loaded, gave up two doubles and a home run.
After the game, the Red Sox team bus was stuck in traffic. Conley was on the bus, along with infielder Pumpsie Green. Green was unique for being the first black player on the Red Sox, the last team to integrate. He did, however, fit in quite well with most of his teammates on the ’62 Sox in that he was not much of a player.
Versions of the story vary at this point, but the consensus is that Green and Conley wandered off the team bus, allegedly after asking the manager to use a restroom. Conley (who apparently had spent the innings after being shelled drinking beer) and Green decided to stop by a nearby bar. They emerged an indiscriminate amount of time later and discovered the bus had left.
Or, as Conley tells it: “Pumpsie said, ‘Hey, that bus is gone,’ and I said, ‘We are, too!’”
Green returned to the team shortly thereafter, but Conley got himself a hotel room and spent the next few days really dedicating himself to his drinking. Despite being a 6-foot-8 professional athlete, Conley somehow managed to hide in plain sight in New York City. He wasn’t discovered until three days later, at Idlewild Airport, attempting, without passport, ticket or luggage, to board a plane to Israel.
Conley would later claim he had no idea why he did it, but one book does note that he was discovered in “what in all candor must be described as a markedly inebriated condition.” Conley returned to the Red Sox and was fined $2,000 for his lost weekend.
However, Conley is more than just one peculiar story. After a cup of coffee in 1952 with the Boston Braves, Conley returned to the majors in 1954 and had a 14-9 record with the Braves, now in Milwaukee. His 2.96 ERA in just fewer than 200 innings along with those 14 wins earned him both an All-Star appearance and a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. (Wally Moon won the award that year, topping both Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron.)
Conley returned to the All-Star Game in 1955 and again in 1959. He was underwhelming numerically, and despite being on a pitching staff that included Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, he was the only Braves pitcher to make it. He made the best of his time, earning the victory after striking out the side for a scoreless 12th.
Conley pitched marginally worse in 1960, the year after his second All-Star game appearance, but saw his record drop to 8-14. In 1961, the year he was traded to the Red Sox, Conley went just 11-14. In 1962—when not attempting to flee the country—Conley was 15-14, rebounding to post a solid 105 ERA+. His 1963 was a disaster and the last year of Conley’s major league career, as he posted a 6.64 ERA in just more than 40 innings.
The story of Conley does not end on the diamond. Conley spent his offseasons playing in the then-fledgling NBA. Conley played one basketball season in the early 1950s, but did play again until the 1958-59 season. After that, however, he played every year through the 1960-61 season and then again for the two seasons encompassing 1962 through 1964.
Basketball naturally overlapped with spring training, although this didn’t seem to bother Conley. In 1961, the Boston Celtics’ season ended on April 21. On April 25, Conley pitched eight innings of one-run ball to give the Sox a victory at Fenway Park.
No one was going to confuse Conley with teammate Bill Russell for talent, but he was a solid player. Conley averaged 16.5 minutes per game over his 351-game career, averaging just under six points per game. The real distinction for Conley on the court came from his teams. Each of the three seasons Conley played for the Celtics in the late ’50s saw them win the NBA Championship.
That gave Conley an unusual honor: Combined with the triumph of the Milwaukee Braves in the 1957 World Series, Conley is the only man to win a World Series and NBA championship. It also means that Conley got to celebrate his two-sport triumphs within 550 days of each other.
Conley’s basketball career also gives him another unusual distinction. Since Conley played for the Braves during their time in Boston, then later suited up for the Red Sox as well as the Celtics, he is the only man to appear for three major league franchises in a single city.
After his playing days, Conley ran a paper company and today is retired in Florida. In an interview in 2004, he spoke of playing golf and watching charity baseball games hosted by current players. When those players look into the stands and see the tall, elderly gentleman watching them play, I wonder if any feel a strange desire to visit the Middle East.