Forty-five years ago this Sunday, one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. sports history destroyed the career (and ultimately, the life) of a budding superstar, while paradoxically establishing the foundation of one of the most popular and successful of all sports franchises.
On August 18, 1967, in a cozy little bandbox called Fenway Park, a pitch from California Angels' pitcher Jack Hamilton smashed into the cheek of Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro, destroying the left side of his face and nearly crushing his eye socket. He would never be the same again.
He was only 22 years old.
The ancient Greeks would have loved and understood the story of the legendary Tony C. -- blessed by the gods with extraordinary athletic talent and good looks, he was destined for everlasting fame and riches.
However, the cruel hand of fate would intervene (perhaps to punish Tony for his hubris?) and obliterate his dreams.
Hollywood could not have come up with a more improbable-heroic-tragic tale -- Conigliaro, from nearby Lynn, was signed by the Red Sox out of high school, making the big leagues in 1964 at the tender age of 19.
Not only did he crush a home run in his very first at-bat, but he finished his rookie season with an impressive .290 with 24 home runs and 52 RBI in only 111 games.
In the following season, Tony suffered no sophomore jinx -- he led the American League with 32 home runs, thereby becoming the youngest home run champion league history.
The sky was the limit – Tony stood on the brink of an immortal career that would undoubtedly have led to the Hall of Fame.
Tony delivered another strong season in 1966 with 28 home runs and 93 RBIs.
Meanwhile, Tony C. was becoming the biggest star in Boston's firmament, thereby creating resentment in some of his teammates, particularly Carl Yastrzemski who had been, up until Tony's emergence, the club's dominant player.
Tony obviously didn't care, he was living a dream life. Handsome, popular and charismatic, he brought fans to a park that had been grim and moribund since the retirement of Ted Williams in 1960.
Tony ventured into TV appearances and recorded some songs, earning even more fans, particularly besotted females. As the most eligible bachelor in New England, he dated starlets and Playboy bunnies.
In the fateful year of 1967, the Red Sox had a new manager, the irascible, abrasive, and fire-breathing Dick Williams who single-handedly changed the team's laissez-faire attitude and demanded maximum effort and excellence from his underlings.
For the first time in many years, the Red Sox contended for the pennant, led by Yastrzemski, but also from a well-balanced club that featured strong pitching, good defense, power and timely hitting.
Tony hit his 100th career home run during the season, the youngest ever to reach that milestone in the American League up to that point.
In the midst of a frantic pennant race, Tony C. stood at the plate against Hamilton – and his trajectory to superstardom was permanently derailed.
Much to Tony's consternation, the Red Sox – fueled by a magnificent Triple Crown performance by his bitter rival Yaz – won the pennant and established the powerful entity known as Red Sox Nation.
Tony sat out the entire 1968 season, tormented by fears he would never play again.
Amazingly, Tony came back for the 1969 season and actually hit 20 home runs, basically with one eye. In 1970, he did even better, smashing a career-high 36 home runs (a phenomenal number in those pre-steroid days) and 116 RBIs, but he wasn't really in good shape anymore.
In 1971, he was traded to the Angels (ironically, the same team as Hamilton, the man who ruined his life, though the pitcher's career was over by then).
Tony suffered through a difficult season in Anaheim and retired. He tried to make a comeback in 1975 with the Red Sox, but that ended in failure.
Tragedy and misfortune would continue to stalk Tony -- in 1982, he suffered a heart attack, then a stroke and slipped into a coma.
Tony died in February 1990, at the much-too early age of 45.
Tony Conigliaro is my all-time favorite baseball player – not only for what he accomplished on the diamond, but for what he didn't.
Had it not been for that errant fastball from Hamilton (a devil not an 'Angel'), Tony would likely have become the dominant player of the 1970s, saving us from the rise of the hateful Pete Rose and Reggie Jackson. The Sox might have become a dynasty in that decade, with Tony finishing with 500, maybe 600, homers and a reserved seat in Cooperstown.
But it was not to be... and that is precisely why Tony is a romantic, heroic legend, because the gods smote him down.
Old-timers in the Boston area who saw Tony play still revere him like no other Sox icon – he has a hold on Beantown that Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Pedro Martinez couldn't hope to attain.
Tony was the legend that never was, and he will remain immortal.