Tony Conigliaro was riding the Boston Red Sox' team bus from Fenway Park to Logan Airport late on a Sunday afternoon. Traffic was slow, so he busied himself with a notebook and a pen. It was April 1975. Tony C was 30, and his comeback after four years away from the game was stalled by a pulled groin muscle, as well as by a rookie named Jim Rice, who had grabbed the designated-hitter job Tony had sought.
He turned to me and said, "Don't worry about me. I'll go to Pawtucket [Boston's Triple A farm team] and show I can still swing the bat." He then showed me the notebook and said, "What do you think of this?"
Tony had written an outline for a half-hour celebrity golf TV show. "We'll tape it at my club," he said, referring to a nine-hole course next to a nightclub that Tony and his younger brother Billy owned in Nahant, six miles from Boston. "We'll have sports figures. We'll have show biz people. It'll go over big."
Tony C was always dreaming big. He was cocky and brash, but why shouldn't he have been? As a 19-year-old rookie in 1964, he batted .290 with 24 homers. A year later he hit 32 home runs to become the youngest player ever to lead the American League in that category, and in July 1967 he became the youngest player in history to get homer No. 100.
Tony was the local boy from Swampscott and St. Mary's High in Lynn who made it to the big leagues. With his ability to pull the ball to left, he was born to play in Fenway, and he was the best clutch hitter the Red Sox had had in 30 years. "He was so cocky, he knew he'd beat the pitcher with the game on the line," said former teammate Carl Yastrzemski.
Tony introduced rock music to the Red Sox bus. He cut a record in 1965, though Playing the Field wasn't exactly a chartbuster. He dated actress Mamie Van Doren. And he had a flair for the dramatic. In 1964 the Red Sox dedicated their home opener to John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated five months earlier. Rookie Tony C homered on the first pitch of his first at bat in his Fenway debut. In '75, shortly before he would give up the game for good, he hit the Red Sox' first homer of the season.
Yet there was so much tragedy in the life of this gifted man. On Aug. 18, 1967, in the midst of Boston's impossible-dream season that would end with a seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, California Angel pitcher Jack Hamilton beaned Tony C. He missed the rest of that season and all of the following one as he struggled with blurred vision. With only one good eye, he came back to hit 20 homers in '69, and 36 the next year. Boston traded him to the Angels before the '71 season, but he lasted only 74 games. His eyesight had worsened, and he decided to retire. When Tony returned to Boston in '75, he could do no better than a .123 average in 21 games. He was through for good.
But Tony C could not shake his bad luck. After a brief career as a TV sportscaster, he opened a health-food store in Los Angeles. Soon after, a mud slide destroyed it. On Jan. 7, 1982, his 37th birthday, he auditioned for a job as the Red Sox' TV analyst. Executives at WSBK-TV liked what they saw and called him a front-runner for the spot. Two days later, he was in brother Billy's car on the way to Logan Airport when he suffered a heart attack. Four months later, Tony emerged from a coma: He was severely brain-damaged.
Over the next eight years his family, particularly Billy, stood faithfully by him as he remained bedridden, unable to walk and barely able to speak. Friends, including Dionne Warwick, with whom Tony had recorded a song, We Can Make the World a Whole Lot Brighter, in 1976, staged An Evening for Tony C at Boston's Symphony Hall to raise money for his care. However, in keeping with his bad luck, when his 1967 teammates returned to Fenway in 1983 for Tony C Night, the affair was ruined by team co-owner Buddy LeRoux's announcement, hours before the ceremonies, that he would try to seize control of the Red Sox from fellow general partners Jean Yawkey and Haywood Sullivan.
Last Saturday, in a Boston-area hospital, Tony C died of pneumonia and kidney failure. He was 45. In recent years some family members had told the press that he was recovering, doing sit-ups and eating pasta. Privately, others close to Tony confided that he never did those things, but his relatives cared so much for him that they may have believed that they saw him exercising and eating. Ultimately, the truth did not seem that important. In the eyes of those who knew him, Tony C—on JFK Day at Fenway, trying for a comeback at 30, auditioning for a job at 37—always convinced you that he would rally.
Today's young stars, so arrogant in their celebrity, should take a moment to think about Tony C, whose tragic life testifies to the fragility of human excellence.