Boston's Toughest Red Sox: Tony Conigliaro

Boston's Toughest Red Sox: Tony Conigliaro
August 12, 2014, 6:00 pm
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All week, CSNNE is taking a look at Boston's Toughest at 6 p.m. Every day our Insiders will profile the player they feel is the toughest they've seen on the team they cover. Today's team: The Red Sox.

First things first: Tony Conigliaro was always fearless.

He was fearless when he broke into the big leagues as a teenager, the starting right fielder for his hometown teams.

Right from his rookie season, he was fearless as a hitter, too -- digging into the batter's box and virtually hanging over the plate, unafraid of the consequences.

He became the youngest home-run champion in history when, at 20, he hit 32 homers in 1965. When he hit 28 more the next season at the tender age of 21, it was clear Conigliaro was going to be special.

Midway through his fourth season, he had already hit 100 homers -- again, the youngest player in baseball history to reach that milestone. As a right-handed pull power hitter in Fenway, his potential seemed limitless.

That's one of the things that made the events of Aug. 18, 1967 so crushing. A fastball from California Angels starter Jack Hamilton struck Conigliaro in the side of the face, fracturing his cheekbone and left eye socket and severely damaging his retina.

Conigliario, of course, missed the final six weeks of the Impossible Dream season and all of the following year, too. The picture of Conigliaro -- his left eye blackened and swollen shut, the stitches of the baseball still imprinted in his face -- became iconic.

Given the severity of the injury and -- medical limitations of the day -- it was widely assumed that Conigliaro's was over.

Yet, incredibly, Conigliaro returned for the 1969 season and on Opening Day, hit a dramatic go-ahead homer in the top of the 10th inning, then scored the winning run two innings later on a sacrifice fly by Dalton Jones.

"Feel-good story'' doesn't begin to cover what happened that day in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It was the beginning of a remarkable year that saw Conigliaro hit 20 homers and knock in 82 RBI.

And yet there was still more: in 1970, Conigliaro, three years removed from the beaning, posted his best numbers yet: 36 homers and 116 RBI. He was still just 25.

Incredibly, he accomplished all of this with vision in just one eye, his right.

Think about the courage it took to merely step back into the batter's box again after the pitch that struck -- and very nearly killed him -- in August of 1967. That alone would have been accomplishment enough. But for a brief period, Conigliaro again became one of the game's most formidable power hitters.

The comeback didn't last, sadly. Conigliaro's vision continued to deteriorate and a trade to the Angels after the 1970 season was dispiriting to the New England native. With his vision compromised and his frustration escalating he retired.

He had one more comeback in him. Following a four-year absence, he returned again in 1975, albeit briefly, as a DH for the Red Sox. But 21 games into the season, he abandoned that experiment and retired for good.

Upon his retirement, no less an authority than Hall of Famer Jim Palmer voiced the opinion that, had he stayed healthy and a member of the Red Sox, Conigliaro would have been a threat to unseat Henry Aaron as baseball's all-time home.

We'll never know whether that potential and promise would have been fufilled. But of this we are sure: no Red Sox player ever overcame more or demonstrated greater courage and toughness than Tony C.