The first 16 times Tony Conigliaro—then only 18 and known to his friends as "Conig"—went to bat in Organized Baseball he failed to reach first base. It didn't bother him a bit. He still talks about the hit he was robbed of the 16th time up, and he batted .382 the rest of that 1963 season.
The first time Tony Conigliaro—now 19 and a celebrated Boston Red Sox rookie known as "Tony C."—went to bat in the major leagues, he hit into a double play in Yankee Stadium that missed being a triple play by half a step. That didn't faze him either. When he came to bat later in the game he complained to the umpire that it looked to him as though the pitcher, Whitey Ford, age 35, was throwing spitters. As a rule, umpires abhor fresh rookies, but this one forgot. "What can I do?" he asked the kid plaintively.
Then Tony C. and the Red Sox returned to Boston to open their home schedule, and the first time Conigliaro, who is a Boston boy, batted in Fenway Park he hit the first pitch out of Fenway Park, thus occasioning the greatest homecoming hoopla since the prodigal son came back and everybody in the place got half a day off. In attendance for Tony's first home run were Attorney General Kennedy, Governor Peabody, Mayor Collins, American League President Cronin, Red Sox Owner Yawkey, Stan Musial, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and the whole damn Harvard band. "That was something, hitting that home run," Tony says. "All my buddies were out there in the center-field stands."
Boston's favorite ever since, Conigliaro at midsummer is among the Red Sox leaders in every batting category. He is hitting .280 and, with 20 homers, had a good shot at the major league record for home runs by a rookie (38) until he hurt his forearm last Sunday. You can't ask much more of a local boy, and Tony C. is as local as they come. He was born in Revere, Mass., went to school in Lynn, Mass., now lives in Swampscott, Mass. and spent eight formative, fighting years in East Boston. Tony politely gives credit to all these principalities for providing him with his special elixir, but Mayor Collins of Boston, aware that citizens of Revere, Lynn and Swampscott do not vote in Boston elections, says: "We lay claim to Tony as a product of East Boston."
August 2, 1964
It is not easy being 19 years old and a home-town hero. "Like the other day," Tony says, "I was just driving through Swampscott. Uh, I have this red Sting Ray. Yeah, everybody knows it. And this buddy of mine saw me and honked a couple times, and when I stopped I was just surrounded by kids. They know me all over Boston now, too. You see, I have had this fantastic publicity ever since the start of spring training." He gets about 20 fan letters a day from all over, including "and you won't believe this, even from Europe." Tony lives at home and his parents have had to get an unlisted phone number because, Tony says, the phone was ringing literally every 10 seconds.
But aside from this overabundance of attention, nothing seems to bother Tony C. He does not drink or smoke, and he may be the only major leaguer who endorses ice-cream sodas. Yet he is not a gee-whiz kid. In truth, some people are sure that he is going to be temperamental, and others think he is too cocky already. The evidence suggests, however, that his is a natural and becoming confidence and not one created by his rookie performance as a teen-ager.
"Oh, he's got a freshness about him," says Boston Manager Johnny Pesky. "He's said a couple of things that were meaningless, but then I guess all kids his age do. But one thing: he still can't understand how anybody can get him out."
For all his confidence, Conigliaro takes nothing for granted. He plays hard and has been knocked out of the lineup four times this year by injuries. Last Sunday he suffered a lineal fracture of the wrist (which will sideline him for several weeks) when he was hit by a pitch, and earlier in the season he ran into the stands in Chicago chasing a fly. All his injuries were valid, but Tony picked up a reputation for dramatizing them. Opponents gave him the Academy Award for his Chicago performance and said that he prepared for the majors at Pasadena Playhouse. Once he sat glumly complaining that he had a bad back while with consummate feeling he rubbed his leg.
The Boston sportswriters are all extremely fond of Tony. "He's a fine boy and a wonderful player," Cliff Keane of the Boston Globe says. Conigliaro, on the other hand, is patently unawed by the press and, indeed, consciously avoids reading his notices. "Look," he says, "I'm only 19. All this stuff they're writing could go to my head. You know, the hardest thing about the big leagues is just to act like a big leaguer. I mean, any kid of 19 has all these teen-age habits. You have to learn that the other guys on the team just don't want to go to a dance party and twist or something."
Conigliaro is big—6 feet 3 and 180—and good-looking, but he's 19, all right. And in keeping with his remarkably unaffected character, he is content to be 19. Coming into the clubhouse in slacks and a white shirt not tucked in, he seems no different or older than the clubhouse boys. About the most important change that big league status has made in his life is that he can sleep more. Tony Conigliaro spends, in fact, most of his waking hours sleeping. On road trips his feats of somnolence are the most prodigious since Sleeping Beauty vacated her title. After a night game, Tony gets to bed about one o'clock. Sometimes, after a day game, he does not get to bed until one o'clock, either—and last week he was fined $250 by Pesky for violating the 12:30 a.m. curfew. He sleeps till about 1:30 the next afternoon. Then he wakes up, rolls over and calls room service. He orders breakfast: strawberries and corn flakes (that's "strahberries and cahn flecks" in his Boston accent), ham, scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice and two large glasses of milk. He eats, rolls over again and goes back to sleep for another two hours or so until it is time for him to break up the day with baseball.
"The more I sleep the lighter the bat feels," he explains. "If I get only 11 or 12 hours, I can feel the difference. Really." The day before the season opened, on the eve of his major league debut, he overslept and missed a team meeting at Yankee Stadium.
That he was even in New York as a regular on a major league team was remarkable. In spring training Ted Williams had said, "He's just a kid. He's two years away." But Tony had played well, and when Boston found itself with a shortage of outfielders after Gary Geiger went on the disabled list with stomach ulcers, Pesky took a chance on the kid with the big local reputation.
Conigliaro won 18 and lost 2 as a pitcher at St. Mary's High in Lynn, where he was also a football and basketball star, and he hit .370, .510, .430 and .545 in successive years. Big-league bonus offers soon reached such a point that he put college athletic scholarships out of his mind—though he is seriously thinking of starting college this fall.
Tony finally signed with the Red Sox, who had matched the high figure offered by the Baltimore Orioles. The price has never been revealed, though Tony now says it was "the equivalent" of $125,000 given in one taxable bundle. He splurged on the Sting Ray, but the rest of the money has gone into blue-chip stocks and East Boston property. (Mr. and Mrs. Sal Conigliaro may have more bonus investing to do for their other two children. Billy, 16, batted .527 this spring as a junior at Swampscott High; Richie, 12, is hitting in the .600s in Little League.)
After signing Tony, Boston sent him to the semiofficial winter-time Florida Instructional League, where he batted only about .220. He had never been able to hit a good curve in high school and had not even seen a slider before. But, typically, he came back from Florida full of confidence, and when he went to his first spring-training camp in 1963 he started off by hitting six home runs. "I was ready for anything they threw, because now I'd seen it," he says. That season—after his first barren 16 at bats—he tore up the New York-Pennsylvania League, ending with a batting average of .363, a slugging percentage of .730 and the Most Valuable Player award, and his surprise major league performance followed.
Tony's parents are very proud of him, of course, and they are at Fenway Park every game to watch their eldest son. So are Tony's younger brothers, when not involved in important games of their own up in Swampscott. Tony's buddies show up, too, when there is nothing better to do, like maybe go to a drive-in. If they're not at the game, Tony catches up with them afterward.
If he had signed with Baltimore, say, he would have had to find new friends and adapt to a whole new city and a new environment where nobody else said "strahberries and cahn flecks." But instead, there he is, hanging with the same friends, making the same places and living at home with his parents and Billy and Richie, just like always. The only real difference is that he goes to Fenway Park to play ball instead of St. Mary's High. Maybe when you are 19, and it only takes you a couple of minutes longer to get from home to someplace new, you don't have time to realize how much has happened. Maybe that's why Tony C. isn't too impressed by it all.