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In That Freeze-Frame Instant 20 Years Ago, It Got Dark for Tony C

August 23, 1987|Associated Press

BOSTON — Jack Hamilton remembers Tony Conigliaro "didn't even flinch" when he threw an 0-and-2 fastball on Aug. 18, 1967 that hit "Tony C" in the head.

It knocked the 22-year-old slugger out of the Boston Red Sox's American League pennant-winning and World Series season. It sidetracked and eventually ruined a promising career.

Now, 20 years later, Conigliaro may not be aware of the anniversary. He suffered a massive heart attack in January 1982 that plunged him into a coma. He came out of it about four months later.

Still seriously handicapped, he lives in his mother's home north of Boston.

"There is no explanation for the heart attack," said Mike Andrews, a second baseman on the 1967 Red Sox. "He was a clean liver. He owned a health food store in California. He was young and in perfect condition. In fact, he may have survived because he was in such good condition."

His future, uncertain now, seemed bright two decades ago when he stepped to the plate at Fenway Park.

Conigliaro, a Massachusetts high school star who realized the dream of many fans by playing for his favorite team, was batting in the fourth inning against the Angels.

"It was a high fast ball," Hamilton, an Angels' reliever, remembered during a telephone interview Monday from his restaurant in Hollister, Mo. "He didn't move at all, he didn't even flinch, jerk his head or anything. It was hard to sit there and take a pitch like that."

The ball hit Conigliaro in the left temple, just below the batting helmet. X-rays disclosed a fractured left cheekbone. But Conigliaro's vision never fully returned, and he never realized the Hall of Fame career that was being predicted for him by teammates.

Hamilton said he didn't rush to help Conigliaro because he didn't realize the extent of the injury.

"When I found out how serious it was, I tried to visit him at the hospital but they were only letting the family in," Hamilton said. "I never had a chance to see him or say anything to him after that."

Hamilton's next appearance at Fenway Park was the following season, when he was greeted with a chorus of boos when he was brought in to put down a Red Sox rally.

Rico Petrocelli, the on-deck batter, remembered being the first one to reach his fallen teammate.

"His eyes were closed, and he was clutching the side of his face," said Petrocelli, now a manager in the Chicago White Sox farm system. "When I got there, the side of his face swelled up like a balloon. He didn't say anything."

Conigliaro, just 22, not only missed the Red Sox' drive for the pennant, won by one game over the Minnesota Twins. He also was unavailable for the World Series, which the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

"You don't forget the pennant year," Petrocelli said. "But you also don't forget seeing Tony get hit. I remember that the ball was up and in. He didn't move. And when he did move his head a little, it was just too late. It smashed him in the temple close to the eye."

During his career, Conigliaro crowded the plate and never was willing to give in to any pitcher who threw inside, Andrews said.

"He had a tendency not to give any and to freeze," Andrews said. "He just hated to give in to any pitcher and he'd just hang in there."

Andrews said that if any player should have been wearing a protective flap on his helmet, it should have been Conigliaro.

Conigliaro missed the entire 1968 season. After playing part of the 1969 season, he came back in 1970 and had his best season with 36 homers and 116 runs batted in.

Conigliaro's younger brother, Billy, also played for the Red Sox from 1969 to 1971.

Tony C. was traded to the Angels in the off-season for second baseman Doug Griffin, relief pitcher Ken Tatum and outfielder Jarvis Tatum.

He retired after playing a half-season for the Angels, citing recurring vision problems.

In 1975, Conigliaro made one last comeback try with Boston but was released after 21 games. The Red Sox said they planned to go with rookie outfielders Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.

Conigliaro was done as a player at the age of 30.

In 876 career games, he batted .264 with 166 homers and 516 RBIs. Conigliaro became the youngest player to win a home run crown when he hit 32 at the age of 20.

After leaving baseball, he worked as a sportscaster for television stations in Providence, R.I., and San Francisco.

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