'Holy Picture: Remembering Tony C.'

I was out early walking our dog, Ringo, the Boston Terrier, and thinking about the Red Sox, who have lost five of the last seven games but remain in first place with a big lead. I don't know why, but my thoughts turned to Tony Conigliaro, maybe because Boston baseball in August is freighted with the dark memory of him being struck in the head by a pitched ball on August 18, 1967. As a kid, I was all about Tony C. I even painted a small number 25 in white on the sides of my hockey skates. Years ago I wrote a short essay about him and published it first in a weekly newspaper in Dracut, Mass., called The Merrimack Journal. Recently, the essay appeared a couple of times on the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell. Here it is. 


Holy Picture

IF A 19-YEAR-OLD FROM SWAMPSCOTT and St. Mary’s High in Lynn could make the Red Sox, then a kid in Dracut could dream. I was ten when Tony Conigliaro homered the first time he got up to bat at Fenway Park in 1964. It was as if one of The Beatles had put on a Boston uniform. I had discovered baseball four years before. My father taught me how to catch and hit in our back yard. My older brother David took up where my dad left off. He let me tag along for games in Gendreau’s Field, a patchy meadow near our house, where I took a pitch in the head one time because I didn’t know enough to duck. In those days we’d wrap a ball in black electrical tape to keep the string from unraveling after the cover had let go under the beating of a thousand clouts. My brother had Ted Williams and the early Yaz. My half-generation had Tony C. and Triple-Crown Yaz. When my chums and I played Home Run Derby, someone would always say, “I’m Tony C.” He won the American League home run title in 1965, being the youngest champ ever. “Conig” even cut a rock ‘n’ roll record. Soon he was hanging out with Joe Namath and dating blonde nightclub singers.

That was about the same time that I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Therese’s Church. To prepare for this rite of passage, a young Catholic selects a confirmation name, preferably that of a saint who can be a life model and spiritual guide. Parents and godparents announce your Christian name at Baptism. Confirmation signals full membership in the church. You pick your own name the second time around. I chose “Anthony,” and the nuns thought I meant the saint.

A few years ago, I paid $8.00 for an old Conig card at a baseball memorabilia show. The card is a Topps, 1965. Along the way I lost the one I’d pulled out of a ten-cent pack at the Hovey Square Variety. My old Red Sox had gone the way of Beatles cards of the same period, all those holy pictures tossed out in a fit of adolescence. There comes a moment when it’s shameful to have heroes. The card-show guy said Tony C. sold well across the country. It’s my favorite Conigliaro card—he’s in three-quarter profile in his crisp white home uniform, and looks as if he’s staring a hole in a batter from his post in right field. There’s a small gold trophy in the bottom right corner for being named a Topps 1964 All-Star Rookie.

One summer in the mid-Sixties, I bought a Conigliaro-autograph model bat at Stuart’s department store in Lowell. My father drove me to the store on a Saturday morning, then rushed me home to play ball in the farmer's field my friends and I had taken over at the top of Janice Avenue. The regulars were there, joined that morning by a greasy punk from Crosby Road. He was fifteen going on twenty-five: duck’s-ass hairstyle, pack of Winstons rolled up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, and pegged black chinos. He always wore pointy dress shoes, which made him slip all over the grass. He never brought a glove either. That day my team took the field first. I was at shortstop. The hood came up to the plate, a butt stuck in his mouth. He had my shiny bat with the white handle and brown barrel. When he hit the ball, I heard a loud crack and felt sick. I knew immediately that he had hit the ball on the bat’s label, which everyone else knew not to do. We were so conscious of that, especially with a new bat—”Turn the label away from the pitch. Don’t hit it on the grain.” How many times did we hear that? I should have made him buy me a new bat. He said it was a mistake. I fumed. When I got home, I nailed and taped the bat, but it was dead.

In 1967, I was living with my family in California during Boston’s Impossible Dream summer, when Tony C. took the fastball from Jack Hamilton in the side of his face. The Sports Illustrated photo of him in the hospital was gruesome, the closed left eye purplish black and swollen. He didn’t play for a year-and-a-half. But by 1970, he was so far back that he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs. Still, the Sox traded him that winter.

In high school baseball, I wore number 25 for four years on JV and Varsity, but it didn’t make me a power hitter. As a college student, I saw one of his second-comeback home runs at Fenway, a patented Green Monster job. Years later, he collapsed in his brother’s car on the way to an interview for a job at a Boston TV station. He was being considered for the color commentary position on the Red Sox broadcasting team. By the time he reached the emergency room he had brain damage. After years of round the clock care, Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990. He was a thrilling hitter with a big swing. I didn’t expect anything from him except a homer every time he stepped into the batter’s box. I tracked down that old baseball card because the cracked bat is long gone.