Remembering Tony-C

It gives me great pleasure today to give Our Game over to John Holway, my friend, colleague, and frequent collaborator over the past three decades. We co-wrote The Pitcher, worked together on Total Baseball‘s first edition, and promoted SABR in the years before its membership was not yet 2000. But John’s forays into baseball’s dimly understood past predates mine by eons. He has been researching baseball since 1944, and he is still at it. Looking at baseball beyond America’s major leagues, he wrote the first book in English on Japanese baseball, Japan Is Big League in Thrills, in 1954. Since then he has published many notable books on the Negro Leagues, most notably perhaps Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975), a collection of interviews with the then virtually unknown Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Bill Foster, Willie Wells, and The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues (2000). Holway saw his first Negro League game–Satchel Paige’s Monarchs against Josh Gibson’s Grays–in Washington, DC in 1945. He has also wrritten frequently about Ted Williams, whom he saw strike two home runs in the 1946 All-Star Game. A former chairman of SABR’s Negro Leagues committee, Holway has received SABR’s Bob Davids Award and the Casey Award for Blackball Stars, voted the best baseball book of 1988. In 2011 he captured a Henry Chadwick Award, capping a great career in which he has viewed baseball’s past from the vantage point of the present. Here he continues to point to the future, in the person of Washington’s Bryce Harper.

Remembering Tony-C

John B. Holway

Bryce Harper has now hit 22 homers as a 19-year-old. That puts him #2, behind Tony Conigliaro.

Never heard of Tony-C? He was one of the great tragic men of American baseball. Almost a half century ago, 1964, he slugged 24 home runs in 100 fewer at bats than Bryce.

Fans today don’t know Tony. But us old geezers remember a fresh-faced young guy with a smile who was struck down much too soon.

A Massachusetts boy, Tony signed with the Red Sox when he was 17 and came up to the big time when he was 19. He conked 24 over the Monster in only 404 at bats–Harper has 530 at the moment. That would equal about 32 for an equivalent number of at bats. Conigliaro also batted .290. Harper is struggling to get over .270.

Let’s not even talk about how much more money Bryce is being paid. Tony made a little extra change singing in Boston nightclubs; his most popular hit was “Little Red Scooter,” which he performed on TV too.

Then in August Tony broke his arm and his toes, and that was all for him that year.

But he came roaring back in ’65 with his 32 shots to lead the league, the youngest man ever to do it. Will Harper equal that?

Tony-C added 28 in ’66, but the Sox finished ninth. The one bright spot was, the Yanks finished tenth.

Then came ’67. The “Impossible Dream.”

The Sox charged back from almost worst to first, with Yaz and Tony and pitcher Jim Lonborg leading. Tony was batting .287 with 20 homers  Then on August 18 in Fenway, facing Jack Hamilton of the Angels, Tony was almost killed.

The Sox won the pennant in their very last game, and I raced up to Boston to see Game 7 against the Cards. It was the second of three Series the Sox would hobble into without a key star. In ’46 Ted Williams had played with a painfully swollen  right elbow; he was really half a player. In ’75 sensational rookie Jim Rice would ride the bench. (Should I mention Bill Buckner in ’86?) All four Series ended in seven-game losses.

I remember clearly when the lineups were announced, and Tony, still on the DL, was called to take his place on the foul-line with the other guys. He lifted his cap and waved it with a happy grin. The only thing bigger than his grin was our ovation.

Tony sat out in ’68, as the Sox fell back to oblivion. But  he won the Comeback of the Year award in ’69 with 36 homers and 116 RBIs, his most ever. He’s the guy who made them remove the seats in dead centerfield.  (Ted had tried, but they didn’t do anything until Tony complained.)

That winter, Tony’s eyesight almost gone, Boston traded him to California. He hit four homers.

He was interviewing for a broadcaster’s job in Boston when he was hit by a heart attack, then a stroke, and fell into a coma, which lasted for eight years until his death.

So, Bryce, I wish you the best of luck in memory of a guy who didn’t have much.

3 Comments

Well argued! I remember him very well. He was a handsome kid with awesome power.I didn’t remember the comeback year because of all the stories about his near blindness. All I remembered was afailed attempt.I am amazed he could stand back at home plate after the damage of that ball.I don’t think Hamilton was ever the same either.

It’s always a pleasure to read John Holway–most of what I know about Negro League baseball is the direct result of poring over his works in addition to Robert Peterson’s Only The Ball Was White.

I would offer one tiny clarification regarding Tony C’s record however: he won Comeback Player of the Year in 1969 batting .255 with an even 20 homers and 82 ribbies. I only bring this up because in 1969, the hole in his retina that had caused him to miss all of the previous year was said to have healed completely, giving Tony and his many fans a strong feeling of optimism about the future. In 1970, however, that hole reopened and his eyesight deteriorated rapidly–which is what makes offensive output in 1970 (.266, 36, 116) all the more amazing. According to several accounts I’ve read, Conigliaro developed a blind spot that left him unable to effectively track pitches below his belt, so those three dozen homers came largely as the result of tremendous plate discipline–not to mention his unbelievable tenacity in crowding the dish as he’d always done, never letting on that anything was wrong. It took AL pitchers almost a whole season to find him–and get him–out.

Rest in peace, Tony–go get ‘em, Bryce!

Good stuff, David; thanks.

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