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