Tragedy of Tony C. haunts Fenway

August 19, 1992|By John Strege | John Strege,Orange County (Calif.) Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The sound is what they seem to remember most vividly. It resonates across the years, 25 of them now, enough of them to suggest the sound will never diminish, not in this case, not in the tragic case of Tony C.

"Just the noise," said former California Angels manager Bill Rigney, anguish creasing his face. "I just remember the noise."

Their facial muscles contort when they are asked to describe the sound it created, as though they are hearing it for the first time, or wishing they were hearing it for the last.

"It sounded like a pumpkin, like taking a bat to a pumpkin," said Angels manager Buck Rodgers, the California catcher 25 years ago.

On Aug. 18, 1967, at Fenway Park in Boston, Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton threw a fastball designed to move Tony Conigliaro off the plate, but it sailed and Tony C. froze. And so, for perpetuity, did the image and the sound.

"It's a hollow sound," then Red Sox manager Dick Williams said. "You never forget it."

It was heard by fans in the upper decks at Fenway. The ball struck Conigliaro in the temple, fracturing his cheekbone, dislocating his jaw, blurring his vision and clouding his

future. Two inches higher, the pitch would have killed him.

As it was, it was among the most destructive beanballs ever delivered, its impact magnified by the promise that went unfulfilled as a result. Conigliaro was 22 then and only a month earlier had become the youngest player in history to hit career home run No. 100. Only time was required before the number became 400, or 500 or even 600.

"What a career that was wasted," Williams said. "The way he started out he could do no wrong. He was aggressive, cocky, good-looking. He had the world by the tail."

The world sometimes has a way of striking back, and Conigliaro ultimately became the embodiment of the notion that life is not fair. In 1982, two days after his 37th birthday, he suffered a heart attack that left him in a coma for four months and damaged his brain to the extent that he was bedridden for the last eight years of his life. He died in March 1990.

Only his career was taken from him this night, 25 years ago. He missed the rest of the '67 season and all of '68, his vision irreparably damaged. He returned to hit 20 homers in '69 and 36 more the following season, but his eyesight continued to diminish and he was traded to the Angels, for whom he would play just 74 games. Midway through the '71

season, Conigliaro retired, at 26. A comeback bid in '75 lasted just 21 games.

"It's bugged me all my career, all my life, really," said Hamilton, now a restaurant owner in Branson, Mo. "I felt bad about it, like anyone would. The next day, I went to the hospital to see him, but the only people getting in were family. We [the Angels] had to leave after that. I never really did get back to see him."

By all accounts, the beaning was accidental. The only controversy was generated by Williams, who in the aftermath hinted Hamilton might have hit Tony C. with a spitball. Earlier in the game Williams had protested to umpires that Hamilton was loading up the ball, and when asked later what kind of pitch had felled Congliaro, he replied, "I'd rather not say."

Williams now concedes the pitch probably was just "a hard fastball that got away."

Hamilton said: "At that time I was throwing spitters once in a while. Everybody was. That was my pitch, really. It goes hard and moves quickly. My spitter moved everywhere. That's what makes a spitter effective.

"But that was a fastball. My ball always did move good. I didn't always know where it was going. That was my problem. But Tony never moved. He just more or less froze."

Conigliaro was an aggressive hitter who believed that crowding the plate enabled him to hit as many homers as he did. Slumping at the time, Tony C. told his brother Billy before the game that he intended to move even closer to the plate and to stand in longer.

"I called an inside fastball," Rodgers said. "We were ahead in the count. Tony hangs right over the plate. His head actually is over the inside corner of the plate. We wanted the inside fastball to get him off the plate and then to come back with the breaking ball away. He just froze. It wasn't more than a few inches inside. It wasn't even a good knock-down pitch.

"It was probably one of the scariest things I've ever seen. I looked at him and blood was coming out of his eye, his mouth, his ear. I turned away. I didn't want Jack to see. He was coming in and I turned him away."

Conigliaro was wearing a helmet, but that was before helmets were equipped with ear flaps, and he did nothing by way of reaction to impede the ball's progress or to soften the blow.

"His head never even went this way," Rigney said, moving his face away from an imaginary baseball.

Conigliaro said later he remembered only hearing a whistling sound, and, that there was, "no way I could have gotten out of the way."

Unconscious, he was carried from the field on a stretcher and rushed to Santa Maria Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.

"I knew it hit pretty hard," Hamilton said. "But you don't think anything of it at the time."

No one could have known at the time that the pitch struck with enough force to bring down a career, but as the months and the years passed and it became apparent that it had, the notation in the box score became an increasingly and woefully inadequate reminder of its destructiveness: HBP -- J. Hamilton (Conigliaro).

"You go to any park in the country and someone is yelling to stick it in his ear," said Angels coach Bobby Knoop, California's second baseman that day. "But when it happens, it's a very sick thing and it makes a very sick sound. There's no mistaking that a person got hit."

The sound, it was indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who heard it, and they probably heard it again last night, when irony and the schedule conspired to bring the Red Sox and the Angels together at Fenway Park, 25 years to the day after Tony C. went down.

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