It was 50 years ago tonight that Tony Conigliaro was hit by a Jack Hamilton fastball that arguably ended his career and possibly altered the course of Boston Red Sox history.
Yet while 11 numbers hang on public display on the right field grandstand wall — 10 belonging to Red Sox immortals and one (42) in honor of Jackie Robinson — No. 25 is not among them.
Why? And why do we still have to ask the Red Sox, 50 years later, to honor Tony Conigliaro by retiring his number? Why couldn’t they have done it Wednesday, when they honored the 50th anniversary of the “Impossible Dream” 1967 team that came out of nowhere to win the American League pennant? Or why not tonight, when they are honoring his legacy?
They can’t even stay consistent with the excuses. In the beginning, the reason the Red Sox cited for not retiring No. 25 was that the honor was reserved for national Hall of Famers — a policy the team maintained until 2008, when Johnny Pesky’s No. 6 went up there. No disrespect intended for Johnny, who clearly deserved the honor as the de facto Red Sox ambassador for more than a half century. But now that the precedent is set, what’s stopping the Red Sox from similarly honoring Conigliaro?
The case for retiring Conigliaro’s number is compelling, even if his career only lasted essentially six years (and parts of a couple of others). It should have been among the first ones honored, after Ted Williams and Joe Cronin, perhaps, but before any of the others.
In 3½ years with the Red Sox, from 1964 through Aug. 18, 1967, “Tony C” became part of Boston’s Zeitgeist, and not merely because of how he played baseball (which was magnificently). By anyone’s definition, he was Boston’s most eligible bachelor — a matinee-idol handsome, supremely confident celebrity. He could hit home runs. He could sing rock ‘n’ roll. He was the antithesis of the old-fashioned, crew-cut caricatures that came out of the 1940s and ’50s. Like the Beatles who invaded America a scant month before he burst on the scene, Tony C was a walking, talking embodiment of what the 1960s would become. In time, he became the forerunner of “the modern athlete,” who made as much news off the field as he did on it.
Until he was hit by Hamilton’s pitch, he was one of the team’s leading hitters. Thanks to him, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg and others, the 1967 season was a thrilling, tense, four-team horserace that ended Oct. 1, the final day of the season. That’s when the Red Sox beat the Minnesota Twins and then listened on the radio as the California Angels defeated the Detroit Tigers to ensure a pennant without the torture of a one-game playoff. It is sadly ironic that Conigliaro, who was seen as part of the team’s future, was out of action because of the injury.
To call someone “brash” is not a compliment, but that was the word writers used to describe Conigliaro. Sure, he was cocky. He had a swagger about him.
And he was conscious of his growing popularity. He drove a Corvette (for which he paid cash, much to the astonishment of the dealer in Lynn who wouldn’t give him the time of day when he went in and asked about buying one). Used to stand at his locker with Rico Petrocelli and a few others, singing doo-wop harmonies. Once, when he felt that the clientele at a Chicago hotel didn’t fully appreciate who was in their midst, he went to the desk and had himself paged.
At the tender age of 20, he was bigger than life — and knew it.
But Dizzy Dean had it right. “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” said The Diz.
And boy, could Tony C do it.
Conigliaro was 19 when he played his first Major League game. As the club opened on the road, he’d had a few at-bats under his belt by the time he got to Fenway Park to face Joel Horlen and the Chicago White Sox.
Conigliaro walked up to the plate, got into his familiar wide-open stance, bat held high, legs spread far apart, and clobbered Horlen’s first pitch over the screen in left field for a homer.
Then again, Tony C had a flair for the dramatic, which is another way of saying he was clutch.
In the early 1970s, a few years after Conigliaro had abruptly retired from the Angels (to whom he was traded in 1970) in 1971, I asked Clif Keane, a legendary baseball writer for the Boston Globe, what he’d thought of Conigliaro. It’s easy for us to rhapsodize about him around here. He was local, a local boy and a St. Mary’s graduate, and we all hero-worshipped him. But with our stunning lack of historical perspective and objectivity, it was important for me, a fledgling writer, to gain some.
Keane, a press box wit and wag, was as blunt and irreverent as they came. If David Price is offended by Dennis Eckersley’s candor, he’d have hated Keane, who jabbed the needle wherever he could find the spot that stung the most.
But not this time.
“He was a helluva hitter,” Keane said, quite seriously. “Especially when it mattered.”
By the time he was 22, in 1967 — his fourth year in the bigs — Conigliaro had already hit 100 homers. He had the classic Fenway swing, and enough power so that when he squared up on a ball, it traveled.
For comparison’s sake, Barry Bonds didn’t hit his 100th homer until he was into his fifth season in the Majors. Ken Griffey Jr. also hit No. 100 during his fifth season.
This would indicate that Tony C, had fate not intervened so cruelly, was on a path to have similarly historic numbers by the time he retired — yet another reason the team continues to miss the boat on doing what it should do. For Tony C never got the chance to do anything historic other than be hideously thrown to the ground by the ball that sailed out of Jack Hamilton’s hand.
He was hit because he was fearless. Even in high school, Conigliaro had no problem facing, and hitting, the top pitchers in the area. St. Mary’s went up to St. John’s Prep during Conigliaro’s sophomore season and faced future phenom Danny Murphy. And to hear his friends tell it, he took Murphy deep. He bragged that he was going to take Murphy deep before the game and teammates Frankie Carey and Tommy Iarrobino told him to shut up. Today, Iarrobino tells the story as he shakes his head and gives a rueful smile.
It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.
But that fearlessness almost got him killed. Considering all he had brought to the city, and to Major League Baseball, Aug. 18, 1967, is as significant a date as any in Boston history.
To understand that fearlessness, one has to know that Conigliaro had been in a slump; one of his solutions was to get even closer to the plate than before. Back in 1967, major league pitchers had no problem throwing at batters who stood too close; and MLB did next to nothing to stop them.
Two months earlier, Thad Tillotson of the Yankees had beaned Joe Foy, setting off an infamous Yankee Stadium brawl. Foy stayed in the game, later instigating the fight when he challenged Tillotson, who’d been hit in retaliation by Lonborg.
Conigliaro wasn’t as lucky. He settled in against Hamilton — who had earned a reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to buzz a hitter — and waited. Hamilton didn’t just buzz Conigliaro. He hit him flush in the face, just south of the bottom of his helmet. Conigliaro went down … and stayed down.
He was carried off the field on a stretcher (Petrocelli was one of those holding it), and spent a frightful night at Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge before it was determined that his life was no longer in danger. His brother Richie said, “We all thought he was going to die.”
It took him until opening day of 1969 to get back on the field, and — of course — hit a home run in Baltimore that, at the time, put the team ahead of the Orioles. Flair for the dramatic.
But he’d suffered a detached retina when he was hit, and after his eyesight had improved to the point where he could compete as a hitter, he began to deteriorate again. This could possibly explain why he was traded to the Angels after a season in which he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs.
He never felt fully comfortable with the Angels, and was hitting .222 with only four homes in August 1971, when he announced his retirement.
He had one more brief comeback in 1975, but retired a second, and final, time that summer. (Again, it is sadly ironic to note that the team won the American League pennant.)
There are so many things left to say. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Conigliaro could have hit more than 600 homers, maybe even approached 700. He most likely would have been in the Hall of Fame by now. With Carl Yastrzemski and Conigliaro terrorizing pitchers throughout the 1970s, there’s no telling what might have happened.
On the other hand, it’s just as likely that Tony C would have continued his propensity for getting injured, and that the cumulative effect of crashing into walls and being hit by inside fastballs would eventually take their toll. Maybe with all the injuries, he’d have topped off at 500. Who knows?
There is no denying, however, that Conigliaro’s injury — easily the most significant in the annals of Boston sports — changed the course of Red Sox history.
What’s also undeniable is that in Boston, three momentous things happened in 1967, and two of them involved Lynn. Albert DeSalvo, the self-proclaimed Boston Strangler, was captured at Simons Uniform in Lynn after having escaped from Bridgewater State Hospital; the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; and Tony Conigliaro was beaned by Jack Hamilton.
I know the Red Sox consider it a stretch to retire No. 25 because there really is no telling how he’d have ended up. But the Sox really need to make an exception here — if not for the career he might have had, then for the courage he showed in coming back not once, but twice, to get back in the batter’s box and face Major League pitching.
Come on, John Henry. Do it.