Tony Conigliaro: A Career, Life Cut Tragically Short

E ASenior Analyst IMay 7, 2009

Tony Conigliaro was born in Revere, Mass. in 1945. "Tony C," as he was known by the fans, was such a popular player that he could truly say he had it all.

The lifetime Massachusetts native was signed by the Red Sox as an amateur in 1962, and debuted in 1964. As a hometown kid with a handsome face, Tony C was popular among the ladies.

Tony C was about to make it big with the Red Sox. In his first three seasons with the team, Conigliaro hit .273 with 84 homers and 227 ribbies, including a league-leading 32 home runs in 1965.

Conigliaro had earned himself the privilege to distinguish himself as the only teenager in MLB history to hit 25 home runs in a season, as well as the youngest player in American League history to reach 100 career home runs.

In fact, according to sabremetrics, when Tony C was 21 years old, the most similar player to him statistically speaking was Mickey Mantle. At the age of 22, it was Frank Robinson, a first-ballot hall of fame electee, as was Mantle.

Injuries were not new to Tony C, who ended his rookie season prematurely in 1964 with a broken arm. If not for that injury, he may have been able to capture Rookie of the Year honors from Tony Oliva.

But after August 18, 1967, Conigliaro would never again be the same.

The Red Sox were hosting the California Angels for a game that day, and in his third at-bat of the game, Conigliaro, who was two for two, came up against Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. Tony C got beaned.

This was not a regular beaning, though.

At that time, the batting helmets still did not have the ear flap that is commonplace on all protective helmets of this day and age. Had Tony C's helmet been equipped with one of these ear flaps, he may have gone down as one of the best hitters in Red Sox history.

The pitch from Hamilton struck Conigliaro on his left cheekbone, breaking it severely as well as seriously damaging his left retina. Tony C was left a bleeding mess, sprawled out over home plate. He fell face first, and stayed down like a fallen soldier.

Hamilton approached the plate to check on Conigliaro's condition, but was turned away by catcher Buck Rodgers to spare him the horrific sight.

This beaning would ruin Tony C's eyesight in his left eye permanently. Due to the sustained injuries, he missed the entire 1968 season.

Not being one to stay down for the count, however, Conigliaro got back up to his feet and rallied himself for an honorable comeback effort.

While winning a Hutch Award, given to the comeback player of the year, Tony C showed why the Red Sox gave him a chance to take back his outfield spot, posting a respectable 20 home runs and 82 RBI in 1969. However, his eyesight was exposed as a weakness, as he hit only .255 compared to .290 in his rookie year and .287 in 1967.

In 1970, Conigliaro looked as if he truly was returning to his old form. He raised his batting average to .266, and had career highs in the home run and RBI department, with 36 and 116, respectively.

After the season, Tony C was traded, ironically enough, to the California Angels. At only 26 years old, he already had such terrible eyesight, and hit .222 for the season, with only four home runs and 15 RBI. He retired only a shell of his former self.

After a four year hiatus from the game, Conigliaro tried to make another comeback with the Red Sox in the 1975 season. Despite being only 30, it just wasn't meant to be. He hit .123 in 21 games, and this time retired for good.

Unfortunately, life went downhill for Tony C after his baseball career. While being driven to an airport in 1982, he suffered a debilitating heart attack. Soon after that, he suffered a stroke and went into a coma for eight years.

During those eight years, he was sustained at his parents' house in a vegetative state until he eventually died in February, 1990. He was only 45.

His legacy with the Red Sox, still lives on, though. In the 2006 offseason, the Red Sox added a 200-seat bleacher section on top of the right field roof, and named it "Conigliaro's Corner" in his honor.

Currently, the Tony Conigliaro Award is awarded to the player in the Major Leagues who finds success despite overcoming strong adversity. Since instituted in 1990, here are notable recipients:

2007, Jon Lester, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

2006, Freddy Sanchez, who was born with a clubfoot.

1999, Mike Lowell, who had testicular cancer.

1992, Jim Abbot, who was born without a right hand.

Here's to you, Tony C, and all that could have been...