Friends on Facebook reminded me that today is the anniversary of the death of baseball player Tony Conigliaro. Here’s a link to an essay I wrote about him many years ago and which was posted on this blog at least once in the past.
Dick’s post about Tony C. made me go to the vault for this short essay written in 1990. He was something to see. — PM
If a 19-year-old from Swampscott and St. Mary’s High in Lynn could make the Red Sox, then a kid in Dracut could dream. I was ten when Tony Conigliaro homered on his first swing at Fenway Park in 1964. It was as if one of the Beatles had put on a Boston uniform. I had discovered baseball four years before. My father taught me how to catch and hit in our back yard. My older brother David took up where my dad left off. He let me tag along for games at Gendreau’s Field near our house, where I took a pitch in the head because I didn’t know enough to duck. In those days we’d wrap a ball in black electrical tape to keep the string from unraveling after the cover had let go under the beating of a thousand clouts. My brother had Ted Williams and the early Yaz. My half-generation had Tony C and Triple-Crown Yaz. When my chums and I played Home Run Derby, someone would always say, “I’m Tony C.” He won the American League home run title in 1965, being the youngest champ ever. “Conig” even cut a rock ‘n’ roll record. Soon he was hanging out with Joe Namath and dating nightclub singers.
That was about the same time that I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Therese’s. To prepare for this rite of passage, a young Catholic selects a confirmation name, preferably that of a saint who can be a life model and spiritual guide. Parents and godparents announce your Christian name at Baptism. Confirmation signals full membership in the church. You pick your own name the second time around. I chose “Anthony,” and the nuns thought I meant the saint.
A few years back, I paid $8.00 for an old Conig card at a baseball memorabilia show. The card is a Topps, 1965. Along the way I lost the one I’d pulled out of a ten-cent pack at the Hovey Square Variety. My old Red Sox had gone the way of Beatles cards of the same period, all those holy pictures tossed out in a fit of adolescence. There comes a moment when it’s shameful to have heroes. The card show guy said Tony C sold well across the country. It’s my favorite Conigliaro card—he’s in three-quarter profile in his crisp white home uniform, and looks as if he’s staring a hole in a batter from his post in right field. There’s a small gold trophy in the right corner for being named a Topps 1964 All-Star Rookie.
One summer in the mid-Sixties, I bought a Conigliaro-autograph model bat at Stuart’s department store in Lowell. My father drove me to the store on a Saturday morning, then rushed me home to play ball in the meadow my friends and I had occupied at the top of Janice Avenue. The regulars were there, joined that morning by a greasy punk from Crosby Road. He was fifteen going on twenty-five: duck’s-ass hairstyle, pack of Winstons rolled up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, and pegged black chinos. He always wore pointy dress shoes, which made him slip all over the grass. He never brought a glove either. That day my team took the field first. I was at shortstop. The hood came up to the plate, a butt stuck in his mouth. He had my shiny bat with the white handle and brown barrel. When he hit the ball, I heard a loud crack and felt sick. I know he hit the ball on the bat’s label, which everyone else knew not to do. We were so conscious of that, especially with a new bat—”Turn the label away from the pitch. Don’t hit it on the grain.” How many times did we hear that? I should have made him buy me a new bat. He said it was a mistake. I fumed. When I got home, I nailed and taped the bat, but it was dead.
In 1967, I was living with my family in California during Boston’s Impossible Dream summer, when Tony C took the fastball from Jack Hamilton in the side of his face. The Sports Illustrated photo of him in the hospital was gruesome, the closed left eye purplish black and swollen. He didn’t play for a year-and-a-half. By 1970, he was so far back that he hit 36 homers and knocked in 116 runs. Still, the Sox traded him that winter.
In high school, I wore number 25 for four years on JV and Varsity, but it didn’t make me a power hitter. As a college student, I saw one of his second-comeback home runs at Fenway, a patented Green Monster job. Years later, he collapsed in his brother’s car on the way to an interview with a Boston TV station. He was being considered for the color- man position on the Red Sox broadcasting team. By the time he reached the emergency room he had brain damage. After years of round the clock care, Tony Conigliaro died on February 24, 1990. He was a thrilling hitter with a big swing. I didn’t expect anything from him except a homer every time he stepped into the batter’s box. I tracked down that old baseball card because the cracked bat is long gone.
—Paul Marion (c) 2013, 1990
The game today is in the bottom of the tenth inning in Oakland. No matter how today’s contest turns out, the Red Sox have had a productive first half of the season. Few of us in Red Sox Nation expected them to be in such a strong position at the All Star break. I noticed the Emperor of Red Sox Nation, complete with cape, was in the stands this afternoon. It’s a beautiful afternoon in California. If one player symbolizes the Red Sox this year, it is Dustin Pedroia. He gives everything he’s got each day. This squad looks like a pick-up team many days, but the manager and front office have put together a team that moves forward as a unit. Different guys contribute, nobody carries the team—although David Ortiz does a lot of heavy lifting. Anyway, take a breather after today’s game. (Nice play just now with one of the A’s thrown out trying to steal third in the bottom of the tenth.) Not a smart move. On to the eleventh. July-August-September: a bunch of baseball games to go. It’s hot. The Sox are in the hunt. High summer.
Dustin Pedroia (web photo courtesy of mlb.si.com)
Last Friday, I received a surprise call at my UMass Lowell office. I was in a meeting off campus, so was not there to pick up the phone. Later in the day, I got an email message explaining what had happened and telling me to check the voicemail.
I joined the Facebook universe in January 2011. That spring, when baseball season came around, for fun I changed my Profile picture on Facebook (for non-users, that’s the one that identifies you on all your postings). I put up an image of a Topps baseball card from 1965. It was Dalton Jones, the infielder with the beautiful left-handed swing who played for the Red Sox in the mid-1960s. The card is shown above. He was my favorite player. He wasn’t a superstar, but he was a great contributor to the team. As my friend Jack Neary said recently, “He got a lot of big hits in 1967.”
I played baseball for Dracut High School for four years. I wasn’t a regular starter. I played shortstop, second base, and wherever I could help. I was a much better hitter in neighborhood games and in pick-up softball later in my life, but I held my own in high school—one time broke up a no-hitter with two outs in the last inning in Billerica. In 1965, when I was 11 years old, my favorite Red Sox player was Dalton Jones. He batted .389 in the 1967 World Series, playing third base in games one through four. He was 7 for 18 with a .421 on-base percentage in the Series. Boston lost to St. Louis, as we all recall. I remember a newspaper cartoon the day after the series showing a sad kid in a Red Sox cap who had scrawled these words on a wall: ”Julian Javier is a Jerk” (you have to say it with the j’s as h’s)—Javier was the Cardinals’ shortstop. Dalton was such a good prospect coming out of high school that the Red Sox asked another great left-handed hitter to recruit him: Ted Williams.
When my Facebook and real-life friend Bill Lipchitz saw Dalton Jones on my Facebook page, he wrote to me and said you probably don’t know this but Meredith Fife Day went to high school with Dalton Jones in Louisiana around 1960. Bill said she still talks to him and visits when she goes back to her hometown. Meredith has been the artist-in-residence at the Whistler House Museum of Art for several years. One of her paintings hangs in my family’s living room. Bill is a friend of Meredith’s, so he told her about Dalton and me. Meredith wrote to me and said it was great to hear, and that she would tell her baseball-playing friend that he had a big fan in Lowell. She said Dalton was expected to attend the Fenway Park centennial celebration in April 2012. As it turned out, he was not able to get to Boston this spring.
Imagine my surprise and happiness when I listened to the voicemail message last week.
“Hi Paul. This is Dalton Jones. I’m sitting here with a good friend, Meredith, and we’re talking about you. Sorry I didn’t get through to you. She’s going to bring back a couple of things for you. Goodbye.”
Artist Meredith Fife Day in Paris.
You have to like Red Sox fans. Yesterday’s game against the Mariners was Maine Day at Fenway. New England state days are a ballpark tradition. The weather cleared as the game began. You have to like Red Sox fans. Team veteran Tim Wakefield got nicked for a couple of runs in the first inning, but soon settled down. The Sox piled up five runs in the bottom of the first, and it was looking like it would be a lot of fun at the game. In the top of the sixth inning, Wakefield struck out Mike Carp to end the inning. The scoreboard flashed the news that it was Wake’s 2,000th strikeout for the Red Sox. Only Roger Clemens has more K’s in Boston history. The crowd erupted and gave Wakefield a long standing ovation, calling him out of the dugout for a bow. Six innings. 11 to 3 in favor of the Sox. I figured the manager would give his starting pitcher the rest of the afternoon off. No. Old Tim came out to the mound for the seventh and got knocked around for a bunch of hits, including a grand slam homer that seemed to leave the park in slow-motion. Now it was time to go. Terry Francona walked to the mound to make the change. With his first step to the dugout, Wake set off another standing ovation, as if all the bottled up gratitude for his year-in, year-out work for the Red Sox got uncorked in that moment. You have to like Red Sox fans. Give up a granny—get a standing O. It helps when you are still up by three runs.
I hadn’t been to a Red Sox game in a while. In recent years I’ve seen the Spinners play in the Fenway Futures game and witnessed the Paul McCartney concerts, but it’s been several years since I’ve taken in a Sox game in the 99-year-old ballpark. My son and I had excellent seats that we picked up in a benefit auction at the American Textile History Museum last fall. We were in the red boxes, Sec. 17, Box 124, Row MM, between the batter’s box and on-deck circle. Fenway is a living museum. Jim Lonborg was in the house and saluted on the jumbo-screen. Looking down at third base, I could see the ghosts of Malzone, Foy, Petro, Lansford, Hobson, Mueller, Boggs, Lowell, even Wilton Veras who came up with the Spinners. I could see that miserable pop-up of Yaz’s in the playoff game against New York. I had a straight shot view of Fisk’s foul tower in left. I enjoyed the modern-day World Series banners. But it is largely the same shape and size as the place I visited as a kid. It’s a Boston time-machine.
You have to like Red Sox fans. In one of the middle innings, David Ortiz took a rip and his bat exploded. The barrel ended up in the boxes near the on-deck circle. Ushers rushed to the scene to be sure nobody was hurt, and tried to retrieve the shattered bat. On cue, the fans nearby started chanting, “Let her/Keep it, Let her/Keep it”—and the ushers gave in. You have to like Red Sox fans.
The former manager and player passed away last week. Here are a couple of baseball card memories of Dick Williams. The first is a Topps baseball card from 1964, and the other is his manager card from the Impossible Dream year of 1967, also a Topps card.