Funny how certain milestones of Red Sox history are marked in an undeniably cosmic pattern by the careers of two incredible hitters and characters, one a right-handed slugger, the other a lefty.
Tony Conigliaro leads off figuratively and literally, with three epic and emotion-filled Opening Days I described below in contrast to Ted Williams’s three equally memorable and dramatic exits.
The second of Williams’s exits was thoroughly researched by my friend Glenn Stout and was rarely, if ever, mentioned until the release of our book, Red Sox Century, in 2000.
The Ted Williams farewells are as follows:
*April 30,1952: Williams socks his 324th career home run off Tigers right hander Dizzy Trout, to seal Boston’s 3-2 victory in Williams’s last game (Ted Williams Day) before departing for military service in Korea.
*September 26, 1954: Williams hits his 29th home run of the season in his final at bat at Fenway Park off Gus Keriazakos of the Senators, on a day that many thought would be his final major league game. Facing a pending divorce with first wife Doris, he wanted to exclude his next contract from the settlement and fed speculation that he’d decided to hang up his spikes, Once his divorce was finalized on May 11, 1955, he re-signed with the Red Sox, beating a May 15 procedural deadline that would have precluded his return.
*September 28,1960: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, as Williams hits an eighth inning home run off Oriole right-hander Jack Fisher for his 521st and final career home run, before a crowd of 10,454.
The Conigliaro triple crown of remarkable Opening Days is fondly recalled on the 47th anniversary of the week he last appeared in a Boston uniform.
April 17, 1964
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald
The perspective of history informs us that the circumstances surrounding Tony Conigliaro’s first major league home run had to have been written in some cosmic ledger before they actually occurred.
On an Opening Day in which the Red Sox donated gate proceeds to the foundation established to build a library in memory of fallen hometown hero John Fitzgerald Kennedy, nineteen-year old Tony Conigliaro of Swampscott MA, in his first Fenway Park at-bat, socked a Joel Horlen fastball over the left field wall for his first major league home run to lead Boston to a 4-1 win over the White Sox.
Among those cheering him on in the crowd of 20,211 were Robert F. and Teddy Kennedy, Stan Musial, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Carol Channing, and Frederic March. Following the game, Conigliaro remarked, “It was the least I could do after they all showed up my home debut.”
In time, the slugger who’d endeared himself to Ted Williams by brashly declaring he wanted to best the achievements of his mentor became the youngest American Leaguer to reach the 100 home run plateau. An especially impressive feat at it was achieved while playing for an abject non-contender.
A career trajectory that was altered dramatically in the Impossible Dream season of 1967. As on the night of August 18th Conigliaro was struck in the eye by a Jack Hamilton fastball, denying him the opportunity to showcase his talent in the World Series.
After a year of rehab in which he considered a return as a pitcher, he reclaimed his status as one of the game’s great sluggers for a couple of seasons before the injury to his badly damaged limited the remainder of his career to 381 games.
April 8, 1969
On the afternoon of Tuesday April 8, 1969, I raced home from junior high school in Worcester, MA.to catch what was left of the Red Sox Opening Day game in Baltimore. Bursting through the back door I joined my mother who was watching on our kitchen TV, and sat down just in time to witness an event that made my mother cry for the first time since the murder of John F. Kennedy five and a half years earlier.
On the day of his comeback following a full year of rehab, Tony Coningliaro stroked a two-run homer in the tenth inning to give Boston a 4-2 lead, on the same day his brother Billy made his major league debut for Boston.
No words, just pure joy and astonishment as Tony was embraced by his brother on the dugout steps. The footage of his home run trot is reminiscent of the hop skipping dance Ted Williams performed after hitting the homer that won the 1941 All Star Game at Briggs Stadium.
After notorious Red Sox killer Frank Robinson tied the game, Conigliaro later scored the winning run in the twelfth inning.
As announcer Ken Coleman would recall in his game recap, “storybook stuff.”
April 8, 1975
It was a Fenway Opening Day for the ages.
Figuratively and literally.
Not only did 86 year old three-time Red Sox world champion left-fielder Duffy Lewis (1912, 15, 16) throw out the first pitch, but former Boston Braves minor leaguer Henry Aaron marked his return to Milwaukee in the uniform of the Brewers. It was also the emotion packed return of Tony Conigliaro to Boston after a 3 ½ season absence from baseball.
The returning hero received the first of three standing ovations he’d receive that day after stroking a first-inning two out base hit followed by making the back end of a double steal that saw Carl Yastrzemski score the first of Boston’s five runs in their 5-2 win.
Prior to the game Yastrzemski had observed, “If some of Tony’s determination doesn’t rub off on us, there’s something wrong with us. It’s a great story having him come back to baseball.”
Tony’s comeback would last for just another 20 games before the damage to his eye forced his retirement at the age of thirty. Thus, was one of the greatest right handed sluggers in Red Sox history denied his opportunity once again to play in the World Series.
Any reasonable assessment of his career stats lead to the conclusion that a Hall of Fame career was tragically curtailed in the blinding split-second flash of a single pitch.
Such is baseball, and such was the history of the Red Sox for nearly a century.
On January 9, 1982, after traveling to Boston to claim the job of color commentator for the Red Sox TV broadcasts, the 37-year old Conigliaro was stricken with a heart attack and stroke while being driven to Logan Airport by brother Billy. He never recovered and died eight years later of pneumonia and kidney failure.