From the start of spring training it was almost certain that a Conigliaro would be playing right field for the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day. Maybe it would be Tony, age 24, providing he could really see a baseball with both eyes again, something the top specialists in the country once said was impossible. Or it might be Tony's brother Billy, 21, young and inexperienced, perhaps, but possessing enough ability and aggressiveness to play in the majors right now.
Last week there was no longer any doubt about which Conigliaro would start in right field. It would be Tony—Tony C—back again in his old position and batting fifth in the Red Sox lineup. Brother Billy will either be sitting on the Boston bench or playing in Louisville.
Tony did not win the right-field job; he simply reclaimed it. Certainly Billy did not lose it. Indeed, with only one week of the exhibition schedule left, he was outhitting his older brother by more than 50 points. Billy easily was the best rookie in the Red Sox training camp, just like Tony was their best rookie in 1964 when he joined the club as a regular outfielder.
However, Billy's accomplishments this spring, impressive as they were, were not nearly as dramatic as his brother's. Doctors say it is a medical miracle that Tony can see the white baseball with the red stitches when it is pitched to him at varying speeds and angles from a distance of 60 feet six inches. And Tony always has been able to hit a baseball when he has seen it—or when it has not hit him.
Before his 23rd birthday Conigliaro had hit 104 home runs in the major leagues, more than any player in history at a comparative age. He also helped the Red Sox into position for their drive to the 1967 American League pennant. During his first four seasons, though, he was injured seriously five times, when wild pitches fractured his left hand, right wrist, right arm, shoulder blade and left cheekbone.
The cheekbone was fractured the night of Aug. 18, 1967 in Boston's Fenway Park. Tony was anticipating a pitch away from the plate. The pitcher, Jack Hamilton, then of the California Angels, threw inside instead, and Conigliaro could not get out of the way. The ball smashed against the left side of his face, just below his temple and parallel to his eye. Tony was rushed to the hospital. "I knew it was bad," he said. "I dozed off for 20 minutes and when I woke up there was blood all over the sheets." Conigliaro was confident that the check-bone eventually would heal—after all, the other bones all had healed properly. He was more concerned about his eyes. For almost two days he could not see anything. Then the right eye cleared completely. But, when he left the hospital a week later, the left eye still was virtually useless.
Tony did not play again in 1967, although he was permitted to sit on the Red Sox bench in the World Series, provided he did not heckle the umpires or yell encouragement to his teammates. Last spring he reported to the Red Sox training camp. He thought his left eye was better, or at least it seemed better, but it was immediately obvious that he was wrong, that he couldn't see the ball. Although he wore a batting helmet with a protective flap that extended down against the left side of his face, Tony was falling away from the plate almost before the pitcher released the ball. In the old days Tony Conigliaro never fell back. He propped himself over the plate, bat cocked vertically, and dared the pitcher to throw the ball past him.
When Tony did swing at pitches last spring, he missed them badly. He struck out four times in one game against the Yankees. Three days later he struck out three more times against the Senators. Afterward he went into the Red Sox clubhouse, locked the door behind him and almost destroyed the room. For 10 minutes he threw chairs and bats and balls and gloves to relieve his frustration. That night, he returned to Boston, ostensibly to attend a military reserve meeting. But Tony was going to see the eye doctors once more.
A team of specialists at the Retina Foundation in Boston examined Tony's left eye. They discovered a hole in his macula, which is the section of the retina containing the nerve fibers and specialized rods and cones that provide sharp vision. Tony likes to describe the macula as "the film for the camera." The doctors worried that the retina might eventually become detached. Tests also showed that Conigliaro had almost no depth perception and that the sight in his left eye, once 20/15, was 20/300. It was then the doctors told Tony that he never would be able to see well enough out of that left eye to hit a baseball again.
Tony and his father, Sal, drove home to Swampscott, a north shore suburb of Boston. It was a quiet ride. When they got home, Sal told Mrs. Conigliaro that Tony's career was finished. Tony went to his bedroom and locked himself there for days, emerging only to eat. "I couldn't blame the kid," Sal Conigliaro said. "Then I came home from work one day and found my lawn all dug up. Tony had made a pitcher's mound and he had measured off the distance to the plate. He was out there pitching to his brother Richie."
Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, had told Tony that he never would have to worry about his future, that there would always be a job for him with the Red Sox. There were several other careers open to Conigliaro. He already was a professional singer whose records had sold well. And a Boston television station offered to send him to TV school. But now Tony wanted to be a major league pitcher.
Last winter he went to Florida to pitch for the Red Sox team in the instructional league. Once there, he got an itch to step back into the batting cage. Sam Mele, the former Minnesota manager who now works for the Red Sox, agreed to throw batting practice. Tony hit the ball hard. He could see the ball again, he claimed, almost the way he used to see it before he was beaned that August night.
Heartened, he returned to Boston for another examination at the Retina Foundation. The same doctors who explained the macula hole to Tony only seven months earlier were now dumbfounded. Somehow, the hole in the macula had filled with pigment. "It was a miraculous thing," the eye specialists told the Red Sox team physician, Dr. Thomas Tierney. "Somebody must have said a novena for that kid." Tests disclosed that Tony had regained the depth perception in his left eye and that the Sight in the eye had improved to 20/20.
And so, early last month, Conigliaro began his comeback at the Red Sox training camp in Winter Haven, Fla. If Tony could indeed see the ball again—and hit it like he used to—he certainly would be back on the team. Tony Conigliaro and his bat would also give the Red Sox the most lethal offense in the American League. However, neither the Red Sox nor Conigliaro were certain of that left eye.
"He didn't look good in early batting practices," said Jerry Stephenson, a Red Sox pitcher. "Everyone hits then, but Tony was missing the ball. He stood back away from the plate and he couldn't get his bat on anything outside." Conigliaro had an explanation. "I could see the ball all right," he said. "I could pick up the spin. But I hadn't played in more than a year and a half and I was trying to get comfortable. I knew I was way off the plate. I wanted to work my way back to the plate gradually. I was in no hurry."
Although most people around Winter Haven doubted Tony's explanation and believed he still could not see, Carl Yastrzemski decided right away that Tony, in fact, was all right. "Good hitters can start themselves into the pitch, look at the ball and then check themselves if they see the ball is going to be outside the strike zone," Yaz said. "Tony always used to do that. Last year he swung at everything. He couldn't see the ball well enough to check his swing. He missed all the time. I looked at him in batting practice this spring and noticed he could check himself again. It was so obvious. And that told me that he can see."
When the Sox played their first exhibition game, Tony was in right field. The first time he came to the plate he walked. He promptly tagged up and went to second when George Scott flied out deep to right field. It was a play only an alert player would make and so stunned the White Sox that they never even made a try for him.
In his third game of the spring Tony was knocked down by a rookie pitcher for Minnesota. While Twins Manager Billy Martin rushed to the mound to calm the rookie, Conigliaro bounced up and dusted himself off. The pitch had been close, but he was unperturbed.
Nevertheless, Tony did not hit the ball well during the early games. He struck out frequently—13 times in his first 50 at bats—but so did a lot of his teammates. "It didn't bother me," he said. "The only times I couldn't see the ball were when the backgrounds were real bad. A year ago I couldn't see the ball at all. You know, they talk about the troubles of hitters and they talk about lowering the mound and making the plate smaller and getting a livelier ball and shortening the strike zone. Well, the single most important thing they could do to help hitters would be to make all hitting backgrounds the same. Some backgrounds are ridiculous. People say green is best. I don't think so. If a ball gets scuffed with grass, it comes at you looking greenish against a green background. I think all backgrounds should be dark blue. Then the hitters would hit."
Meanwhile, brother Billy was having no problems at all with either backgrounds or opposing pitchers. One day against St. Louis he belted a pinch-hit home run. Tony was in Winter Haven, playing golf, and heard later on the radio that "Tony Conigliaro is off to a great start in his comeback. Today he hit a home run against St. Louis as Boston...." He laughed. "I thought I was playing golf," he said.
Gradually, Tony also began to hit the ball solidly. He was moving closer to the plate every time at bat. He was using a bat 1½ inches longer than the one he used before the beaning, and he was not bailing out. His left foot was aimed to the right of first base—not the third base dugout.
But it was not until last week that Tony really began to hit like the old—or the young—Conigliaro. Against the Reds in Tampa he singled sharply into center field in the first inning. "I was hitting the ball square, and that's all I really wanted," he said. Until then Tony had not hit any home runs. But in the third inning, facing Mel Queen, Tony connected with a fastball. Alex Johnson, the Reds' leftfielder, turned to the wall and looked up. The ball disappeared over the fence and landed about 425 feet from home plate. When he returned to the dugout, his teammates swarmed around him. The next day Tony hit two solid singles in his first two at bats against the White Sox in Winter Haven.
There now was no longer any doubt that Tony Conigliaro could see the baseball. And there was no doubt that Tony would be in right field against Baltimore on Opening Day.
"I will be a better hitter at night, I am sure," Tony said, "because the ball will come out of a dark background. But I will be able to see it all right during the day, too. I just hope that I can be the type of hitter I was in 1967 when I could drive in the key run and help the club win games."
After the home run in Tampa, Tony came out of the game and drove back to Winter Haven in a car with Yastrzemski and Ken Harrelson. "Tony," Harrelson asked, "have you ever felt so good?" Conigliaro smiled. "I got an idea," Harrelson said. "I'll buy the champagne and we'll do some celebrating tonight in Winter Haven."
Conigliaro turned to face Harrelson in the back seat. "O.K., Hawk," he said, "but just this once. If we drink champagne every time I hit a home run this season, we'll be two drunken bums at the end of the year."