Wednesday, September 07, 2005
We all have heroes. This is a story about one of mine.
I can pinpoint with precision the day I became a baseball fan. It was Sunday, July 12th, 1964. I was 7 years old at the time and my parents were visiting the home of my Granduncle Jim. He was a bachelor who shared a marvelous apartment in Roslindale with two of my unmarried grandaunts, Aunt Loretta and Aunt Pat. I remember many a pleasant day visiting there. On this particular day, while my parents and aunts sat in the kitchen talking about whatever parents and aunts talk about on a summer sunday, Uncle Jim removed himself from the conversation to go sit in his favorite chair in the living room and watch the Boston Red Sox play a doubleheader against the Washington Senators.
Uncle Jim must have been a seriously diehard baseball fan. In 1964, you would have been hard pressed to find a less appealing doubleheader. The Red Sox and Senators were battling it out to see which team could clinch 9th place before September. The Sox were three years away from the beginning of their rise to glory, the marvelous "Impossible Dream" team of 1967. The starting infield was populated by the likes of Felix Mantilla, Eddie Bressoud and Dick Stuart. Of the regulars that year, Bressoud led the team with a .293 average. Dalton Jones and a young Carl Yastrzemski tied for the team lead in stolen bases with 6, so they obviously didn't have speed to make up for the lack of hitting. The Senators, on the other hand, had such luminaries as Ron Kline, Fred Valentine, Eddie Brinkman and Don Lock on their roster.
Anyway, Uncle Jim settled in to watch this thing on his black and white TV, and I settled in next to Uncle Jim, laying on the rug by his chair. I knew very little about baseball, so I'm sure I asked him all sorts of idiotic and (to a knowledgeable fan) exasperating questions. He answered them all, patiently and thoroughly, while the Sox split the doubleheader with the Senators. I was hooked from that point onward. I have lived and died with the fortunes of the Red Sox since then, and even had a secondary rooting interest in the Senators, until they deserted Washington for Texas in the 1970's.
Since the Red Sox were my favorite team, it made sense that my favorite player would be a part of that team. He was, and his name was Tony Conigliaro. I liked him because he hit home runs and he was the youngest guy on the team - nothing weightier than that.
Tony C, as he was called by many, was a local kid from Revere. He was 19 in 1964, his first year in the majors. He played right field at Fenway and swatted big flys into the screen in left. He hit 24 home runs in that rookie season, a season shortened by a broken arm, and he still owns the major league mark for most home runs before the age of 20. He led the American League in home runs in 1965 with 32 - the youngest player ever to lead the league in that category. He was, at the time he did it in 1967, the youngest player in league history to reach 100 career home runs. He appeared to have a legitimate shot at passing Babe Ruth's career high 714 home runs, if he could play long enough.
On top of his ballplaying skills, he was handsome and had a fair singing voice. He recorded a few songs during his time with the Sox, predating such current day player/singers as Bronson Arroyo by four decades. He made appearances on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows, much to the delight of his many young female fans. His future was seemingly limitless.
It all came crashing down in August of 1967. In the middle of the first real pennant race I had ever had the thrill of following, Tony C was beaned by a Jack Hamilton fastball. It crushed the left side of his face, leaving him without vision in his left eye for a time. He missed the remainder of the season and the ensuing World Series appearance of the Sox. Blurred and double vision forced him to sit out the entire 1968 season as well.
He made a somewhat miraculous return in 1969, hitting 20 homers and winning the Comeback Player of the Year award. Then, in 1970, he hit a career high of 36 home runs, batting in 116. Then the Red Sox ripped my 13-year-old heart out. They traded Tony during the off-season, to the California Angels.
I've never understood how a team can do that. A man is a local hero, beloved by the fans, having endured athletic tragedy and fought his way back to the top. He has delivered the goods, and then some, and you ship him out of town? The good will engendered by keeping him would seem to be enough, let alone whatever production he might contribute, but they traded him anyway.
As it turned out, at least from a business perspective, the Sox were right. 1970 turned out to have been Tony's final full season. His continuing vision problems forced his retirement from the Angels in 1971.
My hero made me proud again, though. In 1975, he attempted another comeback, again with the Red Sox. He made the team and started on opening day.
I tried so very hard to get a ticket to that opening day. I wanted to hear his name announced over the loudspeakers by PA announcer Sherm Feller, see him take his place on the field, and join with every person in that ballpark by standing up and applauding for the man. Instead, having been unable to secure a spot inside the park, I stood outside and heard the enormous and long ovation he received. He hit a home run. That's what a hero does, of course.
He only lasted a few more weeks before having to give it up for good, but I was more than satisfied that I couldn't possibly have picked a better player to cheer for all those years. He never gave less than his all and he never gave up until he had thoroughly exhausted his possibilities. Those are traits we should all strive to have.
Inasmuch as any man blessed in many ways can be tragic, Conigliaro certainly was. His latter days were filled with misfortune, much as his younger ones had been. While in Boston in 1982, to interview for a sportscasting position, he suffered a crippling heart attack and lapsed into a coma. He never fully recovered and spent the remaining years of his life in a wheelchair, battling various ailments and having a series of strokes. He passed away at the age of 45, about the time he would have been giving his acceptance speech for his election to the Hall Of Fame, if all had gone as it seemed it might at one point.
I'm appending his stats below, but heroes aren't heroes because of statistics. They are people who display heart and bravery in the face of adversity. Tony C started out as just a baseball player I liked a lot, but he became a hero of mine. He still is.
YR AGE TEAM G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K AVG.
1964 19 BOS 111 404 69 117 21 2 24 52 35 78 .290
1965 20 BOS 138 521 82 140 21 5 32 82 51 116 .269
1966 21 BOS 150 558 77 148 26 7 28 93 52 112 .265
1967 22 BOS 95 349 59 100 11 5 20 67 27 58 .287
1969 24 BOS 141 506 57 129 21 3 20 82 48 111 .255
1970 25 BOS 146 560 89 149 20 1 36 116 43 93 .266
1971 26 CAL 74 266 23 59 18 0 4 15 23 52 .222
1975 30 BOS 21 57 8 7 1 0 2 9 8 9 .123
8 Seasons 876 3221 464 849 139 23 166 516 287 629 .264