Numbers lie, the old saying goes. And baseball stat lines, while heavily relied upon, can be misleading. This was perhaps never more true than in the case of Tony Conigliaro’s 1970 season. The 25-year-old Tony C, as Red Sox fans called him, born in Revere, Massachusetts, had an excellent year by any standards, even his own lofty ones, setting career highs with 36 home runs, 89 runs scored, and 149 hits. His 116 RBI, also a career-high, ranked second in the American League, trailing only Washington’s Frank Howard. That single season suggested nothing but promise – his future seemed bright (once again). Maybe Tony C would even be Coopertown-bound one day, like everyone had thought back in mid-1967. Who could have guessed Conigliaro, after all he had been through and overcame, would only hit 6 more homers and drive in just 26 runs for the remainder of his career?
Two years earlier, even that seemed a reach. It was more likely he would never play again. Conigliaro missed the entire 1968 season following a frightful beaning in August 1967, when a Jack Hamilton fastball broke his cheek bone and dislocated his jaw. He could not open his left eye for two weeks, and once he could, he suffered from double vision and limited depth perception. An opthamologist told him he had permanent damage to his retina, causing a blind spot in the center of his vision. There was concern he could lose sight in the eye completely, and his doctor told him it would not be safe to play baseball anymore.
As 19-year-old rookie in 1964 the 6’3″ slugging rightfielder had cleared the Green Monster, and the net above it, on the first pitch he saw at Fenway Park. He batted .290 that year and followed that up in 1965 by leading the league with 32 homers. There was no more popular athlete in Boston. By age 22, Conigliaro became the youngest player in American League history to reach 100 home runs. All before the fateful beaning happened later that same season.
Conigiliaro sat out 1968, but his vision improved enough for him to return and capture Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1969 with 20 home runs and 82 RBI. Then came the booming 1970 season, with Conigliaro reclaiming his place among the game’s best sluggers. It marked his second year playing alongside his brother Billy, and the two combined for 54 home runs, the most ever by two brothers on the same major-league team. But right after the season Tony was dealt to the California Angels for reliever Ken Tatum. Some, including Billy, suspected Tony’s vision-related request to be moved to leftfield sealed his fate, since the team did not want to move Carl Yastrzemski. Others thought the club based the trade on a late-season slump, and that they suspected Tony’s eyesight for the long-term was questionable.
Conigliaro was not happy to leave Boston, and matters got worse quickly in 1971 as his headaches returned. By July 9, he was batting only .222 with 4 home runs, and announced his retirement. An eye exam showed the blind spot in his eye had grown further, deteriorating his vision to 20-300. Still, Tony dreamed of another comeback, and the Red Sox invited him to Spring Training in 1975. He played well enough to win a roster spot and batted cleanup on opening day at Fenway, but was used sparingly while hitting .123 over 21 games before hanging it up for good.
After his playing career Conigliaro worked as a broadcaster in San Francisco, then in 1982 interviewed for his dream job, an analyst for Red Sox games on cable television. The interview went well, and Conigliaro was excited about the prospect of returning home. Billy was driving him to the airport so he could get back to San Francisco and wrap things up there, when Tony suffered a serious heart attack, followed by a massive stroke. By the time Conigliaro reached the emergency room, he was in a coma and had sustained irreversible brain damage. He never awoke from the coma and finally died in 1990, at only 45 years of age.
Sadly, the young man who had led such a charmed early life would very soon thereafter meet far more than his share of unfortunate turns. And all the promise that seemed so inevitable in mid-1967, and then again in 1970, would prove not meant to be.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: