This is the third part in a series about the Red Sox Impossible Dream season and the Summer of 1967 in Boston. Learn more about this project.
Tony Conigliaro couldn’t wait to bat in the fourth inning, anticipating a fastball over the plate, seeing himself smash it back up the middle. He’d been in a hurry his whole life, a baby nicknamed “Choo-choo” for his high-energy crawling, a 4-year-old who begged his mother to tie his shoes each morning so he could spend all day at the park, tossing a ball and swinging a broomstick.
He was still in a rush at 19 in his first spring training with the Sox, when Ted Williams praised him but called him just a kid, still “two years away.” Except Conigliaro played so well he cracked the ’64 starting lineup, then homered on the first pitch he saw at Fenway Park.
Now he was 22, an All-Star and fourth-year veteran, finally playing for a winner and enjoying the best season of his career, with accomplishments that already foretold Cooperstown (youngest home run champ ever, at 20 in 1965; youngest in American League history to reach 100 homers, just that past month).
Sure, he had been in a little slump — but he could feel himself shaking it, making him especially eager to bat here now on Friday, Aug. 18, 1967, during a night game at Fenway, scoreless in the fourth.
The team had been scuffling a little, too, after coming within a half-game of first, and manager Dick Williams had slid Conigliaro from cleanup to fifth, now down to sixth. Trying to jumpstart himself, Conigliaro had adopted a lighter bat, crowding the plate even more than usual, glaring back at even the toughest pitchers. And he kept swinging, never looking for a walk.
He’d been torrid in July, batting .424 with four homers during the 10-game streak that launched the Sox into contention; he needed to produce again down the stretch. That’s what the world-weary writers said, too, that Tony, Yaz, and pitching ace Jim Lonborg needed to stay healthy and hot for Boston to have any shot.
Now, just as Conigliaro was emerging from the dugout to enter the on-deck circle, some wiseguy in the grandstand tossed a smoke bomb into left.
A thick plume rose, spreading over the field. And Choo — that’s what his family called him these days — had to wait an extra 10 minutes to bat.
From up in Section 14, his youngest brother, Richie — who worshiped him at 15, enduring white-knuckle rides in Tony’s Corvette to come in early with him to every home game — thought the lingering wisps over the field gave Fenway an odd look. But Tony was picturing only the fastball he expected Jack Hamilton to start him with over the plate, after he’d singled on a curve last time up.
Crouched below him, catcher Bob Rodgers called for the fastball — but a little inside, seeing how Conigliaro was crowding the strike zone. As the pitcher rocked back, Tony had one more thought — I wonder if Hamilton’s arm stiffened up during the delay — before the ball rocketed toward him.
The Sox had been so bad for so long, perpetually dwelling near the bottom of the 10-team American League, that some kids didn’t know the team was even eligible for the pennant and World Series.
And yet, each spring there was an inkling of hope, at least among long-shot gamblers and young fans such as Paul Paoletti of Nonantum, who three years earlier had been unable to resist sneaking his new transistor radio into Our Lady’s High for the home opener in ’64. Even then, there was a buzz about Conigliaro, a North Shore kid, barely out of St. Mary’s High School of Lynn, hitting tape-measure home runs all spring. His righthanded pull swing was perfect for Fenway, and everyone wanted to see what he could do.
Fumbling to listen through an earphone, Paoletti, 16, was betrayed by a static burst. He braced for a tongue lashing from his English teacher, Sister Eudes. But she surprised him, asking him to remove the wire and play the game for everyone — just in time for Conigliaro’s home run.
By midsummer of his first season Tony C was leading the team in homers. He also had a slightly higher batting average than Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s lone bankable veteran, and basked in the attention the camera-shy Yaz never sought. The Globe called him “a young man of destiny.”
With the press, older teammates, and more skeptical fans, the honeymoon wouldn’t last. They periodically hailed his on-field heroics, but when he blew curfew, sulked, or swung at bad pitches, they were quick to let him have it.
Younger fans, though, never wavered. Dark-haired, square-jawed, exuding just enough mischief, Conigliaro radiated youthful promise and teeny-bopper appeal. Across New England, kids copied his batting stance and doodled hearts around his name in their notebooks.
Though his unvarnished accent made his singing voice a blend of the Beach Boys and Revere Beach, his name alone had 15,000 copies of his first single (“Playing the Field,” released a few months after his rookie year) flying off local shelves in just three weeks.
In Swampscott, where his parents moved as his dad climbed the ranks at a tool-and-die plant, they had to unlist their number after too many hang-up calls. As fan mail flooded in, Tony liked to read the notes aloud with his mother, replying with a personalized photo postcard that she would address and stamp. But soon there were so many requests that he had to resort to leaving towering pre-signed stacks for his mother to mail.
In Belmont, 10-year-old Joan Terlemezian daydreamed about Conigliaro and wore out his records. She kept a scrapbook of his clippings; she held her breath when he stepped to the plate.
In October 1964, she came home from sixth grade one afternoon to find he’d answered one of her letters with a black-and-white picture postcard. He stared up from the glossy image with smoky eyes, his bat raised, his mouth tight in concentration. Five words had been scrawled on his sleeve: “To Joan — Love, Tony Conigliaro.”
Joan! Her name! And love —
She was 13 now, still listening expectantly, when Tony stepped in against Hamilton and the Angels. This season had been a dream, the Sox not just above .500 for the first time in her memory but in the pennant hunt, 3½ games back, fourth place in an unusually tight race.
Her brother Paul had taken her to the June game that Tony ended with a walk-off home run in the 11th. But most nights she listened on WHDH radio, often with her brother. Tonight he was out on a date, so she kept score carefully, to reconstruct it for Paul over a tuna sandwich whenever he came home.
As she followed the broadcast, she hoped the Sox could gain a game on the visiting Angels, just behind them in the standings. She could never have imagined that the next pitch to Tony C, mid-game here in mid-August, would be his last all season — the last he would ever see with two sharp eyes.
The fastball was coming high and tight, and he responded reflexively, leaning back but not diving to the dirt, his customary display of moxie and timing.
On the mound, Hamilton was a hard thrower who’d long battled control problems and had none of Conigliaro’s glamour. He’d never led the league in anything except wild pitches and walks, and was dogged by accusations of cheating — “the most flagrant spitter I ever saw,” Washington Senators manager Gil Hodges had asserted just weeks before.
Spitballer or not, he hadn’t found much success, until a June trade to the Angels and a move from bullpen to rotation. Suddenly Hamilton was a 6-2 starter with newfound command.
But this one got away, tailing in on Conigliaro’s moving head as if on a string. When it was just four feet away, Tony could see it would strike his face. A fastball flies four feet in less than 1/30th of a second — nowhere near time to bail out, but enough to feel sheer terror.
He heard a crunch. He felt the ball trying to punch right through him. As his legs buckled, he saw the ball bouncing toward the plate. Then his eyes went dark.
And that sound. So many heard it around the ballpark, wanting to believe it was the crack of ball hitting helmet, a “bell ringing” that would leave him otherwise OK.
It reached Roy Johan all the way out in the bleachers, a 23-year-old first lieutenant home for a brief leave in Newton before shipping out to Vietnam. At home plate, he saw a tiny figure collapse.
“What happened?” asked his girlfriend, Maureen.
“Not sure,” he said. “I think he got hit. Lucky he was wearing his helmet.”
They thought the same up in the radio booth, which is why so many fans received the news in a muted way at first; shock and heartache would cascade in the days and years ahead, receding and striking again, with half-realized comebacks and so much medical misfortune for Tony C.
But in her notebook, in that moment, Joan marked a simple “HBP.” She figured he’d rise quickly. When he didn’t, she assumed he would miss at most a few games or a week or two, like other times he’d been hit or slammed into a fence.
Down by the field, they knew better. In the dugout, Lonborg heard not a typical ballfield crack but a thwock that transported him to the California woods, the sound of a .30-06 rifle shot punching into a mule deer. Conigliaro lay motionless; teammate Jose Santiago feared he was dead.
They all ran over, Rico Petrocelli reaching him first, coming from on-deck. He shuddered at Conigliaro’s face, indented where the ball hit his left eye socket and cheek, but swelling rapidly at the same time. Blood streamed from his nose. Petrocelli bent down, whispering to his friend that he would be OK.
Conigliaro could hear a little but not yet speak. He could see nothing, the impact on the left forcing his right eye to shut, too, but a hissing sound overwhelmed him. Something flooded his mouth — blood, he thought, though it was fluid that normally surrounds the brain — and swelled his cheeks so quickly that he begged God to stop it while he could still breathe.
Trainer Buddy LeRoux took the lead, applying ice, cleaning Conigliaro’s face, calling for a stretcher when it was clear he would not be getting up. In the silent ballpark, Conigliaro alternated between stillness and twitching his legs.
Dick Williams, the brash rookie manager who had clashed with Tony since they were teammates in ’64, crouched by the kid and prayed he would be OK, wishing he’d worn one of the new helmets with earflaps Williams tried to push on the team.
Now the stretcher was here, teammates helping LeRoux gently lift and carry Tony through the dugout and out of sight.
On the field, the air drained from Fenway, umpire Bill Valentine called for play to resume.
Laid across a training table in the clubhouse, Conigliaro could hear the sound of cleats on concrete, feel teammates gently squeezing his wrist. His face throbbed — that didn’t begin to describe it, so much worse than any injury or break before — but they said they could give him only ice for now.
He heard the voice of Dr. Thomas Tierney, team physician, who had run down from the stands. Conigliaro was alarmed by the seriousness in the doc’s voice as Tierney took his vital signs and explained that an ambulance was coming to bring him to the hospital. They feared not just a skull fracture but hemorrhaging on the brain.
Conigliaro wanted to scream and cry but could scarcely muster strength to croak. And he knew, even without sight, that his father and brothers were here in the locker room — his mother just outside — and thought of how terrified they must be. He didn’t want to scare them further, but he also didn’t want Billy and Richie thinking he was a cry-baby. He didn’t know Richie had already receded into a corner, his sobs muffled by the wall.
The ambulance arrived, and Tony’s father and Tierney climbed in with him. They were going just two miles — to little Sancta Maria Hospital, the 60-bed Catholic medical center where the Red Sox had sent all player cases for nearly 20 years — but he felt every bump and turn as though his head were splitting in two.
Dr. Joseph Dorsey, chief neurosurgeon at Sancta Maria, examined Conigliaro’s X-ray plates. He found a fractured cheekbone — the violent fissure behind that leaking fluid and splitting pain — and dislocated jaw. But good news, no brain hemorrhaging, only scalp contusions. The right eye, blurry, would open soon enough. But the left eye was so buried under swelling that they couldn’t begin to guess what it looked like underneath.
By now they had pumped him with codeine to dull the pain. Woozy, exhausted, he wanted to drift off, but every 20 or 30 minutes they roused him, rechecking his vital signs, not letting the badly concussed ballplayer go to sleep.
Disoriented, disconnected from time, unable to see, he didn’t know that telegrams and fruit baskets were already arriving, that members of the media were gathering outside — some already trying to sneak in — or that the hospital was keeping most friends away, clearing space. He did know that his family had come in, briefly, his mother clutching his hand. Alone afterward, he wondered whether he would ever be the same, whether he would ever see them clearly again.
Back at Fenway, Hamilton had stayed in the game, drawing boos from the crowd and an earful from Yaz. But the Sox scored that inning and won 3-2, in a clipped and mechanical game completed in just 2 hours 16 minutes.
Everyone was desperate for information. In the Angels clubhouse, players peppered the press with questions for a change. “How is he?” Jim Fregosi asked. “How long will he be out?” Moose Skowron said.
Hamilton spoke, looking shaken. He’d hit only one other person all season, certainly not in the head, and wasn’t trying to hit Tony C. “Is he all right?” he asked. “Gosh, I hope.”
California manager Bill Rigney called the Sox clubhouse, apologetic and subdued. Williams said he understood, that he knew Hamilton wasn’t head-hunting, but Yaz wasn’t so ready to forgive. “All I know,” he said, “is that the kid had a cracked head.”
Tierney, the doctor, gave reporters an update: Conigliaro would remain hospitalized a few days for observation. He was in “satisfactory” condition, his return timeline vague. “I would say three to four weeks,” Tierney said, “but it will have to be a day to day proposition.”
At home that night, Dorsey, the neurosurgeon, shared a different opinion with his son. That the ball struck the rightfielder’s eye and not his temple may have saved his life, but he doubted he would play baseball again.
Out in Framingham, Paul Paoletti emerged from a movie at Shoppers’ World, switched on his car radio, and caught the late innings driving home with a date. Now a BU student, 3½ years removed from sneaking that transistor radio into school on Opening Day, Paoletti heard them say Conigliaro had been beaned and taken to the hospital. In his mind’s eye he still saw that famously flawless face. He counted the weeks left in the season, hoping Tony C would return soon.
So did Joan Terlemezian, waiting up for her brother with her scorebook. Beside the “HBP,” she added a little note in the margin: Tony got hurt.
Sox players barely slept that night before returning for a Saturday matinee, a messy, back-and-forth game. When the dust settled, they emerged somehow with a 12-11 victory — in third place now, three games back.
The official reports remained vague, skewing toward hope, but the writers around Fenway were starting to doubt Conigliaro would be back this year. Then came the picture, taken by team photographer Jerry Buckley on a brief visit to Sancta Maria at noon: Tony in bed, shirtless except for a St. Christopher medal, one hand behind his head. It might have been a modeling pose, if not for his left eye, sealed and swollen, the lid a deep hue.
To see it was a gut-punch, and when it ran the next morning in all the papers, everyone knew. The Sox had made a great run, starting out with 100-to-1 odds, but this would not be their year. With their power hitter and graceful rightfielder marooned at Sancta Maria, what shot could they have now at the pennant?
As get-well cards and telegrams flooded the hospital — the count would hit 13,000 in a few days — Boston fans braced for a subdued Sunday doubleheader, closing the California series.
But the Sox had no intention of folding. In the first game Rico and Yaz each homered, and switch-hitting Reggie Smith hit two, one from each side of the plate. The Sox romped, 12-2.
In the bleachers, 15-year-old Larry Papalambros and best friend Paul Buckley soaked it all in. They had been skipping school for Opening Day for years and frequenting Fenway in summer, sitting wherever they pleased in the consistently empty ballpark. With tickets now harder to come by, Larry listened to many games from his dad’s shoe repair shop in Central Square, recording one stat each day in a journal: attendance, a string of numbers so wildly out of scale with previous seasons that they scarcely seemed real.
There were 33,840 that Sunday for the doubleheader — 316 more fans than seats — but Larry and Paul managed to score some of the dollar tickets in the bleachers. They brought a kid visiting their neighborhood and couldn’t believe it when he came up with Yaz’s home run ball. But soon all the fun would be drained. In game two, the Sox dropped into a quick 8-0 hole.
“Let’s get out of here,” the teens said, hopping the T back to Cambridge to shag flies in Sennott Park. Out of habit, they stuck a transistor radio in the grass, tuned to the game. Then it happened, one homer, two, a rally in the sixth, 8-1, 8-4, suddenly — impossibly — knotted at 8. With the sun setting, utility infielder Jerry Adair took a swing in the eighth. The ball floated toward left. The radio crackled: gone, 9-8, into the net!
At Sancta Maria, a nurse who had turned on the game for Conigliaro now found him asleep. But Fenway erupted, roars sweeping the stands. At drive-in theaters — Meadow Glen and Fresh Pond, Plaza Twin and Starlite — cars awaiting the shows honked, people cheered.
And in Cambridge, Larry and Paul went nuts, leaping in disbelief — and kicking themselves, too. Now they knew it, don’t count these Red Sox out. With the win, they were 66-54, a mere 1½ back. By Tuesday, their cleanup hitter’s eye still swollen, his Cooperstown arc forever disrupted, they would be tied for first.
How this story was reported
Information about the Red Sox, Tony Conigliaro, and the events of Aug. 18 to 20, 1967, came from newspaper and magazine accounts, multiple books, and interviews with former players, family, and fans.