This article was written by Bill Nowlin
No matter how you measure it, Tony Conigliaro’s career got off to a terrific start, but tragedy repeatedly intervened and the great promise of his early years remained unfulfilled. A local boy made good, Tony was born and raised in the Boston area, signed with the hometown team, and made his major-league debut in 1964 soon after he turned 19 years old. In his very first at-bat at Fenway Park, Tony turned on the very first pitch he saw and pounded it out of the park for a home run. By hitting 24 home runs in his rookie season, he set a record for the most home runs ever hit by a teenager. When he led the league in homers with 32 the following year, he became the youngest player ever to take the home-run crown. When he hit home run number 100, during the first game of a doubleheader on July 23, 1967, he was only 22 – the youngest AL player to reach the 100-homer plateau. He hit number 101 in the day’s second game.
As if that wasn’t enough, Tony Conigliaro was a bona-fide celebrity and singer with a couple of regional hit records to his credit.
Tony C was born on January 7, 1945, in Revere, Massachusetts, a few miles north of Boston, and grew up both there and in East Boston, where he first played Little League ball at age 9. Tony and his younger brother Billy (b. 1947) were obsessed with baseball, playing it at every possible opportunity, usually with the support and guidance of their uncle Vinnie Martelli. “He used to pitch batting practice to me for hours, till my hands bled,” wrote Conigliaro in his autobiography Seeing It Through.1 In his very first at-bat for the Orient Heights Little League team, Tony hit a home run over the center-field fence. He credited coach Ben Campbell for giving him tremendous encouragement in youth baseball.
Tony confessed that at a very early age, “I discovered how much I hated to lose.”2 His teams didn’t lose that often. By the time he was 13 and in Pony League, they were traveling out of state in tournament play. Tony went to high school at St. Mary’s in Lynn, where his father, Sal, was working at Triangle Tool and Dye. Sal and Tony’s mother, Teresa, were very supportive of his athletic endeavors and were a fixture at Tony’s various ballgames.
As both a shortstop and pitcher, Tony had already come to the attention of scouts like Lennie Merullo and Milt Bolling, and by the time he graduated claimed to have had as many as 14 scouts tracking him. In his final couple of years, he recalled batting over .600 and having won 16 games on the mound, and remembered his team winning the Catholic Conference championship. He played American Legion ball in the summers, with the same .600 batting average. The Red Sox asked Tony to come to a 1962 workout at Fenway Park, where both he and Tony Horton showed their stuff. When the Legion season ended and Tony’s father courted bids, Boston’s Milt Bolling and Red Sox farm director Neil Mahoney made the best bid at $20,000 and Tony signed with the Red Sox.3 He was sent to Bradenton for the Florida Instructional League.
It was Conigliaro’s first time far from home, and he didn’t stand out that well at winter ball. In the spring of 1963, he was invited to the Red Sox minor-league camp at Ocala. He did well there, and was assigned to Wellsville in the New York-Penn League. Before he reported, he went home to see his girlfriend, got in a fight with a local boy, and broke his thumb. He wasn’t able to report to Wellsville until the end of May. That was the end of Conigliaro’s pitching career, but the scouts were looking at his hitting more than his pitching anyway. Tony did well at Wellsville, batting .363, hitting 24 homers, and winning the league’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. He played that autumn at instructional league in Sarasota and was added to the Red Sox’ 40-man roster. The next spring, 1964, the Sox brought him to their big-league spring-training headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Boston’s manager was Johnny Pesky who, as it happened, lived on the same street in Swampscott to which the Conigliaro family had recently moved: Parsons Street. Pesky saw the fire in Tony Conigliaro and played him that spring; Tony hit a monster home run off Cleveland’s Gary Bell on March 22, the first day his parents came to visit him in Scottsdale. Ted Williams admired Conigliaro’s style and told him, whatever he did, “Don’t change that solid stance of yours, no matter what you’re told.” Ted told reporters, though, “He’s just a kid; he’s two years away.”4
Johnny Pesky saw otherwise. Tony C was 19 and only in his second year in Organized Baseball, but he made the big-league club as the center fielder for the Red Sox. Pesky was taking a chance on a relatively untested player, but the 1964 Sox, frankly, didn’t have a great deal of talent.
Conigliaro’s first major-league game was in Yankee Stadium on April 16. In his first major-league at-bat, against Whitey Ford, he stepped into the box with men on first and second, and grounded into a double play. His third time up, he singled and finished the day 1-for-5. The next day, April 17, was the home opener at Fenway Park. Tony was batting seventh in the order, facing Joe Horlen of the White Sox. He swung at Horlen’s first pitch and hit it over the Green Monster in left field, and even over the net that hung above the Wall. Tony Conigliaro, wearing number 25, took his first home-run trot. Tony told writers afterward that he always swung at the first good pitch he saw. “I don’t like to give the pitcher any kind of edge,” he said.5
In that same spirit, Conigliaro crowded the plate. And pitchers, quite naturally, tried to back him off the plate. He was often hit by pitches, and suffered his first injury on May 24 when Kansas City’s Moe Drabowsky hit him in the left wrist, causing a hairline fracture. Fortunately, Tony missed only four games.
Back in the lineup, back pounding out homers, Tony hit number 20 in the first game of a July 26 doubleheader against Cleveland. In the second game, he got hit for the fifth time in the season, by Pedro Ramos. It broke his arm. This time he missed a month, out until September 4. Conigliaro finished the season with 24 homers and a .290 average.
In 1965, under manager Billy Herman, Tony played in 138 games and hit 32 more homers, enough to lead the league, though his average dipped to .269. During the June free-agent draft, there was more good news for the Conigliaro family: The Red Sox used their first pick to select Tony’s younger brother, Billy. Tony was struck yet again by a ball on July 28, when a Wes Stock pitch broke his left wrist. It was the third broken bone Tony had suffered in just over 14 months. He simply refused to back off the plate. Orioles executive Frank Lane intimated that Red Sox pitchers could defend Tony a bit better by retaliating.
Suffering no serious injuries in 1966, Tony got in a very full season, seeing action in 150 games. He banged out 28 homers and drove in 93 runs, leading the league in sacrifice flies with seven. His average was .265 and the Boston writers voted him Red Sox MVP. The Red Sox as a team, though, played poorly in these years. In 1966 they were spared the ignominy of last place only because the Yankees played even worse. Boston ended the year in ninth place, 26 games out of first, and the Yankees ended in tenth, 26½ games behind the Orioles. In his first three years in the majors, the highest that one of Tony’s teams finished was eighth place in 1964.
Tony C’s brilliant play shone all the more because of the colorless team around him. The local boy made good was a teenage heartthrob and the 6-foot-3 handsome star attracted a lot of attention from local girls, and girls on the road. Assigning older players as roommates to provide a stabilizing presence didn’t do the trick. Dick Williams wrote in his autobiography, “I never saw him. Not late at night, not first thing in the morning, never. I was providing veteran influence to a suitcase.”6 In the early part of 1965, Tony Conigliaro the pop star released his first recording. He recorded a couple of singles and might have developed a career in this area, but kept his focus on baseball.
Billy Conigliaro joined his brother as the two traveled together to spring training in 1967. Tony was hit by a fastball in early workouts and he hurt his back as well. Billy was sent out for more seasoning; he first made the big-league club in 1969. Tony got off to a slow start, batting well enough but without much power. He didn’t hit his third home run until June 11. And he still crowded the plate. Johnny Pesky told author David Cataneo, “He was fearless of the ball. He would just move his head, like Williams did. A ball up and in, Tony would just move his head. He thought the ball would never hit him.”7
The Red Sox surprised everyone with their play in 1967. Conigliaro contributed as well. One game that stood out was an extra-inning affair at Fenway on June 15. Boston was hosting the White Sox and the game was scoreless for 10 full innings. Chicago took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 11th, but Joe Foy singled and then Conigliaro hit a two-run homer off John Buzhardt for a walkoff win. The win moved the Red Sox up by percentage points to put them in a tie for third place, just four games out of first, and the next day’s Boston Globe referred to the “Impossible Dream” season the Red Sox team was having for itself.
It was on July 23 that Tony hit the 100th and 101st home runs of his major-league career. The Red Sox were just a half-game out of first place. It was a tight race, with Boston hanging just out of first, but never quite making it to the top. As late as August 14, the Red Sox were in fifth place – but only three games out.
On the 17th, Tony’s partner in the music business, Ed Penney, was visiting his sons at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Massachusetts. Ted warned Penney, “Tell Tony that he’s crowding the plate. Tell him to back off.” He said, “It’s getting too serious now with the Red Sox.” Penney remembered, “I told him I would. I’d see him the next night. When we were walking across the field to get the kids, and Ted was going up to the stands to make some kind of talk, he turned around and yelled over to me and said, ‘Don’t forget what I told you to tell Tony. Back off, because they’ll be throwing at him.’”8 Penney did tell Tony, before the game the very next night. Tony was in a slump at the time, and told his brother Billy he couldn’t back off the plate or pitchers wouldn’t take him seriously. If anything, he was going to dig in a little closer.
The Red Sox were facing the California Angels the next day – August 18 – and Jack Hamilton’s fourth-inning fastball came in and struck Tony in the face, just missing his temple but hitting him in the left eye and cheekbone. Tony later wrote that he jerked his head back “so hard that my helmet flipped off just before impact.”9 He never lost consciousness, but as he lay on the ground, David Cataneo wrote, Tony prayed, “God, please, please don’t let me die right here in the dirt at home plate at Fenway Park.”10 Tony was fortunate to escape with his life, but his season – and quite possibly his career – was over. Conigliaro had been very badly injured.
The 1967 Red Sox made it to Game Seven of the World Series before the bubble burst. It had nonetheless been a tremendous year for the team, and reignited the passion for the Sox in the city of Boston. Since 1967, tickets for Fenway Park have been hard to come by. Tony, however, felt he’d let the team down. He was down on himself and downplayed his contribution in the drive to the pennant. His teammates were the first to reassure him that they never would have reached the postseason had it not been for his contributions early on. There is little doubt, though, that Conigliaro was missed in the World Series itself. George Scott was unambiguous in his assessment: “I’ve said it a million times, if Tony had been in the lineup, we would have won. He was one of those guys. Reggie Jackson was a big-game player. Tony was that kind of player.”11
There was concern that Conigliaro might lose the sight in his left eye. He tried to come back in spring training, but there was just no way. His vision was inadequate, and his doctor told him, “I don’t want to be cruel, and there’s no way of telling you this in a nice way, but it’s not safe for you to play ball anymore.”12 Tony C wouldn’t quit, though, and against all odds, his vision slowly began to improve. By late May he was told he could begin to work out again. Tony also learned new ways to see the ball. When he looked straight on at the pitcher, he couldn’t see the ball, but he learned to use his peripheral vision to pick up the ball and was able to see well enough by looking a couple of inches to the left. Tony wanted badly to get back into baseball. He spent a good amount of time in the late summer of 1968 trying to learn to become a pitcher, and started several games in the Winter Instructional League for the Sarasota Red Sox beginning on November 4, but he rolled up a record of 0-3, giving up 15 runs in one game, and developed a sore arm as well. He played in the outfield on the days he wasn’t pitching and he began to connect for a few solid hits. He gave up the idea of pitching, emboldened to try to come back as a hitter in spring training 1969.
Not only did Tony make the team in 1969, but he broke back in with a bang, hitting a two-run homer in the top of the 10th on Opening Day in Baltimore, on April 8. The O’s retied the game, but Tony led off in the 12th and worked a walk, eventually coming home to score on Dalton Jones’s sacrifice fly to right. Tony delivered the game-winning hit in the fourth inning of the home opener at Fenway Park on April 14, though admittedly it wasn’t much of a hit. He came up with the bases loaded and wanted to break the game open. Instead, he sent a slow dribbler toward Brooks Robinson at third, and beat it out as Ray Culp scored from third. Tony C was back. It was never easy, and the various books on his struggle document how hard he had to work at what once seemed so effortless, but Tony played in 141 games, hit 20 home runs, and drove in 82 runs. Tony won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. There wasn’t any question who would win it.
The 1970 season was Conigliaro’s best at the plate, with 36 homers and 116 RBIs. He also scored a career-high 89 runs. Brother Billy had made the Red Sox, too, in 1969, getting himself 80 at-bats and acquitting himself well. Billy became a regular in 1970, appearing in 114 games and batting .271. Add his 18 homers to Tony’s 36, and the resulting total of 54 set a record for the most home runs by two brothers on the same major-league club. On July 4 and September 19, they each homered in the same game.
In October the Red Sox traded Tony. Stats aside, they knew that Conigliaro was playing on guts and native talent, but may have sensed that his vision was still questionable. His trade value was as high as it likely ever would be. Not even waiting for Baltimore and Cincinnati to finish the World Series, they packaged Conigliaro with Ray Jarvis and Jerry Moses and swapped him to the California Angels for Ken Tatum, Jarvis Tatum, and Doug Griffin. Even years later, Red Sox executives neither explained nor took credit (or responsibility) for the trade. The news stunned the baseball world – and Red Sox fans in particular. As author Herb Crehan wrote in Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear, referring to Boston’s then-mayor, “it was as if Mayor Menino were to trade the USS Constitution to Baltimore for the USS Constellation.”13 Ken Tatum may have been the key to the trade; the Sox were after a strong reliever and he’d done very well for California.
Tony was crushed, and as Crehan noted, he “never adjusted to life as a California Angel.” David Cataneo wrote, “Tony C and Southern California just didn’t happen.”14 Conigliaro batted just .222 in 1971, with only 4 homers and 15 RBIs just before the All-Star break. His headaches had returned. He wasn’t feeling well. Cataneo mentioned a string of ailments, from a bad leg to a pinched nerve. Tony even put himself in traction for an hour before every game. Some of the Angels lost patience with him and began to mock him. Finally, fed up, he packed his bags and left the team after the July 9 game, announcing his retirement. He told reporters that he simply couldn’t see well enough, but took the Red Sox off the hook for having dealt tarnished goods. “My eyesight never came back to normal. … I pick up the spin on the ball late, by looking away to the side. I don’t know how I do it. I kept it away from the Red Sox. … I had a lot of headaches because of the strain to see. … My search for that damn baseball.”15
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.”16
Billy was part of a major 10-player trade with Milwaukee, but the trade was not made until October. Billy never rejoined the Red Sox. Tony did, but it took a while.
An eye exam Tony underwent after returning to Boston showed that the blind spot in his vision had grown considerably; his vision was deteriorating once more. Tony hadn’t given up yet and in October 1973 talked about wanting to mount another comeback with the Angels in 1974. It appears that the Angels wanted him to play for their Salt Lake City affiliate, to see how he worked out, but Tony was past wanting to play for a minor-league team and so stayed retired. Late in 1974, he wrote to the Red Sox asking for another shot at a comeback and GM Dick O’Connell said he could come to spring training, but not at financial cost to the Red Sox. If he was willing to pay his own way, he was welcome to give it a try. The Angels graciously granted Tony his outright release in November 1974. The Red Sox offered him a contract with the Pawtucket Red Sox, which he signed on March 5, 1975.
Tony took up the challenge, and he had an exceptional spring. On April 4 he got word that he had made the big-league team. Opening Day 1975 was four days later, at Fenway Park on April 8, and Tony was the designated hitter, batting cleanup. With two outs and Yaz on first, Tony singled and Yaz took third. The crowd gave Tony C a three-minute standing ovation. Perhaps Milwaukee pitcher Jim Slaton and his batterymate, Darrell Porter, were caught a little off-guard; the Red Sox scored a run when Tony and Yaz pulled off a double steal.
Tony’s first home run came three days later, off Mike Cuellar in Baltimore. With a first-inning single the following day, he drove in another run, but his .200 average after the April 12 game was the highest he posted for the rest of the season. He appeared only in 21 games, for 57 at-bats, and was batting just .123 after the game on June 12. He was hampered by a couple of injuries; it just wasn’t working out. The Red Sox needed to make room on the 25-man roster for newly acquired infielder Denny Doyle and they asked Tony to go to Pawtucket. After thinking it over for a week, he agreed to and reported, traveling with the PawSox, but getting only sporadic playing time. Manager Joe Morgan said, “He had lost those real good reflexes,” and teammate Buddy Hunter told David Cataneo, “Any guy who threw real hard, he had trouble with.” Hunter added, “He was dropping easy fly balls in the outfield.”17 In August Tony Conigliaro finally called it a day, and retired once again, this time for good. “My body is falling apart,” he explained.18
Before too long, Tony found work as a broadcaster, first in Providence and then in the San Francisco area. He lost a nice gig in the Bay Area in early 1980, but filled in with other stations. In a life full of setbacks, even the health-food store Tony owned in California was lost to mudslides in December 1981.
In early 1982, though, Tony learned that Ken Harrelson was leaving his job as color commentator with Channel 38 in Boston, the Red Sox station. Now there was a job with appeal! He interviewed for the position on the day he turned 37, January 7, 1982. The audition went very well, and he was told he’d got the job. Tony had a couple of other stops to make, and then planned to return to the Bay Area to pack up his gear for the move back to Boston.
On January 9, 1982, Billy Conigliaro was driving Tony to Logan Airport when Tony suffered a heart attack in the car. Though rushed to the hospital, Tony suffered irreversible brain damage and was hospitalized for two months before being discharged into the care of Billy and the Conigliaro family. He lived another eight years before succumbing at age 45 on February 24, 1990.
A version of this biography appeared in “’75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball” (Rounder Books, 2005; SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan.
Cataneo, David. Tony C. (Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997).
Conigliaro, Tony, with Jack Zanger. Seeing It Through (New York: Macmillan, 1970).
Crehan, Herb. Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rounder Books, 2005).
Williams, Dick, with Bill Plaschke. No More Mr. Nice Guy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).
Thanks to Wayne McElreavy for considerable assistance with this profile.
1 Tony Conigliaro, with Jack Zanger, Seeing It Through (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 130.
2 Seeing It Through, 133.
3 Seeing It Through, 145, 146. Some contemporary press reports put the figure at $25,000.
4 Seeing It Through, 167.
5 Seeing It Through, 178.
6 Dick Williams, with Bill Plaschke, No More Mr. Nice Guy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 73.
7 David Cataneo, Tony C. (Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997), 65.
8 Interview with Ed Penney on August 15, 2006.
9 Seeing It Through, 10.
10 Cataneo, 108.
11 Seeing It Through, 124.
12 Seeing It Through, 82.
13 Herb Crehan, Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rounder Books, 2005), 179.
14 Cataneo, 195.
15 Cataneo, 202, 203.
16 Cataneo, 203. For more on Billy Conigliaro’s feelings on the subject, see his biography for SABR’s BioProject.
17 Both the Morgan and Hunter statements are in Cataneo, 223.
18 Associated Press wire story, August 23, 1975.