As many of you (fellow old people) know, 1967 is the year that changed everything for the Boston Red Sox, when black and white turned to color, the duckling turned into a swan, a team captured the heart of a region and never let go. 54 years and counting.
The fly in the 1967 ointment, and it’s a helluva fly, is the career-altering beaning of Tony Conigliaro on August 18. I came to the Impossible Dream a year or so later, age 7, when Tony C. was out of baseball, and the more I learned about him the more I struggled to wholly buy into the feel-good nature of 1967. How can the most “fun” season in team history be the one when the most popular player on the team got hit in the face and had his career and life derailed? While perhaps not quite at the “Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” level, it is in the same area code.
Although I started collecting cards in 1967, I became a baseball fan, a real day-to-day, listen-to-the-radio, check-the-boxscores baseball fan, in 1968. When I pulled Tony C’s Topps card (above) that spring I didn’t know that much about him, though I might have had his 1967 card as well. He never seemed to be in the lineup. Was he just not good enough?
The back of this card offers a clue: “Boston fans are hoping for a complete recovery for Tony in 1968.” I sought out a friend, three years older than me and a Yankee fan, for an explanation. “He was really good, but he didn’t make it back. He’s through,” he informed me.
So that was that. Whatever he was, I apparently had missed it.
I had missed a lot.
Conigliaro had grown up in Revere, East Boston, and Swampscott, Massachusetts all within a few miles of each other just outside Boston. I knew this area well–my parents both grew up in Lynn, right in the middle of these towns, and my grandparents and most of my extended family were still there. Conigliaro went to to St. Mary’s High, a parochial school in Lynn. For the rest of his life, all of these towns claimed him as one of their own.
So, let’s get to his cards.
In retrospect, it is impressive that Topps chose to place Conigliaro on this card in 1964. Topps made a TON of “Rookie Stars” cards every year in the 1960s, stretching the notion of “star” considerably. In fact, they had two others that year for the Red Sox.
Of these six “Stars,” Jones had the second best career, lasting nine seasons mainly as a platoon or reserve infielder. Still, Topps’s one-for-six here is actually pretty good and they deserve credit for Tony C.
Conigliaro had played one minor league season, with Wellsville in the Single-A New York-Penn League, hitting .363 with 24 home runs in 83 games. Obviously a top prospect, but it was the low minors and he was just 18. Most observers were surprised he made the team, but Topps was ready with this card in the 3rd series.
And Tony hit right way. A home run in his first at bat at Fenway, he ended up at .290 with 24 home runs despite missing five weeks with a broken arm. Conigliaro began his career as a center fielder, but after a month manager Johnny Pesky moved him to left field and Carl Yastrzemski to center for the rest of 1964, a piece of trivia that may surprise many modern Red Sox fans.
It was a great year for rookies, and Tony Oliva fully deserved his Rookie of the Year award. But Conigliaro snagged a Topps trophy on his first solo baseball card.
In 1965, the 20-year-old Conigliaro hit a league-leading 32 home runs. Before you scoff, understand that the 1960s were an extremely challenging time for hitters. The Red Sox were lousy in the mid-1960s, but the emergence of Conigliaro meant that they now had at least two good players (he and Yaz). It was a start.
Conigliaro was tremendously popular in Boston, especially with young people, more especially with young women. He “dated” a lot of these women, a pursuit which caused him to miss a few curfews and draw a few fines from his managers. He also dug rock ‘n roll records, and made several himself.
His musical tastes ran towards soft rock, which was surely part of zeitgeist in 1965. He didn’t write music or play any instruments (at least not for recording or on stage), but if you were looking for a Tom Jones who could also hit 30 homers, he was your guy.
There were rumblings among some of the older fans, people who told their own kids to turn down their Beatles records, that Conigliaro was a little too brash, a little too focused on his life outside of baseball, a little too-big-too-fast. But he was the most popular player on the team throughout the region. The generation gap was beginning to be an issue in the culture, and surely applied here.
And his popularity was beginning to expand beyond Boston.
Conigliaro’s parents and two younger brothers, who lived right up the road, went to all the games and were around the team daily. On a couple of occasions Tony got in hot water for missing curfews, so his father took Tony in to speak with the manager–just as he would have when Tony was 12.
In 1965 baseball held its first-ever amateur draft, and the Red Sox’ first round pick was Swampscott High outfield star Billy Conigliaro. Younger brother Richie’s Little League team was presumably being scouted.
Heading into the 1966 season, Conigliaro was an established baseball star with a record contract, and still just 21 years old.
The 1966 season was more of the same — 28 home runs, 93 RBI. The team had added Rico Petrocelli, George Scott and Jim Lonborg; still a ninth place team, but if you squinted you might have begun to see the start of something.
Conigliaro was photogenic in the extreme and there are hundreds of great photos of him from this period, but there is a sameness to his Topps baseball cards. His 1965 card is the only flagship card where he is not simply posing with a bat, and only the 1969 card can be said to feature the bare makings of a smile. Considering the degree of his popularity, and his obvious charm, its too bad Topps never got a great photo.
Early last year I finally finished the 1967 Topps Red Sox sticker set, with the “Tony Conigliaro Is My Hero” being my 33rd and final card. It is not the most attractive set in the world, or even particularly desirable unless you are a collector of a certain age who grew up in New England. Topps put out two “test” sticker sets that season, for the Red Sox and Pirates, and they share a simple design. I assume they “failed” their test, since Topps never marketed stickers like this again, but they are popular today because (a) the Pirates set has two Roberto Clemente stickers, and (b) the Red Sox team became Boston’s most beloved of the 20th century and arguably beyond.
When Conigliaro was beaned, the Red Sox were in their first pennant race in 17 years and Conigliaro might have been on his way to his best season. He had missed time because of military duty but still started the All-Star game (he played all 15 innings–it was a different time), and was hitting .287 with power when he got hurt. He missed the rest of the pennant race and the World Series. He might have helped.
Tony C showed up to Winter Haven in February 1968 fully expecting to play. He hit well for a couple of weeks, but struggled late in March and went to back to Boston to see an eye specialist. The news was stunning: he had lost most of the vision in his left eye, and his career was likely over.
A few months later is when I came in, as I began my own crazy baseball fan journey and wondered who this Conigliaro guy was.
Throughout the summer and fall there was occasional news. Maybe his eye would get better, maybe he’d become a pitcher, maybe he’d just manage his swingin’ night club, maybe he’d be a rock ‘n roller full time. His replacement in right field–Ken Harrelson — hit 35 home runs and led the league in RBI. We missed Tony, but had we found his statistical twin?
The next spring, my first experience anticipating a season as a full-time fan, Conigliaro came back. Which was, I assure you, absolutely bonkers. This was the biggest baseball story of my childhood, full stop. Still immensely popular–he lived nearby, his brother was a hot prospect, his family was in the paper every day–his eyesight had apparently recovered, at least enough to hit. He was back in the lineup.
He hit a home run on opening day in Baltimore, on his way to several Comeback Player of the Year awards. A couple of weeks into the season, the Red Sox traded Ken Harrelson to Cleveland–feeling they had more than enough power now.
I attended my first big league game on June 22, an extra-inning loss that featured back-to-back homers by Petrocelli and Tony C. For me, this was no longer a tragic story–he was a baseball hero, hitting home runs.
Tony was a big national story, likely even bigger than he had been before he was beaned. He wrote a book, and he was back on newsstands.
As a young Red Sox fan, I can’t overstate how amazing and thrilling this all was. His season (20 homers, .255) was a bit down from his pre-injury form, but he was still just 24 years old and the sky once again seemed to be the limit.
The best Sporting News cover in history:
This magazine cover hung on my wall in 1970, and, not gonna lie, it’s still there.
Tony appeared to come all the way back in 1970, hitting a career-high 36 home runs and driving in a career-high 116 runs (second in the league). If that weren’t enough, brother Billy took over left field in mid-summer, moving Carl Yastrzemski to first base. The Conigliaros hit 54 home runs between them, setting a new record for teammate brothers.
All of this turned out to be a mirage. We later learned that the sight in Tony’s left eye had not really come all the way back, and in fact it was occasionally quite poor. He was playing with one good eye.
In October of 1970, the Red Sox made a six-player deal with the California Angels that sent Tony out west. (Did they know something?) I was just about to turn 10, and this was a devastating gut punch, as big as I have ever received not counting, well, … never mind about that.
Topps had plenty of time to ruin their spring training baseball photograph with a blackened hat.
As this is supposed to be a baseball cards blog, and the above is Tony’s final flagship card, I am going to end my narrative here. For Tony C, there was a lot of heartache to come, setbacks atop setbacks, so if you are up for it you can check out SABR’s biography. He was dealt many tough hands.
Needless to say, Conigliaro has remained an extremely important figure in Red Sox history. There is an active movement to retire his #25, a movement I support. For fans who came along later, his story begins with the record book, with Conigliaro’s modest 166 home runs and 12.4 WAR. I don’t really have an answer for that, other than to promise you that he was a big f**king deal, whose career and life never recovered from August 18, 1967.