By Anthony T. Guerriero
Whether as long ago as Greek mythology or as recent as this week’s New York Times Bestseller list, the hero has always occupied a special place in storytelling. The hero is celebrated as an idol, as a tangible representation of greatness. But what separates the hero from all others is his or her journey or quest. It is this part of the story that we remember most because it delves into an individual’s sense of personal discovery, the journey or quest that captures our imagination.
American history and pop culture is littered with the stories of those who stared into the abyss, only to rise from the ashes like the mythical Phoenix and become greater than ever before. Nowhere in our society are heroes a more familiar part of the fabric of America than in sports — and Major League Baseball in particular. Baseball, America’s National Pastime, has become an indelible part of the story of this country. As Boston remembers the 1967 “Impossible Dream” season of our beloved Red Sox during that magical summer fifty years ago, my thoughts focus on one particular ‘home-town hero’ from that year.
Anthony Richard Conigliaro – “Tony C” as he was known to his adoring fans — never played in a World Series. He never won a MVP award. But how many ball players had a hit single on the American Top 40 pop chart? He was the local boy with a great talent who made good. His dream, and the dream of most boys in New England was to play professional baseball for his home team, the Boston Red Sox. By the time he was 19 years old in 1964, he achieved this dream. By twenty-five, Tony C. was the league home-run champ. By 23, he was an All-Star and the youngest to reach 100 homeruns. He was part of that American fable, of achieving your dreams and an integral part of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team that beat the odds to represent the American League in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, for many, Conigliaro’s story ends when he is 23. It was on a breezy August night in 1967 — at the height of the frenzy that captivated all of New England as Tony C. and his Red Sox teammates made their improbable stretch drive to capture the American League pennant — that the unthinkable happened. Jack Hamilton, a hard-throwing but wild pitcher for the California Angels, lost control of an inside fastball. It crashed into Tony C.’s skull, permanently damaging the vision in his left eye – and with it all that early promise of baseball immortality.
For many, the Conigliaro story ends that fateful night, with their hero lying in agony in the batter’s box with a damaged retina in his left eye, a cracked left cheekbone and a dislocated jaw. This is a tragedy in itself since Conigliaro’s quest to work his way back from that purported career-ending injury is quite literally the stuff of legend.
I have long studied the work of Dr. Joseph Campbell, author of Hero of a Thousand Faces, the pre-eminent scholar of the study of mythology. In this book, Campbell looks to the story-telling of the past, of civilizations long gone, and connects their structures into a common form. Odeyess, King Arthur, and even Batman all follow a certain form in story telling – the story of hero development. What is clear is when studying these characters one can dissect an event, usually traumatic that becomes the transitional point. The point when this person sheds their identity, and becomes a new individual. That being said, I believe that Conigliaro’s courage, will and determination to return to the game he loved is at the heart of his story.
For many in this canon, it in the splitting of their lives in two: before and after the event. For Tony C, it was what his career would become after that fateful night in August of 1967. He tried to come-back as a pitcher, but that didn’t work out. So for the entire 1968 season, he worked his way back, taking repeated swings at baseballs, facing live pitching with the goal of being in the starting lineup for Opening Day in 1969. And he did!
Tony C did make it back, belting 56 homeruns over the next two seasons. He overcame his injury for a short-time, but eventually faded from the game once it became clear his sight would never return fully. Conigliaro would eventually die young, and so forever the question of “what if?” would encircle his life’s story. But to me, the greatness of his story is that he did come back. That he never gave up. That he never gave in to his “career ending” bit of bad luck. And that is a lesson for all of us — to never surrender despite the odds, to always strive to be the best even when things look the most cloudy, maybe especially when things look gloomiest.
In my opinion Tony C’s story is one to be shared and admired. That is why fifty years later, he still matters.