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CROWE'S NEST

He put in some double time in the big leagues

September 01, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Nobody ever double-dipped quite like Gene Conley.

A three-time National League All-Star as a pitcher, the 6-foot-8 right-hander moonlighted as a reserve center and forward for the Boston Celtics.

The only athlete to win championship rings in two major U.S. professional sports, Conley was part of a World Series-winning team with Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves and won three NBA titles with the Bill Russell-era Celtics.

He struck out Ted Williams in the 1959 All-Star game at the Coliseum, played against Jackie Robinson . . . and guarded Wilt Chamberlain.

His teammates included Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Carl Yastrzemski, but also Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones.

Nobody played two major professional sports longer.

"When I look back, I don't know how I did it, I really don't," Conley says from his home in Clermont, Fla., 15 miles west of Orlando. "I think I was having so much fun that it kept me going. I can't remember a teammate I didn't enjoy."

Conley, who turns 78 in November, once played 12 pro seasons over six years -- six in baseball, six in basketball -- without taking a break in between.

In April 1961, only two weeks after helping the Celtics polish off the St. Louis Hawks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, he pitched into the ninth inning and drove in a run for the Boston Red Sox in a 6-1 victory over the Washington Senators -- with Russell and Jones looking on at Fenway Park.

"I was surprised more guys didn't do it," Conley says of his duality, noting that in his best year as a two-sport professional athlete in the late 1950s and early '60s he made only about $50,000. "In those days, ballplayers had to look for off-season jobs. We didn't get paid big money, and we were raising families. . . .

"Other guys didn't know how I could do it because they thought it was too much of a strain, but I didn't look at it as a strain. I looked at it as work, a paycheck every two weeks. You got 12 checks in the summer and 12 in the winter."

While his baseball employers urged him to give up basketball -- early on, the Braves paid him as much as $5,000 to not play basketball and the Philadelphia Phillies later offered him $20,000 to take the winter off -- Conley says the Celtics and later the New York Knicks didn't care how he spent his summers.

"Red Auerbach used to say, 'Well, Gene, the playoffs are over, the season's over, now you can go down and try to get out of shape so you can pitch,' " Conley, laughing, says of the late Celtics patriarch. "He thought baseball was a sissy game, I think. I said, 'Red, come on. You don't know what it's like to be in St. Louis or Kansas City when it's about 110 degrees on the field and you're out there sweating away with Stan Musial or one of those guys looking out at you.' He laughed."

Conley first signed with the Boston Braves, in 1951, but not before USC's Bill Sharman saw him play basketball for Washington State against UCLA. Later, after joining the Celtics, Sharman told Auerbach to keep an eye on Conley. But when Auerbach called in 1952 to ask about his availability, Conley says, "I didn't know who he was, and I didn't know who the Boston Celtics were."

Still, he liked the idea of playing basketball as an off-season job and he signed on for the 1952-53 season, appearing in 39 games.

As Conley's baseball career took off, however, the Braves paid him to stop playing basketball. Most valuable player in the triple-A American Assn. in 1953, he was a major league All-Star in 1954 and finished third in the voting for National League rookie of the year -- behind Wally Moon and Ernie Banks but ahead of Aaron. In 1955, Conley was the winning pitcher in the All-Star game.

In 1957, he helped the Braves win the World Series. Says Conley, "I thought I was through with basketball."

He was wrong.

After going 0-6 in 1958, Conley saw his salary cut by 20% and made an urgent call to Auerbach, asking again for winter work. By then, the Celtics had added Russell, Heinsohn and Frank Ramsey, won their first NBA title in 1957 and reached the Finals again in 1958, but Auerbach said he'd give him a shot.

Three years later, Conley was a three-time NBA champion. He played six NBA seasons in all, averaging six points and six rebounds in 17 minutes a game. In 11 major league seasons, he was 91-96 with a 3.82 earned-run average.

Heinsohn, his Celtics teammate, later told the Boston Globe, "Had he concentrated on basketball earlier, he would have been a really big-time, great player."

While Conley was a heavy drinker during his playing days -- he famously bolted the Red Sox during a three-day bender in New York in 1962 -- he gave up alcohol in retirement and started a paper company, running it for 35 years.

He and wife Katie, married 57 years and grandparents seven times over, lobbied for years on behalf of the National Basketball Retired Players Assn. and were instrumental in improving pension and medical benefits for old-time players. In 2004, after years of writing, Katie published her husband's biography.

She titled it, "One of a Kind."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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