You remember Gene Conley. Tall guy, played two sports. In the 1950s and early '60s he was a baseball pitcher for the Red Sox. Phillies and Braves and a basketball center for the Celtics and Knicks.
And he was a corker, you may recall, on the field and off. In 1958, when a Los Angeles paper streamed the headline BRAVES DUNK GIRL IN BEL AIR POOL, Conley was one of the dunkers. Today he swears it was Frank Torre—not he—who threw the young lady into the pool, but he gives you his boyish grin when he says that, and you know he wasn't entirely innocent.
It's a warm grin, impossible not to like, because it radiates homespun geniality and suggests harmless mischief. It's always there, too. Conley has pulled himself through an eventful life with it. He grinned himself through the winter of 1952-53, his rookie season with the Celtics, blithely signing autographs "Easy Ed Macauley." Conley and Macauley looked a lot alike. By the end of the season, all the kids outside of Boston—and many of those in Boston—thought that the rookie from Washington State was Easy Ed and that Macauley, one of the Celtics' stars, was somebody else. Why did Conley do that? Just for fun. Ask him about it, and through his possum grin he'll drawl, "Aw, I just wanted to help ol' Ed out."
Macauley didn't think it was too much help, but Conley loved it. Country fun—putting people over a barrel without really injuring them—is one of the things that make Conley tick.
You may remember that grin if you read the sports pages during the years Conley played. The photos usually showed him wearing it and they also usually showed him looking down. Of course, he didn't have much choice about looking down. It was the only way he could see anybody.
Baseball writers always called Conley "the towering righthander" and said he was 6'8". They mentioned his height every time they wrote about him, usually putting it in before they got around to telling the first thing about what Conley did on the field.
They can't be blamed, really. After all, a 6'8" pitcher is a rarity, and Conley's height was a handy gimmick for the writers. The 6'8" business was a shame, though, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it wasn't true. Conley wasn't, and isn't, 6'8"; he hasn't been since his high school days in Oklahoma. He is 6'9". He'll admit that today, but he kept studiously mum about the inaccuracy during his playing days. Why? Aw, he just thought it was kind of fun the way everybody got it wrong.
This constant preoccupation with his height also tended to obscure the larger story—that Conley was a remarkable athlete, a huge man with coordination, who could outjump almost everybody in the NBA in his time; there were occasions when he, not Bill Russell, jumped center for the Celtics.
Conley isn't remembered much for that or for any one thing. He is mostly remembered for two things—his twin careers. And they are certainly worth remembering. He is the only man since Jim Thorpe to have had real success in two major pro sports. He played 17 big league seasons, packing them into 11 years, and not so long ago, either. He last played pro basketball and major league baseball in 1963. And yet today we almost cannot imagine someone doing what he did. A few others—Dave DeBusschere, for example, who pitched in 36 games for the White Sox; Ron Reed of the Phillies, who played two seasons with the Pistons—have made brief appearances in a pro sport other than the one for which they are famous, but none of them had a truly dual career, as Conley did.
It's a hard thing to do. Assuming one has enough athletic ability to make it to the big time in more than one sport, there is still no guarantee he can handle the switching from one to the other. In a matter of a couple of weeks each year, Conley moved effortlessly from an indoor game on a hard court with soft shoes and a big hollow ball to an outdoor game on soft ground with hard spiked shoes and a small dense ball. In the 1961 baseball season, he pitched a 6-1 victory for the Red Sox only 14 days after playing in the NBA championship game with the Celtics. He had no spring training, nothing but a few workouts in Florida with Boston's farm clubs. What kind of man does it take to pull that off? Ask Conley, and he'll say, "Aw, you've got to be a sports rat."