Obituary: Billy Conigliaro (1947-2021)


RIP to Billy Conigliaro, who was the first draft pick in Red Sox history. He also was the younger brother of Sox phenom Tony Conigliaro. He died on February 10 at the age of 73. No cause of death has been given, though his family did say that he died at his home in Beverly, Mass. Conigliaro played for the Boston Red Sox (1969-71), Milwaukee Brewers (1972) and Oakland Athletics (1973).

William Michael Conigliaro was born in Revere, Mass., on August 15, 1947. His older brother, Tony, was born in 1945, so the two played little league, American Legion and some high school baseball together. By the time Billy was a freshman in high school, Tony was already making headlines as a standout junior athlete at St. Mary’s High School. He was signed by the Red Sox in 1962, and Billy began to make his own reputation as a skilled athlete at Swampscott High School. He was a co-captain and starting halfback on the football team, and as a two-way baseball player, he hit .333 as a center fielder in 1963 and turned in a 7-1 record as a pitcher. Swampscott won the Northeast Conference championship in 1963.

By 1964, Tony Conigliaro was making news as a teenage slugger for the Red Sox. Billy did his best to create his own headlines too, as a junior in high school. He tossed a 5-1 no-hitter against Winthrop High School, striking out 13 in the process. He also had 3 hits to help his own cause and narrowly missed an inside-the-park home run. “Tony was just as happy about the no-hitter as I was,” he told The Boston Globe. “He congratulated me and told me how great he felt about it.”

The Red Sox had been able to sign Tony C. to a minor-league contract in 1962 by simply outbidding any competition. By the time Billy C. was a senior in high school in 1965, the rules for drafting amateurs had changed. Major League Baseball instituted the amateur draft that is still used today, albeit with a few modifications over the years. Boston had the fifth overall pick in the draft, and they made Billy Conigliaro their first-ever first-round pick, for an estimated cost of $50,000 to $60,000. The only players drafted ahead of him were Rick Monday (Oakland), Les Rohr (New York Mets), Joe Coleman (Washington) and Alex Barrett (Houston).

Source: The Courier, August 11, 1965.

Many other teams might have made Conigliaro a pitcher — he threw two more no-hitters in his senior year of high school — but there was too much of a temptation to have him follow in Tony’s footsteps, so Billy focused on the offensive side of the game. He struggled at first with the Waterloo Hawks in 1965, but the 17-year-old adjusted quickly. He had a .272 batting average by the end of the season with 5 home runs. The Red Sox moved him up to AA Pittsfield in 1966, but he batted in the .220s and was sent back to Class-A Ball.

A stint in the U.S. military wiped out most of Conigliaro’s 1967 season, and he was assigned to Class-A Greenville to get back his baseball form. By then, he was 19 years old, which was the same age that Tony was when he reached the majors. Billy was a little slower to develop, but he could create the same excitement. Shortly after his return to organized ball, he hit one of the longest home runs that anyone had ever hit out of Spartanburg’s Duncan Park. He hit .274 for Greenville with 4 home runs and then hit .345 in the Florida Instructional League, which he attended to shake the rest of the rust off from his layoff.

Conigliaro didn’t let his slow rise to the majors affect his confidence. He hoped that a good showing at spring training in 1968 would put him back on track for a call-up. “There’s always room for good hitters in the big leagues, and I’m confident of making it to the top,” he said.

Instead of making the majors, the Red Sox assigned Conigliaro to AA Pittsfield. He batted .238 there, though his 7 home runs and 41 RBIs were career best numbers to that point. He would get his shot at the big leagues in 1969, and the Red Sox would indeed have two Conigliaros on the team — but it wasn’t the dream scenario that fans had imagined.

Tony C.’s career had nearly ended on August 18, 1967, when he was hit in the face with a pitch from California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. He suffered a fractured cheekbone and a dislocated jaw, the the vision in his left eye was badly damaged. Billy Conigliaro and the rest of his family were in the stands at that game and witnessed his older brother’s beaning. Tony missed the remainder of the 1967 and all of the ’68 season. When the 1969 spring training camp rolled around, both brothers had something to prove — Tony to prove he could mount a comeback from the devastating injury, and Billy to prove he was ready for the majors.

Neither brother was expected to make the team in 1969. Tony had dreams of returning as a pitcher, but he said his damaged eye had healed, and he worked to regain his old job. Billy was ticketed to the higher minors, but he hit well in spring training and ended up on the Opening Day roster as well. He made his debut on April 11 as a pinch-runner against Cleveland. Conigliaro promptly stole second base and advanced to third on a throwing error. His first MLB at-bat came on April 15 against the Orioles, and he struck out as a pinch-hitter. His first start came the very next day, and he struck out twice more… but also cracked two solo home runs off Orioles pitcher Dave Leonhard. He homered again on April 17 off Jim Palmer and finished the day a double shy of the cycle. Suddenly, Billy Conigliaro was hitting the ball as well as his big brother did.

Source: The Boston Globe, May 1, 1964.

“He’s not here because of my name,” Tony said. “He won his place himself. He’s learning every day, and his greatest asset is his quick pair of hands. It was always Tony this, Tony that, up to now, but he’s showing people there are other ballplayers in the Conigliaro family.”

The 1969 Red Sox had a very crowded outfield, however. Carl Yastrzemski occupied left field, and Reggie Smith was the center fielder. That left right field for both Conigliaro brothers and fifth outfielder Joe Lahoud. By the end of April, Billy had homered 4 times and carried a solid .313 batting average, but he had also struck out 5 times in his last 7 at-bats. He was sent down to AAA Louisville on May 5 when the Red Sox acquired utility infielder Don Lock.

The younger Conigliaro returned to the minors and hit .298 for Louisville. He missed out of the International League All-Star team and was upset about that. However, he saved most of his anger for the Red Sox and manager Dick Williams.

“I don’t care if they call me up,” he told Louisville’s Courier-Journal and Times. “I don’t want to be made a fool of by playing behind someone like [Lahoud, who was hitting under .200]. I just wished he [Williams] wasn’t the manager. I don’t think he’s an honest manager.

“Williams told the writers I was having trouble with the curveball and needed more experience,” he added. “That was just an excuse for the newspapers.” he noted that 3 of his 4 home runs came off curves.

The Red Sox did bring Conigliaro back in September. He saw limited action (but did outlast Dick Williams, who was fired near the end of the season) and hit .288 with 4 home runs and 7 RBIs. He became a starter in 1970 under new manager Eddie Kasko. Yastrzemski moved to first base, and Billy and Tony played left and right field, respectively, with Smith in center field. Billy Conigliaro also spent a fair amount of time in the other outfield spots and played in a total of 114 games, with a respectable .271/.339/.462 slash line. He had career best numbers with 18 homers and 58 RBIs, with an OPS+ of 112. The two brothers combined for 7 runs in an 11-10 win over Detroit on August 10, with Billy responsible for 4 of them with an RBI single and a 3-run homer.

It didn’t last. Tony Conigliaro was traded to California after the 1970 season. It was part of a conscious effort to break up the Conigliaros. “Tony and Billy tried to work with each other, and I think it brought on antipathy from some of the other players,” said Boston general manager Dick O’Connell. He also called it a “liability” to have them on the same club. Billy Conigliaro remained in Boston as the left fielder and had another decent season, with a .262 average and 11 homers in 101 games. However, the 1971 Red Sox were a fractured team, and the headlines focused on the behind-the-scenes feuds.

In mid-July, Tony Conigliaro unexpectedly retired from the Angels, citing the worsening condition of his damaged eye. Around the same time, Yastrzemski was asked about Billy Conigliaro’s work in center field after a couple of fly balls fell for hits, costing the Red Sox a win. Yaz replied that Conigliaro played a deep center field, unlike many others. Conigliaro took it as an attack on his play and unloaded on those people he felt were against him on the team.

“Tony was traded because of one guy — over there,” he said, pointing out Yastrzemski in the clubhouse. “You can quote me on that because I don’t care, I know I’m next.” He also took on the other outfielder, Reggie Smith. “Yaz criticized my playing in center field and Reggie said Lahoud should be batting second in the lineup…Smith says Lahoud should play, so Kasko plays Lahoud,” he added, referring to his occasional platoon partner in center field.

Smith shot back, saying he didn’t want to play with Conigliaro anymore. “He isn’t a team player. Here we are in a pennant race and he drops a bomb on us,” he said. Yastrzemski denied the accusations leveled against him. “I’m sick of it all. He’s [Conigliaro] just alibiing for his lack of ability.”

Source: The Courier-Journal, August 3, 1969.

Manager Kasko tried to get all three to declare a truce, and the rest of the summer was relatively quiet by comparison. Boston finished in third place with 85 wins. It came as no surprise, though, that the Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers pulled off a large trade on October 10, 1971. Conigliaro, Ken Brett, Lahoud, Jim Lonborg, Don Pavletich and George Scott were all sent to the Brewers in exchange for Tommy Harper, Lew Krausse, Marty Pattin and minor-leaguer Pat Skrable.

For a time, things were good in Milwaukee. He had a 15-game hitting streak at one point, with a batting average in the .270s. He then fell into a deep slump that left him with a .230 batting average with 7 home runs and 16 RBIs at the end of June. On June 25, he left the ballpark in Milwaukee, much to the surprise of manager Del Crandall. He sent a statement to the Brewers that he wanted to “re-evaluate his life.” “My whole life has been tied up in baseball,” he said in the statement. “It has started to become an unhappy chore rather than a pleasant way to earn a living… My recent slump, and being taken out of the starting lineup, may have affected me, but my discontent is deeper than that.”

Conigliaro made his retirement official days later. He announced he was returning to Boston to help his brother Tony with a country club, restaurant and lounge that they owned. It seemed to be a permanent move, but then he announced in February of 1973 that he was applying for reinstatement, so that he could join the world champion Oakland A’s. “I got a good offer from the best team in baseball and want to play,” he explained. After he had retired, Milwaukee acquired outfielder Ollie Brown off waivers from the A’s, and Oakland apparently acquired negotiating rights to Conigliaro in the deal.

The Oakland A’s manager at the time was Dick Williams, and he and Conigliaro had clashed once already. However, the outfielder’s one season with Oakland seems to have been a relatively calm one. He started off playing regularly in center field and was hitting around .300 for his first month. He then injured his right knee on a slide and was out of the lineup until July. By the time he returned, Joe Rudi, Bill North and Reggie Jackson had solidified the outfield pretty well. Conigliaro fell into the role of a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. His batting average dropped to .200 by the end of the season, and he didn’t hit a single home run in 48 games. He started one game in the A’s AL Championship Series, going 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts against Baltimore. He did rob the Orioles from scoring by making a diving catch of a Paul Blair sinking liner with Bobby Grich on first base. He also made three pinch-hitting appearances in the World Series, failing to record a hit. The A’s won the ’72 World Series over the Mets, giving him a World Series ring. It was Conigliaro’s last season of professional baseball.

Source: The Boston Globe, April 1, 1977.

Conigliaro was released by the A’s on March 30, 1974. He had undergone two surgeries to repair cartilage in his knee, and he decided to retire at the age of 26 rather than seek employment with another team. In his 5-year career, Conigliaro had a slash line of .256/.311/.429, with 289 hits that included 56 doubles, 10 triples and 40 home runs. He drove in 128 runs and scored 142 times. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth 4.6 Wins Above Replacement and had an OPS+ of 104.

Tony Conigliaro made a brief comeback with the Boston Red Sox in 1975, and Billy made a comeback attempt of his own with the A’s in 1977 — he was about 40 days shy of getting an MLB pension. The comeback ended when he refused an assignment to AAA San Jose, claiming it was too far from his home and business interests in Boston.

In January of 1982, Tony Conigliaro was working as a sportscaster in San Francisco. He had flown to Boston to interview for a job. As Billy was driving him to Logan Airport, Tony suffered a massive heart attack. Billy sped the 4.7 miles to Massachusetts General Hospital and spent the next few weeks virtually living at the hospital, being alongside with his comatose brother.

“We were just talking about the new job and how great it was that he was coming home. We were about two miles from the airport when it happened,” Billy said of his brother’s tragic day. “Mass General was close by, so I pushed down on the gas and started goin’ about 80 for the emergency entrance. It couldn’t have taken me more than five minutes. But it seemed like an hour. By the time we got there, he had no pulse.”

Tony C. eventually awoke after three weeks. Paralyzed and unable to speak much, he required around-the-clock care until his death on February 24, 1990, from kidney failure. Billy opened a deli in Boston and had other businesses, but he took care of his brother, brought in therapists and trainers for him and battled Medicaid and the MLB Players’ Association on Tony’s behalf. “Someday I’m going to write an article about the players’ association and how hard they’ve been to deal with,” he said after Tony had died.

Conigliaro spent the rest of his life ensuring his brother’s legacy. He and youngest brother Richie led a campaign to have the Red Sox retire Tony C.’s #25. He represented his brother on an on-field celebration of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team at Fenway Park in 2007. They also were voting members of the Tony Conigliaro Award, which was started by the Boston Red Sox in 1990. The annual award is given to a “Major Leaguer who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage that were trademarks of Tony C.” Last year’s winner was Daniel Bard, who was out of major-league baseball from 2013 through 2019 due to physical and control problems before coming back as an effective reliever in 2020 with Colorado.

His obituary notes that he was interested in astronomy and photography, and he owned a camera shop at one point. He also had a pilot’s license and owned his own helicopter. He was a participant in many children’s baseball camps, and his wife, Keisha, is raising money to found a foundation that will help send underprivileged children to baseball camps. More information about that is available in the link to the Buonfiglio Funeral Home below.

For more information: Associated Press via The Press of Atlantic City
Buonfiglio Funeral Home

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3 thoughts on “Obituary: Billy Conigliaro (1947-2021)

  1. The brothers were very close, and both extremely competitive. Had a chance to chat with Billy when he played at Oakland. They were both intelligent, and for some reason, there was a tad of friction around them. Sometimes it is as simple as jealousy, and small petty things. They are young men, and eventually the petty differences give way to the important things. In the end, Billy proved to be quite the man by assisting with the care of Tony. Not everyone can step up like that. Billy proved to be a big, big man. May their journey across the heavens be blessed.

    Like

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