In Boston Red Sox lore, the tragic tale of Tony Conigliaro ranks way up there on the “What if?” scale, positioned slightly under “What if Harry Frazee hadn’t sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?” and slightly above “What if Grady Little had been quicker about pulling Pedro Martinez from Game 7 in 2003?”
A good-looking kid from Revere, Mass., with an absurd abundance of talent, competitiveness and charisma, “Tony C” (as Boston fans fondly called him) was hotly tipped to become the next Red Sox superstar after Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. But in August ’67, a stray fastball from California Angels hurler Jack Hamilton fractured Conigliaro’s left cheekbone and severely damaged his left eye — an injury that not only deprived the “Impossible Dream” Sox of his talents for the rest of the season (and for their World Series showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals), but which would also lead to the premature end of what might have been a Hall of Fame career.
While the late Conigliaro — who would have turned 70 this week — is chiefly remembered today for his unfulfilled promise and the tragedies that continued to befall him after his playing days were over (he suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 37 that left him with irreversible brain damage, and he died in a nursing home eight years later), he should also be remembered in a much happier light. For Tony C, after all, was the first Red Sox rock ‘n’ roller.
That’s right: Years before Bill Lee spun records as a late-night fill-in for Larry Glick on WBZ, and decades before Bronson Arroyo recorded a cover of the Standells’ “Dirty Water” with help from Johnny Damon and Kevin Youkilis, Conigliaro was the first player to inject some rock ‘n’ roll energy into the conservative Red Sox clubhouse. On the road, Tony C would be the one on the team bus with his transistor radio tuned to the hits of the day, and Rico Petrocelli recalls Conigliaro schooling him and fellow teammate Mike Ryan in street-corner doo-wop harmony in their hotel rooms. Not that Tony C ever spent much time in the hotel, of course; you were more likely to find him chatting up the ladies at local nightclubs, where he would often jump onstage to sing a number or three with whatever combo was cranking out the a-go-go grooves that night.
In 1964, Conigliaro made his rookie debut at the age of 19 and hit 24 home runs, the most ever by a teenager. That offseason, Tony C got into a different sort of record business, partnering with local deejay Ed Penney to form the Penn-Tone label, which released his first single in February 1965. Produced by Brill Building songwriter/producer Al Kasha (who would go on to win Academy Awards for co-writing the themes to "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno") and arranged by Four Seasons bassist and musical arranger Charlie Calello, the single — “Why Don’t They Understand” backed with “Playing the Field” — sold so well in the Boston area that RCA picked it up for distribution, and signed Conigliaro to a rumored $25,000 recording contract.
The bland teen-dream ballad on the single’s A-side wasn’t anything special, but the swingin’ sax-driven flip, filled with baseball puns and such inspirational couplets as “I’m no rookie at love/I know what a girl is made of,” sounded like a lost Lou Christie single, though Tony C’s vocal range didn’t allow for the kind of falsetto flourishes that could have really put the song over the top.
Two more songs from the same recording session were released by RCA in May 1965. This time, they had the good sense to put the more upbeat number on the A-side. Written by Boston songwriter Ernest Camp (who also penned “Playing the Field”), “Little Red Scooter (Putt-Putt)” was a Jan & Dean-type rocker with a pulsing sax and a twangy guitar solo, and sold even better than Tony C’s first single. The B-side ballad “I Can’t Get Over You” wasn’t bad, either, nestling Conigliaro’s earnest vocal in an arrangement reminiscent of Ricky Nelson’s “Travelling Man.”
Though he made a few televised appearances to promote “Little Red Scooter,” Conigliaro didn’t let his burgeoning pop success distract him from business on the field; he led the American League with 32 round-trippers in 1965, becoming the youngest player to snag a home-run crown. His next single, “When You Take More Than You Give” backed with “I Was There,” wasn’t released until March 1966. Penned by Jimmy Curtiss (best known today for his work with the New York pop-psych group The Hobbits and for his own immortal “Psychedelic Situation”), “When You Take More Than You Give” had one foot in the greasy pop of the pre-Beatles era and the other in the popular folk-rock sound of the time. (The flip side was written by the Brill Building’s legendary Gerry Goffin and Carole King; no clip seems extant, though by all accounts it wasn’t one of Goffin-King’s better tunes.)
Despite Conigliaro’s increasing fame, “When You Take More Than You Give” failed to move the units that his previous singles had, and RCA cut him loose. In March 1967, Tony C returned to Penn-Tone for his finest single, “Limited Man” backed with “Please Play Our Song.” Penned by Billy Carr, who’s best known for writing the Monkees’ “Hold On Girl,” and featuring backing from the Boston garage band The All-Night Workers, “Limited Man” was a compelling minor-key rocker highlighted by groovy organ and fuzztone guitar fills. The song’s urgent lyrics also fit nicely with Conigliaro’s hard-playing persona … though lines like “I cannot spend my limited life/Living like a limited man” would prove sadly prophetic.
On July 23, 1967, Conigliaro became the youngest American Leaguer to reach the 100-homer plateau. Less than a month later, Hamilton’s fastball turned his world upside down. Despite lingering eye problems (he had to rely upon peripheral vision in order to pick up the flight of the baseball), Tony C somehow willed himself back into the Red Sox lineup by 1969, hitting .255 with 20 homers and 82 RBIs and winning Comeback Player of the Year honors; in 1970, he even set career highs with 36 homers, 116 RBIs, 89 runs scored and 279 total bases. But his vision problems worsened, and Tony C never played another full season. A 1975 comeback attempt with the Red Sox was aborted after only 15 games, and he was out of baseball for good at 30.
Conigliaro, who had continued to make musical appearances on "Merv Griffin," "Mike Douglas" and other TV talk shows well into the early ’70s, also attempted a recording comeback in 1975, releasing the pop ballad “Poetry” (backed with the instrumental “Midnight in Boston”) on the MagnaGlide label. Though “Poetry” is drenched in Bread-like ’70s mellowness, the song’s incongruously distorted lead guitar riffs can be heard as a musical reflection of the fighting spirit that Tony C exuded until the end of his far-too-short life.