Last Sunday, when the California Angels were in Oakland and the Boston Red Sox were in New York, Tony and Billy Conigliaro were at home in Nahant, Mass., fishing for flounder in the morning and gloomily catching television accounts of the controversies they had created in the afternoon.
At dawn of the day before, Tony had issued the startling announcement that, at age 26, he was quitting the Angels and ending forever his frequently brilliant but sometimes calamitous seven-year career in the major leagues. He had virtually no vision, he said, in the left eye that was struck by a pitched ball four years ago.
Billy, who ordinarily would have been either in the Red Sox outfield in New York or perhaps, the way things are going, in their dugout, had hurried to his older brother's side, pausing to blame teammate Carl Yastrzemski for the trade that sent Tony from Boston to the benighted Angels in the first place.
Ostensibly, Billy was home in Nahant to fulfill a military reserve commitment. He begged off, however, claiming a broken toe—medical intelligence that must have surprised the Red Sox, for whom he had played the previous day. More probably, Billy was out of both Red Sox and armed forces uniforms to bring solace to his anguished brother.
July 18, 1971
The Conigliaros—father Sal, mother Theresa and brothers three—are that close. And in their company Tony is hardly the erratic cutup who, in the opinion of Angel Manager Lefty Phillips, "belongs in an institution." But Phillips may be forgiven for such outbursts, with Conigliaro and Alex Johnson (SI, July 5) in the same outfield much of this season, he has had a trying time.
Tony seemed as rational as a man in his depressed circumstances could be as he sat in the living room of his family's fine house Sunday watching first a taped interview of himself, then one in which Boston Manager Eddie Kasko discussed the trouble Billy's accusation has caused in the Red Sox camp. Dressed in kid brother Richie's high school football jersey and a pair of bathing trunks, Tony appeared tanned, rested and not in the least like someone at the end of his tether. He was back home at last, back where a lonely, troubled 26-year-old could relax and, hopefully, find himself again.
He had called a 5 a.m. press conference Saturday morning in Oakland and told the bleary-eyed newsmen, "I have lost my sight and I'm on the edge of losing my mind." His performance in the 20-inning loss to the A's that had only concluded four hours before had, in fact, bordered on the manic. After going 0 for 8, striking out five times and getting into a heated argument with an umpire, Conigliaro was tossed out of the game when he swung in frustration at his own batting helmet and then flung his bat.
After the game he told Phillips he was quitting. This was not an original thought, but one he had nursed since spring training. Dick Walsh, the Angels' general manager and the man who had made the trade with Boston that brought Tony C to California, tried until 4:30 in the morning to talk Conigliaro out of his decision to retire. "I spent most of the time trying to make him realize that this wasn't an hour for decisions," Walsh says, "but he was a picture of a totally frustrated young man. He kept referring back to taking our money under false pretenses. There was failure in his eyes. It was futile."
"I was going over the edge," Conigliaro said, sitting in his parents' living room. "The way I was, I couldn't sleep. I was tossing in bed nights, and I was obviously on the brink of something bad. Now was the time for me to get out."
Conigliaro had been on the periphery of the Angel storm center all season, though teammate Johnson's bizarre behavior usually overshadowed his own. Tony never produced as a hitter for the Angels. His average was .222 and he had only four home runs. He suffered from a succession of injuries, the most severe being a pinched nerve in his neck. His new Angel teammates did not always accept his explanations of poor health, however, and after one trip to the hospital he returned to find a catsup-spattered uniform laid out on a stretcher alongside his locker. Conigliaro dismissed this far-from-subtle intimation of hypochondria as a clubhouse prank. But he was obviously troubled by accusations of malingering. It is odd, considering his medical history, that they should persist.
"I've had a broken thumb, a broken wrist, a broken hand, a broken arm, a fractured cheekbone, a dislocated jaw, a fractured shoulder blade and a cracked finger," he protests. "And people say I'm a hypochondriac."
But all his injuries the past three years had one benefit, he says. They served to effectively camouflage his real trouble—diminishing vision in his left eye. He nearly lost the sight of the eye and came reasonably close to losing his life when he was struck by a pitch thrown by Jack Hamilton in 1967.
Conigliaro sat out the 1968 season recovering from the blow—it was assumed he would never play again—then came back dramatically the following year to hit 20 home runs and drive in 82 runs. And last year he had his best season ever, with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs. But in October the Red Sox traded him to the Angels, a transaction that bewildered and angered the Conigliaro clan. Tony had been a Boston-area schoolboy hero, and as a home-town star and a bachelor, he had been reaping a celebrity's harvest. Now all that was gone.
In Southern California, Conigliaro found starlets for company, the promise of a part-time show-business career and a snappy apartment in Newport Beach with Raquel Welch as a next-door neighbor. But as idyllic as that might sound, Conigliaro was a cod out of water. "Tony is a young 26," a friend said a couple of weeks ago, "and I know damn well he is homesick. He misses his brothers. He misses his father. He misses his mother. And maybe most of all, he misses his Boston."
Nonetheless, Conigliaro maintains that his failing sight is the only cause of his abrupt retirement. Phillips has angrily accused him of taking the easy way out of a bad season. Conigliaro replies that by retiring he loses $40,000, the second half of his annual salary that he might have kept had he merely claimed an injury. And in answer to those skeptics who say he had put together two pretty fair seasons for a one-eyed man, he answers that the effort had caused him repeated headaches and nervous tension.
"It's difficult for me to explain the condition of my eye," he said on Sunday. "I can see the sides of a television screen, but I have trouble seeing the center of it. I can see sidearm pitches pretty well, but not somebody like Sam McDowell coming straight over the top. If I closed my right eye against a pitcher like that, I couldn't see the ball at all."
The eye has not been operated on, as is commonly believed, he said. "I didn't want to tell anyone that the eye was not as good as it should be. I let it get out that my vision in my bad eye was 20-30 in a test, but I cheated on the test. I had studied the chart before with my other eye. I felt that if people in baseball knew my eyesight was as bad as it was, I'd never have made it back. Even last year when I was having a great season, I was scared. I could get hit again by a pitch and maybe get killed. I was risking my life in the outfield. Really. I'd lose the ball and it would reappear, bang, in my glove. But my lawyer, Joe Tauro, convinced me that I should not retire. He said it would not have looked right to retire when I was traded."
The trade remains an injury of a different sort. "It was stupid. At the end of the season I told the Red Sox about my eye trouble. I asked them to move me from right field to left, where the sun wouldn't bother me so much in Fenway Park. But they told me no, because that would admit I had a problem. I really felt great when they said that—and I mean that seriously. I needed support, and I thought they were behind me and that we would be there together for a long time. Then came the trade.
"I was never happy with the Angels. When I was traded, I went into shock. I began to think what baseball was all about. It is big business. I discovered a ballplayer is a machine. When a player is hurt, they grease him, scrub him, oil him and push him onto the field."
And now, as the brothers Conigliaro watched the television set, Boston Manager Kasko appeared on the screen. Billy's problems with the Red Sox, the voice was saying, were "petty."
"Yeah," snarled Tony at the tiny image, "real petty."
The Conigliaros have always presented a united front before a world they have long construed as hostile. Tony's retirement triggered Billy's anti-Yaz diatribe. Things might have been different, Billy said, if the brothers had been allowed to play in the same outfield.
"Tony was traded because of one guy," Billy had said in the clubhouse before leaving for Nahant. He pointed to Yastrzemski. "Tony was the best clutch hitter we had, and yet he got traded. Why? Because Yastrzemski runs this team. Johnny Pesky [a former manager], Ken Harrelson [also retired] and Tony are all gone because of him. I know I'm next, but I don't care."
Not far from the Conigliaro house that Tony has come home to, there is an auto dealership boldly emblazoned YAZ FORD. It is owned, of course, by Yastrzemski. The Conigliaros must pass by it on their way from Nahant to Boston. In the view of Tony and Billy, their troubles surround them.