Remembering Tony Conigliaro the Sportscaster

This is  a guest post from Michael Passanisi.

Forty-five years ago this spring, a 19-year old kid from Swampscott made it fun to be a Sox fan again, at least for a few years. Most fans remember that Tony C has passed away, but how many remember his up-and-down broadcast career and the terrible effects of his heart attack and brain damage that made his last eight years a living hell for Tony and his family?

To be sure, Tony is remembered as a man who, in the words of author David Cataneo in his excellent 1997 book Tony C: The Triumph and Tragedy of Tony Conigliaro, had a lot of both in his life. Nearly every Sox fan knows about his 1967 beaning. They also remember his aborted comebacks, his controversial trade to the Angels three years later, and his final retirement in 1975. But the story doesn’t end there.

A year after his retirement from baseball, Conigliaro began work as a sports reporter for KGO-TV in San Francisco. Cataneo’s book describes his early problems in broadcasting: “He was immediately branded just another jock enthusing about the scores. He was terrible. He spoke in clichés. He always seemed harried. His malaprops made him uncomfortable to watch….his Boston accent, charming to fans from Charlestown and Waltham and Worcester in the Fenway stands, made northern Californians cover their ears.”

Things then improved for a while. “Not surprisingly”, continues Cataneo, “he wasn’t smooth, but he came across as honest and genuine. He had a good rapport with athletes. The anchor work remained rough, but his features got better, eventually good enough to learn a local Emmy.” Though being homesick, as he always seemed to be, for his family, he was enough of a celebrity to be recognized and continue to date attractive women. He also befriended a man named Satch Hennessey, who was also touched by tragedy; his wife and young daughter would both die of cancer. Interestingly, he also became more religious. “I was given a lot of athletic ability,” Cataneo quotes him as saying…”if I don’t know where it came from it doesn’t mean much.”

By 1980, however, his life was going downhill again. KGO fired him, apparently because the station wanted a workaholic who would give “110 percent”. Another station, KRON, which had hired Tony as basically a weekend sports anchor and feature broadcaster, brought in a new news director, who let him go. That, unfortunately, was the end of his broadcasting career.

Tony’s last chance came in January, 1982, when he wanted to try out for an opening as Red Sox color commentator.. However, WSBK, which broadcast the Sox at that time, had a GM who Cataneo calls “a non-New Englander who had been nowhere near Kenmore Square in the summer of 1967″., This man apparently thought no one remembered him anymore. He might have changed his mind, but just two days later Tony suffered his massive heart attack.

Though Cataneo did an excellent job of describing Tony’s post-1975 years, many newspapers seem today to gloss over the suffering that Conigliaro went through between his heart attack and his death in 1990. This includes articles two years ago on the 40th anniversary of the Impossible Dream season, in which Tony played a big part before his injury.

An example of some writers’ description of Conigliaro’s post-baseball years is in the 2004 book Reversing the Curse about the Sox’s first World Series win since 1918. The only mention of Tony is that he “suffered a major heart attack and died at the age of 45 in 1990″. Given the interest in him in his playing days, more might have been said, and while his tragedy was a personal one and not connected to baseball in general, that description does not seem enough.

All the details of the sufferings of Tony and his family during his last years need be mentioned here, but his brother Billy, in the forward to Cataneo’s book, sums it up by saying that “nobody expected that the struggle of a professional athlete would, just a few years later, be exceeded by an all-out fight just to exist on the earth as a normal human being.” By 1990, most of Tony’s relatives were praying that he would soon be put out of his misery. Their prayers were answered on February 24 of that year.

Today, Conigliaro is memorialized in the Conigliaro Gym at his alma mater, St Mary’s High in Lynn, by the major league Comeback Player of the Year Award, and a few other commemorations of his life, such as “Conig’s Corner” in Fenway Park. But the Sox have not retired his number 25. Tony made a lasting impression on Boston baseball, and his entire life should be remembered.

Related link:

Jim O’Brien – The Forgotten Coach? - also by Passanisi.

  • Mitch

    In my judgment, a healthy Tony Conigliaro would have made the Red Sox the 1967 World Series champions, as the Pennant never would have come down to the final days against Minnesota, and Jim Lonborg would have been matched against Bob Gibson in the Series.

    Those ballgames would still be counted among the very best pitching duels in World Series history…both men were essentially unhittable…and Yaz and Tony C would have gone on to become the Ortiz & Ramirez of their time.

    Any baseball fan of that era will tell you that a Yaz/Conigliaro versus Gibson matchup would have been baseball drama at its very, very best. Yaztrzemski hit .400 in that Series. Imagine what he would have done with Tony C hitting behind him?

    I agree that the span of time between Tony C’s heart attack and ultimate passing is largely ignored and forgotten. Also forgotten is the fact that Tony actually had two productive seasons after returning to the Sox, including the 1970 campaign in which he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs…both career high’s.

    I saw Tony hit a grand slam at Fenway Park as a kid, and it was one of the biggest thrills of my childhood.

    The fallout from Conigliaro’s beaning, and Lonborg’s skiing accident after the 1967 season, halted a possible Red Sox dynasty before it even got started. Lonborg recovered to enjoy a long and productive career, but Conigliaro was not so fortunate.

    Every time I think of Tony Conigliaro, I think of what might have been. Tragic for the man, for his family and for the Red Sox.

    Rest in peace, Tony C.

  • http://bostonsportsmediawatch fred

    Tony C was also broadcaster for channel 10 wjar in Providence RI before moving out west

  • Butch

    maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but didn’t Tony Conigliaro work for a Rhode Island TV station as a sports anchorman for a short time?

    • http://www.azrealtor4you.com Dan M.

      And he also owned a night club during those days with Channel 10 Tony C's I think was the name, it was a small DISCO in downtown Providence.

  • ed conroy

    although the “theo epstein/etc. regime has been a breath of fresh air after having to endure the years of foolish trades,etc., the red sox failure to retire tony c’s number is a disgrace. he was as popular as yaz in those days and put up some great power numbers during his short time in the game. let”s face facts. the man showed incredible courage to take all that time off and have the guts to step into a batters box and face major league pitching again! tony gave his heart and soul to the sox and his number should never be worn by anyone again. ted williams once said that had tony played a full career, in his opinion, he would have hit 500 home runs and would have made the hall of fame. sometimes it”s not about numbers,though. it’s about what someone meant to the area and the team,etc. i hope the sox do the right thing and show this man the respect that he deserved all along. do it for the older fans who remember him for the great moments he gave us and do it for the younger fans who should learn about what he accomplished and the courage and determination he showed so he could play for the red sox again.

  • Steve

    Tony C was a prime example of what Howard Cosell called “jockocracy” — a term that describes underqualified former professional athletes taking sports broadcasting jobs away from talented kids coming out Newhouse and other top communication schools. Yes, a lot of ex-jocks are good (Jerry Remy, Rick Sutcliffe) but some are awful (Joe Morgan).

  • Classless

    Can someone tell me WHAT the obsession is with Tony C.? He got hit in the face with a baseball. The End.

    • J.R.

      The “obsession,” as you called it, has to do with a Red Sox team of the mid-1960s that was, in the parlance of the old 10-team American and National leagues, always a “second division” club. I suspect you’re too young to understand or know that, so go look it up. Basically, they s*cked.

      But Tony C., and to a lesser extent Yaz (pre-1967), represented something Sox fans had little of back then: hope. He was a young kid with local ties who smashed a lot of home runs — the youngest to ever get to 100 HRs the fastest. Compound that with the fact that his career was cut down even before he hit his prime and it’s a compelling story.

      Now, go back to your video games.

      • Classless

        You speak about him like he was Jesus Christ marching with his cross. Yes, I’m young, I’m 28, but not stupid. History is a pretty basic subject, Pops…Compelling to me is Jackie Robinson.

        Why not do cases studies on Jeff Grey then? He essentially had to relearn basic motor functions after his injury and he played in a time of “no hope”.

        • J.R.

          Ah, I don’t think anyone here is speaking about Tony C. as if he were JC. Just simply providing an explanation and some facts about his career in an attempt to explain why he is remembered in such a positive light by many fans of all ages. It’s the same thing with Harry Agganis (before my time): as a fan, you naturally wonder “what might have been.”

          And, if my “old” memory serves me correctly, Jeff Gray (and that’s spelled Gray, not “Grey”) pitched on the 1990-91 Red Sox, a team that won its third East Division title in five years, hardly a period (or specific year) of no hope, and the ’91 Sox finished in second. Compare that with the ’64 (eighth place), ’65 (ninth), and ’66 (ninth) Sox teams and it’s no contest.

          Glad you agree that history is a pretty basic subject, but it appears you may have missed more than just a few classes, “dude.”

        • http://bostonsportsmedia Don Benson

          What a clown you are…obviously you have no respect for the sport or for the stars of an era you are too young or ignorant to understand. There is no “Christ” association, but certainly an appreciation for the rising star Mr. Conigliaro was and as a Boston sports fan, a feeling of loss when he passed away so young. He hit home runs at a great frequency before steroids and before the leagues were watered down by expansion. Try something…think before you speak. Read some history before you open your yap and maybe, just maybe, you will understand.
          I doubt that you will, as that would take more effort than I’m sure you are willing to give…like the other respondent said…go back to your video games.

  • Fred

    I was 14 years old in 1967 and can still remember listening to Sox games on my transistor radio. Listening to Ned Martin describe the awful scene when Tony C got beaned left a sickening feeling in me. The man was a great ballplayer and those that weren’t alive then can’t understand the tragedy of having a hall of fame career ended so quickly. Rest in peace Tony

  • Matt

    Does anyone know of any footage on the net of the beaning? I have searched all over and can’t find it. I’ve only seen pictures of like SI covers and stuff like that.

    • bob

      Sports illustrated cover was make up

  • Sluggo

    Try WCVB-TV; they may own the film archive of the old Channel 5, the original WHDH-TV. That was the flagship station then of the Sox’ TV network, and even though that 8/18/67 game was NOT televised, they usually had their film crews at home games and were pretty much the top sports TV station on the air in Boston at the time.

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