Fifty years ago today, Tony Conigliaro’s life changed forever. A Jack Hamilton fastball clocked him right in the eye, causing permanent retina damage. On this fiftieth anniversary of the beaning I want to take a look at his career so abruptly and brutally ended.
A brilliant rookie year
In Conigliaro’s 1964 rookie season, at the age of 19, he hit 24 home runs in just 404 at-bats, the most home runs ever hit by a teenager. The next season he led the league with 32 home runs, at just 20 years old. Conigliaro reached star status before he could legally have a beer. He was the youngest American Leaguer ever to reach 100 career home runs. At the time of the beaning in August, 1967 Conigliaro had 104 career home runs.
Just imagine if…
I have no problem projecting that Tony Conigliaro would have hit 500 career home runs and been a Hall of Famer had this savage injury never occurred. The question for me — how many more than 500 did he have in him? At 22, he had ample room for growth and improvement in his game. Tony proved this in his 1970 season when he hit a career-high 36 home runs. Unfortunately, his eyesight continued to deteriorate. By the next season, his baseball career came to an end.
|8 Yr||8 Yr||8 Yr||876||3590||3221||849||166||516||.264||.327||.476||.803|
This is all creative conjecture, of course, but Conigliaro could have added roughly eight more home runs the rest of the 1967 season. By that point, he averaged 35 home runs per 162 games played, per baseballreference.com. Take away some games played for injuries and rest days, why couldn’t he hit 30 home runs a year? Adding in 30 home runs for his missed 1968 season, that bumps his career total to 142 at age 23.
I’m assuming his down 1969 season, when he hit .255 with 20 home runs, was caused by a combination of rust and poor eyesight. Take away these as if they never happened, and tack on 10 more home runs, he’d have 172 homers. I’ll leave his 1970 season of 36 alone since that was ultimately his career high. Through his age-25 season that would total 208 career home runs.
Compare with today’s lineup
By the way, Mookie Betts turns 25 this October. He has 72 home runs. Jackie Bradley Jr. just broke out last year at age 27. At this same age, Tony Conigliaro had already hit 164 home runs, beaned, missed an entire season, made an amazing comeback and ultimately retired. Think about that for a second. Jackie Bradley is a young player just entering his prime.
Tony C’s career at the age of 25 was practically finished due to circumstances out of anyone’s control. There is no reason to think he couldn’t have continued as a perennial candidate to lead the league in home runs for the next eight to 10 years. His 162-game average at that stage of his career included 34 home runs, and he hadn’t necessarily hit his prime. A conservative estimate of 30 home runs per year for the next 8 seasons would give him 448 home runs. Factor in his young age and improving skills, I suspect he could have hit even more. He’d probably have some seasons in the upper 20’s, and he probably could have seasons where he reached and eclipsed 40 home runs. I’m slotting him at 35 home runs per year over the next eight seasons. That would give him a career total of 488 home runs through his age 33 season.
From there where do we go? It’s reasonable to expect a little decline maybe as he entered his mid-thirties. However, at 34 he would have some good baseball left. The designated hitter came into effect in 1973. Conigliaro could have moved to DH somewhere along the line to keep him from getting injured in the field. I’m predicting that Tony C would have eclipsed the 500 home run mark in 1979 at the age of 34.
Sad end to a brilliant career cut short
Projecting for a little decline I estimate Tony at 30, 25 and 20 home runs in his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons. This would place him at 563 career home runs after 1981. At 36 years old he could still play and add to that total. By giving him just 30 home runs over the next two years he’d be at 593. If he was left just shy of 600 would he stick around another year to reach it? I’d say yes and ultimately project Tony C for just over 600 career home runs. At that time in history, the total would have placed him fourth on the all-time list.
Instead of chasing 600 home runs, Tony Conigliaro suffered a massive heart attack in 1982 at the age of 37. This heart attack was followed by a stroke that left him totally incapacitated until his death in 1990 at the age of 45. The story of Tony C is one of the most tragic stories that can be told. Hall of Fame career aside, a quality life for Tony all but evaporated by the age of 37. In all likelihood these health problems stemmed back to his being beaned by a baseball.