When he stepped up to home plate at Fenway Park on April 17, 1964, Tony Conigliaro was just another young prospect, fresh out of St. Mary’s High School in Lynn. On the first pitch of his first at-bat, the 19-year-old hammered a towering home run. When he walked back to the dugout, he was on his way to becoming Tony C, a Red Sox legend.
Thirty years after the death of the famed Sox slugger, the city of Lynn is honoring Conigliaro’s legacy Friday night at the Lynn Memorial Auditorium at City Hall with a showing of “25 - Tony Conigliaro", a documentary about his life. The film about Conigliaro, whose jersey number was 25, features interviews with family members and former Impossible Dream team players, including Jim Lonborg and Rico Petrocelli.
“You had to live in that certain time to understand the impact Tony had on Lynn,” said Mayor Thomas McGee. “He was almost like a rock star, in terms of what he meant to the area and baseball. His connection to the city was real.”
The hometown hero’s star was on the rise, until Aug. 18, 1967.
“I think of him not for the tragedy, but for his triumph,” said Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum, who appears in the film.
One pitch was all it took to jumpstart Conigliaro’s career, and one pitch was all it took to throw it off track. Facing down California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton that August day, Conigliaro was beaned, taking a fastball to the left cheekbone. His career was never the same.
John Ippolito, director and producer of the film, admired Conigliario, like so many others growing up near Boston in the ‘60s. So, when he ran into Sal Conigliaro, Tony’s father, at a diner in Nahant, the two had an immediate connection.
Ippolito and Sal became close during the last years of Tony’s life, when he was in a vegetative state at his parent’s house after suffering from a heart attack in 1982.
After mustering the courage, Ippolito asked Tony’s brother, Richard, if he could produce the movie. Richard okayed the idea. After months of filming interviews, Ippolito, music curator Sarah Hail Folger, and director of photography Chris Anderson finished the documentary.
“It shows Tony’s character, his greatness, and the intervention of tragedy,” he said.
While conducting the interviews for the documentary, Joe Malone, the film’s narrator, was struck by how Conigliaro’s friends and family still missed him 30 years after his death. Malone, the former state treasurer, recalled interviewing Jim Lonborg, who helped carry Conigliaro’s stretcher off the field on that near-fatal night in 1967.
“I said, ‘What do you miss most about Tony?’ And Jim got very emotional. He said, ‘I miss him as Tony. Forget about baseball, I just miss the guy,’” Malone said.
Conigliaro’s home run in 1964 in his first at-bat off White Sox pitcher Joe Horlen that night sparked the young star’s rookie season, which was studded with a .290 batting average, 24 home runs, and 52 RBIs. In his sophomore season he batted .269, with 32 home runs and 82 RBIs. By his fourth season, he had become the youngest American League player to hit 100 home runs at 22 years old.
Conigliaro was injured before the 1967 Impossible Dream team -- which also included Carl Yastrzemski, Jerry Adair, and Ken Harrelson, who replaced Conigliaro after the injury -- made it to the World Series. The Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
After taking the 1968 season off to recover from the beaning, Conigliaro seemed for a time to return to his old self, as he batted .255, with 20 home runs and 82 RBIs. He won the Hutch Award, given to players for “exemplifying fighting spirit and competitive desire.” The 1970 season only brought more promise, seeing his stats in each category rise.
But his eyesight never fully recovered. In 1971, after being traded to the California Angels, his stats drastically declined. He batted .222, with four homers and 15 RBIs. Conigliario called it quits at 26 years old. He struggled at an attempted return in 1975 at age 30 with the Red Sox, which proved to be his final swing at the sport. Conigliaro stayed in the spotlight, becoming a sports anchor in Providence and San Francisco, making guest appearances on TV shows, and even becoming a singer.
Seven years after he finally retired, tragedy struck. Conigliaro suffered a heart attack while being driven to Logan International Airport by his brother, Billy. He fell into a coma for eight years before his death on Feb. 24, 1990 at age 45.
Now, 30 years after his death, Conigliaro’s legacy will live on through the documentary.
“He was the hometown boy who had a dream and fulfilled that dream,” said Malone. “Every kid and fan had a special bond with him, and because of him, people chased their dreams.”
McGee remembers being a student in elementary school when Conigliaro came to visit. Kids swarmed him, begging for autographs.
"He was the guy everyone looked up to,” he said.
“Tony was one of us. [He] was the prince of the city. He practically owned Boston," Johnson said. “Hollywood couldn’t compare to that.”
Today, the Tony Conigliaro Award is awarded by Major League Baseball annually to a player who has overcome adversity in any form. Previous winners have included; Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand; John Lackey, who had Tommy John surgery; and Jon Lester, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
A viewing of the 41-minute documentary will be held at Lynn Memorial Auditorium from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Balcony seats for local youth athletic teams are reserved at no cost. Tickets for the film are $28, and VIP meet and greet tickets with former Red Sox players Jim Lonborg and Luis Tiant are $40. Tickets can be bought here.
Matt Berg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.