In the same vein of Ray Fosse is a story that lies so deeply in the hearts of Red Sox fans. In a way, it’s a legend and lore of the bad luck the team endured during their many cursed years. People remember Outfielder Tony Conigliaro for what could’ve been and the hope that change was afoot for the helpless Red Sox. But God had other plans.
Boston had high hopes for this young slugger, signing him at 17 years old. He quickly rose in the ranks of the Minors and made his Major League debut in 1964 at age 19. From his first season onward, he mashed American League pitching, breaking the AL record for the youngest player to reach 100 career home runs. He led the league in home runs with 32 in 1965, and the Red Sox saw the slugger as a key to the future of the team.
In 1967, the Red Sox were legitimate contenders. Alongside Conigliaro was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who won the triple crown that year. Tony was a force offensively in the first half, batting .295 with 13 long balls, and 46 runs batted in. This earned him a trip to his first all-star game. The team worked as a solid unit to win games and were well on their way to the American League Pennant.
On August 18, 1967, the Red Sox played a game against the California Angels. Tony Conigliaro batted against California’s Jack Hamilton, mind you, using a batting helmet without a protective earflap. What happened next was unprecedented and changed his life forever. An erratic fastball from Hamilton hit Conigliaro in the left side of his face. The result was a broken cheekbone, a dislocated jawbone, and damage to his left retina. Conigliaro’s season was gone in a flash and ended up having to watch the Red Sox win the pennant from the sidelines.
What came next was both difficulty and resilience for the outfielder. He missed the entirety of the 1968 season from his injuries but made a remarkable return in ’69. He socked 20 home runs, and 82 Runs batted in, earning the Comeback Player of the Year award. Even better, in the next season, Conigliaro set career highs in home runs with 36 and runs batted in with 116. What everyone didn’t know was that it was a struggle every day for Tony.
With that hit by pitch back in ’67, Conigliaro’s eyesight was permanently damaged. After the 1970 season, his sight had diminished so greatly, that he was forced to retire at age 30.
There’s a very well-known Sports Illustrated magazine cover from 1970 with a portrait photo of the outfielder. His left eye is completely black from the hit-by-pitch. Red Sox fans know this photograph all too well. A lot of them equate Tony’s misfortune to “the curse of the bambino.” With all that happened between 1918 until 2004, I can see why they would think that.