This story begins on Aug. 18, 1967. That was the day I was hit in the head by a baseball, which very nearly ended my career—not to say my life. A couple of inches higher and I'd have been killed. We were playing a night game with the California Angels, and Fenway Park was packed the way it was for nearly all our home games in 1967, when Boston was fighting for a pennant. (The last time the Red Sox had won one was 1946, when I was one year old.) Just before I came to bat in the fourth inning somebody threw a smoke bomb. A cloud of black smoke hung over the field, delaying the game about 10 minutes. I'm not terribly superstitious, so I didn't think much about it. But I've thought about it a lot since.
Jack Hamilton was pitching for the Angels. He was a hard thrower who was frequently accused of throwing spitballs, or greaseballs or whatever you want to call them. The point is his ball broke in a funny way, like no pitch is supposed to break. My first time up I had singled off a curve-ball, so this time I went up there looking for a fastball, figuring to hit it up the middle, hard. Just before he made his first pitch I wondered if the delay had caused his arm to stiffen. It was the last thought I had before he hit me.
The ball came sailing right toward my chin. Normally a hitter can jerk his head back a fraction and the ball will buzz by. But this pitch seemed to follow me in. I know I didn't freeze, I definitely made a move to get out of the way of the ball. In fact, I jerked my head back so hard that my helmet flipped off just before impact.
Funny, you never go up there thinking you're going to be hit, and then in a fraction of a second you know it's going to happen. When the ball was about four feet from my head I knew it would get me. And I knew it would hurt because Hamilton was such a hard thrower. I was frightened. I threw my hands up in front of my face and saw the ball follow me back and hit me square in the left side of the head. As soon as it crunched into me, it felt as if the ball would go in one side of my head and come out the other; my legs gave way and I went down like a sack of potatoes. Just before everything went dark I saw the ball bounce straight down on home plate. It was the last thing I saw for several days.
I was never knocked out but I wish I had been. I rolled on the ground trying to stop the pain in my head with my hands. The impact of the ball made both my eyes slam shut and I felt a tremendous swelling in my mouth. I couldn't see. I remember thinking, I'm blind, I can't see. Then I heard Rico Petrocelli's voice saying, "Take it easy, Tony. You're gonna be all right." Rico was the next hitter after me and he was the first person to reach me.
The swelling was so bad inside my mouth that I was worried about breathing. My mouth was filling up fast with fluid—I thought it was blood but it wasn't. I had only a small opening that I could breathe through, and then the thought started running through my mind: Suppose this thing closes up? I won't be able to breathe. I thought, Oh, Jesus, if this thing closes up on me I'm gone. That's when I asked God to keep me alive. That's when I knew He could take me if He wanted to. It was like a showdown between me and God, and I was afraid I would die right then and there.
If there was any sound coming from the stands the pain blotted it out. There was just one big deafening whistling going on inside my head. I couldn't see out of my eyes. I couldn't stand the pain and I couldn't do anything about it and I immediately became sick to my stomach. Then I remembered that my family was in the stands, my mother and father and my two brothers, Billy and Richie. I didn't want them to worry, and yet I knew they had to be worried by what they saw. I knew things looked terrible with me lying there on the ground. Later on some of my teammates told me they thought I was dead. "Your eye looked crushed," Rico told me. "It made me sick to look at it."
I could make out Buddy LeRoux's voice telling me to lie still until the stretcher came. Buddy is the club's trainer and I had always felt close to him. Then, after what seemed like a year of waiting, I felt myself being lifted onto a stretcher. I was carried off the field and into the clubhouse. They laid me out on one of the trainer's tables and Buddy put an ice pack against the side of my head. "Buddy, this pain is killing me," I said. "Give me something." It hurt so much I could hardly talk.
"I can't, Tony," he said. "Relax. Dr. Tierney's here."
The Red Sox team physician, Dr. Thomas M. Tierney, had been sitting in the stands, and the moment he saw them carry me off he rushed down and was waiting for me in the clubhouse when I got there. He's been a close family friend for years, and knowing he was in the picture made me feel a little better. But when he didn't say anything to me and just acted like a doctor I became worried about my condition all over again. What he did while waiting for an ambulance to come—though I didn't know it at the time—was to test my blood pressure and reflexes.