From the start of spring training it was almost certain that a Conigliaro would be playing right field for the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day. Maybe it would be Tony, age 24, providing he could really see a baseball with both eyes again, something the top specialists in the country once said was impossible. Or it might be Tony's brother Billy, 21, young and inexperienced, perhaps, but possessing enough ability and aggressiveness to play in the majors right now.
Last week there was no longer any doubt about which Conigliaro would start in right field. It would be Tony—Tony C—back again in his old position and batting fifth in the Red Sox lineup. Brother Billy will either be sitting on the Boston bench or playing in Louisville.
Tony did not win the right-field job; he simply reclaimed it. Certainly Billy did not lose it. Indeed, with only one week of the exhibition schedule left, he was outhitting his older brother by more than 50 points. Billy easily was the best rookie in the Red Sox training camp, just like Tony was their best rookie in 1964 when he joined the club as a regular outfielder.
However, Billy's accomplishments this spring, impressive as they were, were not nearly as dramatic as his brother's. Doctors say it is a medical miracle that Tony can see the white baseball with the red stitches when it is pitched to him at varying speeds and angles from a distance of 60 feet six inches. And Tony always has been able to hit a baseball when he has seen it—or when it has not hit him.
Before his 23rd birthday Conigliaro had hit 104 home runs in the major leagues, more than any player in history at a comparative age. He also helped the Red Sox into position for their drive to the 1967 American League pennant. During his first four seasons, though, he was injured seriously five times, when wild pitches fractured his left hand, right wrist, right arm, shoulder blade and left cheekbone.
The cheekbone was fractured the night of Aug. 18, 1967 in Boston's Fenway Park. Tony was anticipating a pitch away from the plate. The pitcher, Jack Hamilton, then of the California Angels, threw inside instead, and Conigliaro could not get out of the way. The ball smashed against the left side of his face, just below his temple and parallel to his eye. Tony was rushed to the hospital. "I knew it was bad," he said. "I dozed off for 20 minutes and when I woke up there was blood all over the sheets." Conigliaro was confident that the check-bone eventually would heal—after all, the other bones all had healed properly. He was more concerned about his eyes. For almost two days he could not see anything. Then the right eye cleared completely. But, when he left the hospital a week later, the left eye still was virtually useless.
Tony did not play again in 1967, although he was permitted to sit on the Red Sox bench in the World Series, provided he did not heckle the umpires or yell encouragement to his teammates. Last spring he reported to the Red Sox training camp. He thought his left eye was better, or at least it seemed better, but it was immediately obvious that he was wrong, that he couldn't see the ball. Although he wore a batting helmet with a protective flap that extended down against the left side of his face, Tony was falling away from the plate almost before the pitcher released the ball. In the old days Tony Conigliaro never fell back. He propped himself over the plate, bat cocked vertically, and dared the pitcher to throw the ball past him.
When Tony did swing at pitches last spring, he missed them badly. He struck out four times in one game against the Yankees. Three days later he struck out three more times against the Senators. Afterward he went into the Red Sox clubhouse, locked the door behind him and almost destroyed the room. For 10 minutes he threw chairs and bats and balls and gloves to relieve his frustration. That night, he returned to Boston, ostensibly to attend a military reserve meeting. But Tony was going to see the eye doctors once more.
A team of specialists at the Retina Foundation in Boston examined Tony's left eye. They discovered a hole in his macula, which is the section of the retina containing the nerve fibers and specialized rods and cones that provide sharp vision. Tony likes to describe the macula as "the film for the camera." The doctors worried that the retina might eventually become detached. Tests also showed that Conigliaro had almost no depth perception and that the sight in his left eye, once 20/15, was 20/300. It was then the doctors told Tony that he never would be able to see well enough out of that left eye to hit a baseball again.
Tony and his father, Sal, drove home to Swampscott, a north shore suburb of Boston. It was a quiet ride. When they got home, Sal told Mrs. Conigliaro that Tony's career was finished. Tony went to his bedroom and locked himself there for days, emerging only to eat. "I couldn't blame the kid," Sal Conigliaro said. "Then I came home from work one day and found my lawn all dug up. Tony had made a pitcher's mound and he had measured off the distance to the plate. He was out there pitching to his brother Richie."