Every February, baseball fans across the land turn their eyes to websites, newspapers, and television reports trying to catch a whiff of what’s happening with their favorite teams as they report to Spring Training.
How will the new guys who came to the team over the winter pan out?
Will any new stars emerge between now and Opening Day?
Is there real hope that “we” will contend this year, finally?
They’re all valid questions, but maybe the most emotional and awaited developments each spring revolve around the comeback candidates — those guys who once held lofty positions in the game but, for one reason or another, have fallen on hard times in recent seasons (even if “recent seasons” has thus far been limited to last season).
These days, it seems, we most often watch our comeback candidates trying to catch on with another team rather than reclaiming their status with the clubs that made them what they were, and vice versa. Teams are much more likely as we head into the 2020s to just cut ties with a player whose production tanks than they were in years past.
But, man, in those years past, like 30, 40, 50 years ago, fans lived and died not only with their teams, but with the individual players on their teams. You think Pete Rose fans didn’t follow along with him to the Philadelphia Phillies and then, briefly, the Montreal Expos before he headed back to the Riverfront in 1984?
Pretty sure we did.
And when one of “our” guys fell on hard times in the olden days, we really pined to see him reclaim his former glory. It’s hard to let go of heroes, after all, and there’s always the hope they can pull it all together again. Nowhere does that hope bloom brighter than in Spring Training camps across the land.
So that’s why I knew I had to talk about a comeback player sometime during my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, so that’s what I’m doing here on Day 34.
If you were a Boston Red Sox fan in the 1960s, or really a baseball fan of any sort in the 1960s, a young man named Tony Conigliaro undoubtedly came into your purview. As the BoSox were developing into a solid year-to-year contender in the middle of the decade, Conigliaro was busy busting out as masher in right field.
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The two developments were not coincidental.
In 1964, when the Sox were still dwelling nearer the bottom of the American League standings than the top, Conigliaro logged a rookie season that included 24 home runs and 52 RBI to go along with a .290 average.
The next two seasons brought more power (32 and 28 home runs), and a handful of MVP votes.
As 1967 dawned, Conigliaro was still just 22 years old, and he was poised with teammate Carl Yastrzemski to lead Boston toward baseball’s promised land — a berth in the World Series.
Through 95 games, Conigliaro did his part and more, slamming 20 home runs, driving in 67, and raising his average to .287. Then, on August 18, tragedy struck. In the fourth inning of a game against the California Angels, Conigliaro stepped into the box against Angels starter Jack Hamilton.
It should have been a normal power v. power at-bat, but a Hamilton fastball got away from him and crushed into Conigliaro’s left eye. The young outfielder crumpled to the ground and was rushed to a local hospital.
After copious exams and after the initial swelling and bruising subsided to some degree, a diagnosis began to emerge — broken cheekbone, dislocated jaw, and retinal damage.
Conigliaro was done for 1967, and he missed all of 1968, as well, all in the name of recovering from an incident that went down in a flash.
So, as Red Sox camp opened in 1969, the question that hung in the air like a curveball waiting to be planted over the outfield wall was, can Tony C. come back?
The answer would take several years to unfold.
In the short term, and on the surface, it appeared that Conigliaro indeed would be what had been before, if not more. After 20 homers and 82 RBI over 141 games in 1969, he pumped up the power to 36 and 116 in 1970.
Things didn’t go well in Cali, and, with vision problems plaguing him, Tony C. managed just four dingers over 74 games in 1971, and his OPS fell from .822 to .620. The Angels released him in November, and he was done at 26.
Except he wasn’t quite done … hope springs eternal, remember.
In March of 1975, Conigliaro signed on as a free agent with his hometown Sawx and eventually made it into 21 games. But, at age 30, too much time had passed, and not enough healing had gone on in between, and he managed a meager .466 OPS before the Red Sox released him in September.
But, even though things didn’t turn out how anyone thought they might have, Tony Conigliaro made it back — all the way back, for at least a couple of seasons there. And there is some cardboard evidence that’s what was expected of the slugger all along.
Because, not only did Topps keep him in their base set for 1969, when his last season-plus had been a wash, but he also made an appearance in the 1969 Globe Imports set of baseball “playing cards” — an issue of 55 blank-backed cards that you could purchase at gas stations in the southern part of the United States that summer.
And there among the greats and the might-be-goods, Globe Imports placed a bet on Tony Conigliaro with the three of hearts. He might not have won the whole shebang, but he at least turned in a couple more strong hands before it was all said and done.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.