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Bob Ryan

Tony Conigliaro would have been an all-time great

Tony Conigliaro sat in Sancta Maria Hospital after being hit by a pitch in 1967.

Globe Photo

Tony Conigliaro sat in Sancta Maria Hospital after being hit by a pitch in 1967.

I was there. I was there, and I was pretty close, too.

I was there the night of Aug. 18, 1967, when a Jack Hamilton fastball hit Tony Conigliaro in the face. I was sitting in a box seat not far up the third base line from the screen. I went to 27 Red Sox games that summer, and I seldom had a better seat than I did on that Friday night, the start of a four-game series with the California Angels. I had intended to buy my standard bleacher seat, but a guy sold me a box seat for face value down at Kenmore Square, and so I was hobnobbing with the swells in the $3.50 section that night rather than my usual cronies in the dollar bleacher seats (No, kiddies, I’m not making those numbers up).

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I saw a lot of Red Sox history made that summer, but there are some historical events you can do without, this one being quite near the top of the list.

This is not the first time I have addressed this topic. People often say, “I will never forget this,” or “I will never forget that,” and, of course, we have no idea what we will or won’t forget as we age.

But I have not yet been able to let an Aug. 18 go by without thinking of Tony Conigliaro and the night when his life changed irrevocably. They say it only takes a baseball something like two-fifths of a second to reach the vicinity of home plate after it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But two-fifths, three-fifths, a full second, what does it matter? What matters is that Tony Conigliaro was unable to get out of the way. A Jack Hamilton fastball did not go where he wanted it to go, and Tony Conigliaro was hit. Baseball players are hit by stray, or even intended-to-hit, pitches all the time, and most of them get up and go to first base. No harm, no foul, you know? This one was very, very different.

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I remember the hush. The sound of silence from 31,027 people is an eerie sensation. There was no hubbub, no low buzzing, as Tony lay at the plate. He wasn’t popping up and running to first base. That was obvious. It was also obvious something very bad had just taken place.

“It was a ‘squish,’ ” Rico Petrocelli told me seven years ago. Rico was the on-deck hitter that evening. “It was like a tomato or melon hitting the ground.”

People had worried Tony C might someday be hit and seriously hurt. He was a fearless batter who liked to crowd the plate. Everyone was concerned. His teammates were concerned. His manager, Dick Williams, was concerned. Even Ted Williams had expressed private concern.

“I was always concerned about the way he ‘froze’ at the plate,” Mike Andrews told me. Andrews was in the dugout when Tony C was hit. “I guess I shouldn’t say ‘froze.’ It’s more the way he wouldn’t give in. You know, I had been wearing an earflap helmet that year. I may have been the first. I had been trying to get him to use one, but unfortunately he didn’t.”

No one blamed Hamilton, who at the time of the beaning was 28 years old and in the middle of a season that would begin with him pitching for the Mets before being traded June 10 for lefty Nick Willhite. Hamilton was a pretty good pitcher for the Angels that year, finishing 9-6 with a 3.24 ERA. But it was never wise for anyone to dig in too comfortably against the righthander. For that year he struck out 74 men while walking 63. He had led the National League in walks as a Phillies rookie in 1962. He would finish his career with something very close to a highly unsatisfactory 1-1 strikeout-walk balance (357 strikeouts, 348 walks). But he never made a big habit of hitting people. His HBP high was five.

You know how many people our Gentleman Jim Lonborg hit in 1967? 19! And we all loved him.

“He hangs over the plate as much as anyone in the league,” Hamilton said. “Yes, as much as Frank Robinson [well-known for his plate daring]. I’ve not hit anyone all year. I certainly wasn’t throwing at him. I was just trying to get the ball over. Tony stands right on top of the plate.”

The man wasn’t lying. Tony C was the only batter Hamilton hit in 119 innings for the Angels that year. He pitched the remainder of the 1967 season and then two more seasons, covering 124 innings, before leaving baseball for good at the age of 30 in 1969.

He never hit another batter.

I’ve occasionally wondered over the years if, due to the horribly sad nature of his final years, we in Boston have excessively romanticized Tony C’s career and its unfulfilled potential. We state it as such a given that he would have finished with 500, or even 600, homers and that he would have been an all-time great, no questions asked. Would we harbor this deep community affection for Tony C had he come from, say, Ashtabula, Ohio, or Wichita Falls, Texas, and if he had not come from Swampscott and if he had not hit home runs for St. Mary’s High in Lynn and if he had not pahked his cah and if he was not living at home with Sal and Teresa while knocking out 24 home runs as a rookie or leading the American League with 32 as a 20-year-old in 1965? Are we guilty of stretching the truth?

I think not.

I do think we would be less than honest to maintain that Tony C being a Boston guy through and through does not help shape the dialogue. That has always been part of the deal. In the stands that night in August 46 years ago were people who knew him. There may even have been one or two guys who had a fastball or two turned around by Tony C and deposited over some faraway fence in a forgotten high school baseball game. Tony C was never just another skilled jock, not as long as he was playing for the Boston Red Sox.

But we do not exaggerate. We do not embellish. Tony Conigliaro was the absolute Real Deal. I think the people who believe Tony C would have become an absolute monster for American League pitchers as he marched through his 20s and 30s pretty much have it right. Tony C was 22 years old when that ball hit him in the face, causing lifetime eyesight problems that led to an extremely shortened career. He was the fastest ever to reach 100 home runs. He was a babe. He was just learning. And he was going to play 81 games a year in Fenway. Gee, a righthanded power hitter with a fly ball swing in Fenway, someone who would get stronger and smarter about the game. Whaddya think?

Tony Conigliaro was enormously talented. Please remember, when he came back in 1969 after missing the final six weeks of the 1967 season and all of the 1968 season, he was fooling us all. He hit 20 homers and drove in 82 to become the logical winner of the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and he followed that up with 36-116 production in 1970. And then the Red Sox traded him! Don’t get me started on that one.

OK, did they know he was doing it with one eye? I don’t think so. If they did, they sure didn’t tell the Angels. My only point is that he was doing it with one eye, and there aren’t enough laudatory adjectives to describe that achievement. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a man who could do that against major league pitching with one eye and who already had more than 100 homers in the books before age 23 was going to have a pretty good career. No, I don’t think we’re exaggerating anything. Tony C was going to Cooperstown the night he was hit, and he wasn’t going to have any need to buy a ticket when he got there, if you know what I mean.

The Tony C story is sad on every level. It’s a “Life Isn’t Fair” story. It’s a “What If?” story. It’s a what-if-he-had-listened-to-people-and-stopped-hanging-over-the-plate story. Today is Aug. 18, and I will spend a lot of it thinking about Tony C. I’ll try to focus on the good stuff, but it’s hard.

My best to the family.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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