He was a local kid, from Revere, Massachusetts. He brought some hope to fans of a team that had very little of it for a long time. He was handsome, had a beautiful swing, and led the American League in home runs in 1965. He exploded onto the Red Sox baseball scene with a home run in his first game at Fenway Park in 1964, at the age of 19.
Tony Conigliaro had the world at his feet in 1967. He had just made his first All-Star Game appearance that season, and had 20 home runs by mid-August. He was the youngest player in history to reach 100 home runs, at the age of 22. The Red Sox were in the middle of their first pennant race in over a dozen years, and the fans of New England were excited about the game for the first time in what seemed like ages.
And with one pitch, on August 18, 1967 from California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton, everything changed for Tony Conigliaro.
It was a fastball that kept on riding in on Tony C, and the more he tried to get out of the way, the more it zoomed in on him. It struck him on the left cheekbone, and those players who witnessed it will never forget the sickening thud the sound of the ball hitting him made. (Hamilton to this day insists he was not throwing at Tony C, but he did throw a spitter from time to time, he once admitted.) It broke his cheekbone, and his eye swelled up, and his vision was damaged.
Tony C suffered retinal damage, and was forced to miss the remainder of the 1967 season, as the Red Sox went on to win the 1967 AL pennant in their "Impossible Dream" season. The damage was so severe that he was also forced to site out the entire 1968 season as well.
He made a remarkable return in 1969, hitting a home run on Opening Day in Baltimore, a win over the Orioles. He hit 20 HRs, 82 RBI in 141 games in 1969, and was voted The Comeback Player of the Year in the AL. The next season hit hit 36 HRs, 116 RBIs, which were both career highs for him. He was also voted The Hutch Award that season. ( It is given to the Major League ballplayer that best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of the late Fred Hutchinson, the former Cincinnati Reds manager who died of cancer in 1965.)
The Red Sox traded him that winter in a multi-player deal to the California Angels. He played a half-season for the Angels, hitting just 4 home runs, and decided to retire, due to the injuries he suffered due to the beaning. In 1975, he attempted a comeback with the Red Sox as a designated hitter, and played 15 games that year. But the damage to his eyesight was just too severe, and this time retired for good.
Tony C tried to get back in the game in 1982, this time as a broadcaster with the Red Sox. After what appeared to be a successful tryout, he suffered a heart attack that January, and while in the hospital, suffered a stroke that put him into a coma. He lingered in what was a vegetative state for eight years and never recovered. Tony C died on February 24, 1990, at the all-too-young age of 45.
The Red Sox will honor the memory of Tony Conigliaro before the Saturday night game (ironically enough, against the Angels) on the 40th anniversary of what is one of the worst moments in the history of Fenway Park. Tony C is a legendary name in Red Sox history, and will always remain that way. The Red Sox immortalized him earlier this year by naming a new section of bleachers above right field, "Conigliaro's Corner." It was a great honor for the local kid with a ton of talent who looked like he was taking his first steps to the Hall of Fame. (If you look at Baseball Reference, the great web site, Tony C is compared in his first three seasons to two legendary baseball home runs hitters: Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson.)
I can't help but think of the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, a 19th century poet and fellow Massachusetts native, when it comes to Tony Conigliaro: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"