Here is a baseball trivia question:
Who is the youngest American League player to reach 100 home runs in the major leagues?
It isn’t Al Kaline, or Ken Griffey Junior, or Alex Rodriguez.
Seldom in the history of American sport has there been a true sports tragedy like that which began on August 18th, 1967. That night, the Boston Red Sox were in the middle of an improbable pennant race, one they would ultimately win, which began “Red Sox Nation” in New England. The “Impossible Dream” 1967 Sox featured a burgeoning superstar in right field, a handsome and talented local kid from Swampscott, MA, who also sang rock and roll. Tony Conigliaro had come up with the Red Sox in 1964, and at age 19 hit a home run in his first at-bat in the majors, on opening day at Fenway Park.
Sharing the outfield with Carl Yastzemski (left field) and Reggie Smith (center), Conigliaro was destined for certain stardom. Blessed with a strong throwing arm and tremendous power at the plate, Conigliaro led the American League in home runs in 1965, at age 20. He had been an all-star in 1967, and was having the best season of his career when he came to bat in the fourth inning this night 46 years ago, against Jack Hamilton. A Hamilton fastball struck Conigliaro just below the left eye, shattering his cheekbone, dislocating his jaw, and damaging his eye severely. The video, if you can find it, is ghastly, as the ball does not glance off of Conigliaro’s head, but drops almost straight down near the plate, and it is obvious that Conigliaro’s head has taken the brunt of the force.
Conigliaro missed the rest of the 1967 season, and all of 1968. He returned in 1969, and managed to hit 36 home runs and drive in 116 in 1970. But he had managed to accomplish this with deteriorating vision. In 1971, Conigliaro was traded to the California Angels, where he struggled mightily. He hit just 4 home runs and batted .222. He was 27, and his career was over. He was released by the Angels. A brief comeback with the Red Sox in 1975 lasted only 20 games, before Tony Conigliaro retired for good at just 30, his vision all but gone in his left eye.
In 1982, as he drove with his brother to an interview to become a Red Sox broadcaster, Tony Conigliaro suffered a heart attack which put him in a coma. He never really recovered, and on February 24th, 1990, Conigliaro died at Salem (MA) Hospital. He had just turned 45.
His story is one of the few true sports tragedies. He did not fritter away his talents with drugs or alcohol, his young death was not due to a culture of violence so many young athletes today choose to immerse themselves in. It was also not a tragedy of life that happens to strike an athlete, such as an accident or illness. Tony Conigliaro was badly injured playing a sport in which such risks are exceedingly rare. That injury would end his young and promising career, and eventually play a part in ending his life.
Here’s the video. It is Vimeo, so I cannot embed. At the 2:03 mark is where the video is of Conigliaro being beaned. Notice how the ball drops to home plate and rolls slowly away.