Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Someone You Should Know Better: Tony Conigliaro

During the Cubs vs. Mets game last night they showed the ugly replay from last month of Kevin Pillar getting hit in the face by a pitch. 

He came back quickly though — he even wanted to get back into game after bleeding all over the field — and now wears a mask for protection.

He’s very, very lucky, because I remember a player who was not so lucky. His name was Tony Conigliaro. 

He was a rising young star with the Boston Red Sox in the 1960s. His rookie year in 1964 at just 19 years of age he hit 24 home runs, an all time record for a teenager that still stands today. The next year he led the entire American League in home runs with 32, at age 20. 

In 1967 he hit home run number 100 for his career at age 22, the youngest American Leaguer ever to reach that milestone. That same year he was selected for the All-Star team — one wonders what took so long, but back then it took longer for young players to break into “the club” because the selection process was different (no fans). 

Already an established star and on pace to hit a very large number of home runs in his career — until tragedy struck on Aug 18, 1967, when he was hit in the eye by a pitch, suffering severe damage to his retina along with facial fractures and a dislocated jaw. 

A famous Sports Illustrated cover shows the damage.

The Red Sox would go on to win the American League pennant despite the loss of Conigliaro, but lost the World Series to the St Louis Cardinals — one suspects that his presence could have made the difference.

He came back in 1969 and won Comeback Player of the Year, and had another good year in 1970 with a career high in homers, but his vision continued to decline and that was essentially the end of his career, at just 25 years old.

Unfortunately further tragedies awaited him in his life after baseball. In 1982 he interviewed to become the Red Sox broadcaster — replacing Hawk Harrelson who the Red Sox had acquired as a player to replace Conigliaro after the injury — but 2 days later suffered a heart attack and a stroke which left him in need of constant care. 

He passed away in 1990 at age 45. To honor him, and to recognize the players who overcome big challenges, the Red Sox that year started an annual Tony Conigliaro Award chosen by the media, commissioner’s office, and the two league presidents. 

A great career cut short, and then his life cut short too. Makes you wonder what might have been, except for that one awful moment.