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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In 1975, Tony Conigliaro was the story of spring training

Yaz and Tony C, together again

Each Red Sox spring training a new underdog emerges as a surprise in camp, and all but forces management to keep him on the roster with a string of standout performances.

The hits often stop coming once the regular season starts (see Jackie Bradley Jr., 2013), but for a brief moment or two in the sun these unlikely heroes are a great source of discussion for columnists and sports talk radio callers. 

Forty winters ago, the biggest offseason news in the American League was Hank Aaron's trade to the Milwaukee Brewers after 20 years in the NL with the Braves. Meanwhile, in Winter Haven, Fla., another former home run king showed up at Boston's spring training camp under far different circumstances. 

He had been away from the major leagues for more than three years, but talked his way into a tryout and even offered to pay his own way to Florida. The Red Sox said that wasn't necessary, management would pick up the tab for the 30-year-old hopeful.

Hopeful: 1975

Of course this wasn't just any hopeful. This was Tony C.

Tony Conigliaro, born in Revere and raised a few miles from Fenway Park dreaming of a spot in the Red Sox lineup, had lived that dream and then some. He was signed by his hometown club out of St. Mary's High in Lynn and had an outstanding first year in the minors with Waterloo. 

Portrait of a young slugger.

He first made spring training headlines in 1964, when his slugging prowess against big-league hurlers prompted manager Johnny Pesky to declare him ready for the majors just a few months after his 19th birthday.

Pesky was right. Conig hit 24 home runs as a rookie, 32 to lead the AL in 1965, and slugged his 100th career blast during the magical '67 season -- making him the youngest American Leaguer ever to reach that plateau. His sweet right-handed swing was made for Fenway, and he looked like a 500-homer man for sure.

If that wasn't enough, he also cut rock records and had a face made for Hollywood. Every Boston boy wanted to be Tony C., and every Boston girl wanted to date him.

It's a happy birthday for Tony.

One pitch that hit Conigliaro squarely in the face on Aug. 18, 1967 changed everything. It nearly killed him, severely damaged his left eye, and kept him out of the thrilling AL pennant race and the World Series. Doctors predicted he would never play again. 

He defied the odds, rebounding after more than a year off to hit 20 homers for the Red Sox in 1969 and 36 (along with 116 RBI) in '70 -- even though he later admitted he could only see out of his good eye. 
Star-crossed: Brothers Billy (left) and Tony C.

Management likely suspected his secret, and gambled that Tony couldn't keep it up by trading him to the California Angels after the 1970 season in one of the most unpopular deals in team history. 

They were right, however; things never jelled for Conig out west and he retired midway through '71 with his eyesight getting worse. Tony came home, took up karate, and opened a nightclub with his brother and former Boston outfield partner Billy. Most figured that was the end of the story.

Airbrushed Angel, 1971

Now here was Tony C. again, back alongside his old teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli laboring under the Florida sun in those softball-style '75 uniforms. His left eye had checked out OK -- his doctor called the recovery "a miracle" -- and Boston needed more pop in its lineup. 

If Conigliaro could recapture the old magic, general manager Dick O'Connell promised, he had a good chance to make the club as a designated hitter or outfielder.

Dick O'Connell believed in Tony.

And while he didn't exactly crush the ball in spring training, Tony C. did hit well enough early on to force management's hand. As Bostonians were recovering from more than 17 inches of snow, their hearts were warmed when O'Connell signed Conigliaro to a contract with Triple A Pawtucket on March 5, 1975. 

"If he makes good during the spring," the GM told reporters, "he will then be given a contract with us."

A 5-for-8, 5-RBI spree over the final couple games of the exhibition schedule helped Conigliaro's cause, and on April 4 the Red Sox announced he had made the team's 25-man MLB roster. He was in the lineup as the DH against Aaron and the Brewers on Opening Day at Fenway Park, and had a single in his first time up. 

Asked if he could have imagined a year earlier that he and Aaron would be together like this, Tony C. smiled. "The only way would be if he came to my nightclub."
Aaron and Anthony: Opening Day, 1975

Conigliaro was back where he belonged. He hit his first homer a few days later -- his first in an MLB game in nearly four years -- and Yastrzemski told reporters that "There's no question that Tony is going to really help us." All of New England was rooting along with Yaz. This would be the comeback of all comebacks.

In the end, it just didn't happen. Conigliaro struggled, rookie Jim Rice took over as the regular DH, and despite continuing to get huge ovations each time he stepped to the plate at Fenway, Tony C. couldn't get his sweet swing back. In June, with his average at .123, management gave him a choice -- accept a trade, go to the minor leagues, or be released. 

He wanted to play in the majors, but when no other teams were interested, he opted for Pawtucket. After more struggles there including a .220 average and back spasms, he quit for good on August 21 and announced he was taking a job as a TV sports broadcaster with Channel 10 in Providence. 
A new career

Conigliaro looked forward to a long new career, but this wouldn't come to be either. He suffered a massive heart attack and irreversible brain damage in 1982, at age 37, and spent the rest of his life under the care of his family before dying in 1990 -- right around the time he might have been making his Hall of Fame induction speech had life dealt him different cards. 

"If I thought the Red Sox would ever need me, I'd keep playing," Conigliaro said during a press conference at his Nahant bar when he quit in the summer of '75. "But they certainly don't need me."

He was wrong. Boston was in first place at the time, and would wind up winning the AL East and the pennant behind the dynamic rookie duo of Rice and Fred Lynn. 

But Boston always needed Tony C.    




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