I first learned of baseball in 1988, at the ripe old age of eight. A friend taught me the game, and since that fateful day I have become a faithful devotee of the sport, a sport that seemingly has fallen by the wayside of both football and basketball.
But baseball was my first sporting love, and it remains my favorite, my pet, my addiction to this day. Part of it is simply the historical impact of the sport. Part of it is rooted in life experience.
You see, back within my first couple of years watching, playing the game, my father was an avid supported of my new habit. Blame him. I entered into baseball with the fervor only an eight year old can, and to this day I retain that same hopeless dedication to, in my mind, the sport of kings. Don’t get me wrong, I am an AVID football and basketball fan, but for me, baseball is numero uno.
The biggest reason for this is I am an Italian-American. Moreover, a Sicilian-American. My grandfather grew up in the depression years of the thirties, and at that time Sicilians were among the most shunned nationalities in all of America. Americans wanted nothing to do with Italians. Italians from the boot, transplanted to the new world, despised their neighbors from the soccer ball. So, like most Sicilians of the time, my grandfather gravitated towards the first Italian…SICILIAN… sports idol to take hold of American sport, Joe DiMaggio, and his club, the New York Yankees. Lets face it, at the time, Boston, my grandfathers birthplace, was heavily populated with Irish toughs who had no inking, no taste for the hotheaded, big nosed bastards. Baseball was a refuge. DiMaggio was kind in those Sicilian households. My father came in 1947 and was raised in the Mantle-Berra era of the Yankee way. I came in 1980 and was indoctrinated to the tribe. Thus, a Yankee fan living in the heart of Red Sox Nation.
That is not to say I am not familiar with the charm of “The Nation.” I grew up here. It was a much, MUCH different time than when my grandfather grew up. Much more tolerant, some would say. It wasn’t so bad for Italians. Not the best, but better.
Which brings me to a seminal point of my young life. I am just becoming a huge, HUGE baseball fan. The years are 1989-1990. Both my old man and his old man are baseball fans of the first order. Italian baseball fans, Yankee fans, in a corner of the States that is predominantly populated by Irish Red Sox fans. No matter. My father sees my budding passion for the game, and bestows on his only born son, a tremendous gift: a baseball signed by Tony Conigliaro.
I was floored. A gift, a BASEBALL gift from the man who helped spawn me. It was tremendous. I cherished it. I loved it. I did what any other nine or ten year old would do with such a precious gift:
I signed over the autograph on the ball. Signed “Babe Ruth.”
I took the ball out and played with it.
I ruined the motherfucker.
I had no earthy clue who the hell Tony Conigliaro was. I knew Wade Boggs. I knew Don Mattingly. Hell, even at a young age I knew who Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig…all the greats…I knew who THEY were. Who in the blue hell was this player with the similar last name to mine? Who gives a rats ass, morevoer?
Any Red Sox fan worth his salt should, if they do not know the tragic tale of Tony C., if they are not aware of just who the man was…especially in this day, the information age, if you ever encounter me, just hold your tongue. Don’t bother. You are no fan of the Sox if you don’t know the horrific saga of Tony Conigliaro.
Tony C was, for all intents and purposes, the Lou Gehrig of the Red Sox franchise. Local boy. East Boston. Eastie! Later relocated further north. He was the young, handsome, cocksure kid, always self driven, not a shred of self doubt. He signed with the Red Sox in 1962 as a 17 year old. He was THE local kid done good, the local phenom signing with the home town team…the only team, the only park…Fenway…he ever wanted to play for, in.
He debuted for the big club in 1964, aged 19, and promptly batted .290/.354/.530, with 24 home runs. Swing tailor made for that left field wall. He hit 32 home runs his sophomore season, 28 the year after, 1966. He was, is, the youngest player to ever reach 100 career home runs.
1967 is generally regarded as the season that saved baseball in the New England region. This was the year of the Impossible Dream Red Sox. Near worst to first. Lonborg wins the Cy Young, Yaz the first Triple Crown until Miguel Cabrera this season. All the dominoes seemed to fall in the place for this seeming team of fate and destiny. All except one.
Tony C was on his way to his best season yet, on pace for 40+ home runs. Congliaro-Yastrzemski back to back 3-4 in the lineup was a frightening proposition for many an American League pitcher. Not just that season…both men were just entering their prime, potentially ready to dominate and terrorize the league.
Then, in an instant, it was over.
August 18, 1967. Red Sox against the California Angels. Tony C, who always stood as close to the plate as allowed, dug in against pitcher Jack Hamilton. Hamilton let fly a fastball that hit Conigliaro right in the cheek and eye. Silence deafened Fenway Park. The ghosts of the ancient building jaws agape. Conigliaro was carted off the field on stretcher. It was the beginning of the end for the erstwhile budding star.
The pitch knocked his vision out of whack, from a sublime 20/19, to a ghastly 20/300. Didn’t matter Tony C was nothing if not stubborn. It took two years, but he fought back, returning in 1970 to hit 36 home runs for his beloved home town team. What a human interest story! Amazing! So what happened?
The Red Sox traded him. That offseason.
To the team that nearly ended his career. That’s right, the California Angels.
The Sox got it right, unfortunately. Tony C’s skills were eroding. His spirit was eroding. He made an ill fated comeback to the Sox in yet another magical season, 1975, but once again it was not magical for Tony C. He eventually was beaten out as DH by a rookie named Jim Rice.
Not all was lost, though. Or was it?
In early 1982, the Red Sox were auditioning people to join alongside Ned Martin as the color commentator for games on WSBK-TV 38. By that point Tony C. had been a sports commentator for a TV station in San Fransisco. The competition for Tony C was a former backup Red Sox catcher, Bob Montgomery. Tony C. won the job. Local boy. Name recognition. He was elated. He went out with some friends that night, including his brother, Billy, to a local watering hole to celebrate. All was finally right with Tony C, the new Sox color man!
The following morning, Billy C. was driving his companion of the morning, his brother Tony, to Logan Airport so Tony could clear out his San Fran home and relocate back to the area that had reared him. Suddenly, four days shy of his 37th birthday, Tony began gurgling. Incoherent. Something was not right. His brother drove for seven minutes along the Tobin Bridge, skipping tolls, and landed at the desired destination, Mass General Hospital. Doctors rushed to save Tony C’s life, inserting a balloon and stent into his heart. He had suffered a massive heart attack. At 36. His brain had been without oxygen for six minutes. Five minutes is declared medically as causing catastophic brain damage. His brother Billy would be derided for driving to Mass General to save his brother’s life for years after the fact, but the fact is this: the worst thing that could of happened was that doctor saving Tony’s life that day. From 1982-1990, Tony was a fucking vegetable, an invalid, living a quality of life fit for no living human. His family tried everything…holistic medicine, acupuncture, VOODOO, everything. Nothing was going to bring him back. It was a labor of love, alas, a futile labor of love.
So we get back to my family’s involvement. Tony’s family lived by this point in Swampscott, MA. North Shore, MA. Every time Tony C. was admitted for any medical malady…bed sores, anything…he would end up in Salem Hospital. My father, two years younger than Tony C, standout athlete on his own, was the director of Microbiology at Salem Hospital from 1982-1992. He was there. As an Italian growing up in the region, as someone who had obtained Tony C’s autograph as a youngster…he was compelled to see his hero. Even as a Yankee fan, Tony C was his hero. Tony C. passed away February 24, 1990. He should be remembered as the Lou Gehrig of the Red Sox, a man who’s bat clouted such thunder it was as if the Hand Of God touched it and wielded it with unlimited electricity. Instead, he has become a footnote, a non-entity, so it seems, in the annals of Red Sox nation. He is a prime reason I am a Yankee fan…maybe the main reason.
Tony C. was an icon to millions of Italian Americans in the region. For the tragic nature of his life and death, his number should be retired by the Red Sox.
Instead of retiring his number 25, for Tony C, they give it last year to a hack like Bobby V.
And I am a Yankee fan. Chew on that.