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How Tony Conigliaro Made The Most Miraculous Comeback in MLB History

A life-altering pitch nearly killed him. But he refused to let it end his career.

An illustration of Tony Conigliaro with his black eye after a life-threatening injury that he didn't let stop him from mounting the best comeback in MLB history
Credit-MLB/Boston Red Sox/Joker Mag

On August 18th, 1967, Tony Conigliaro left the field on a stretcher. He got hit in the face by a fastball that broke his left cheekbone, dislocated his jaw, and put a hole in his retina.

“A couple of inches higher and I’d have been killed,” Tony told Sports Illustrated.

“Later on, some of my teammates told me they thought I was dead.”

Lying there with a horrified group gathered around him, Tony said a prayer:

“God, please, please don’t let me die right here in the dirt at home plate at Fenway Park.”

The injury was so severe that he was administered the last rites.

Jack Hamilton, the pitcher who delivered the errant pitch, later told The New York Times, “I know in my heart I wasn’t trying to hit him. I never hit a guy that hard in my life. He went right down.”

Up until that moment, Tony Conigliaro was a stellar young player with plenty of upside.

At just 22 years old, he’d already hit 104 career home runs to go with a sparkling .276/.339/.510 slash line. He was the youngest American League player to reach 100 career homers.

Fansided cited his two closest comparables as Bryce Harper and Juan Soto up to that point.

But after the life-threatening moment on that fateful night, medical experts doubted that Conigliaro would ever play again. And even if he did, it was unlikely he’d be the same All-Star caliber player.

A few months after the injury, Tony went for an eye exam. He could see the big “E” at the top of the chart, but nothing else.

“I felt weak all over,” he recalled. “I was as scared as I’ve ever been in my life.”

After more extensive testing, the official results came in. Conigliaro had a blind spot caused by a cyst in his left eye – in the very part that enables the judging of speed and distance.

Not ideal for a guy getting paid to hit 90 mile-per-hour fastballs.

But despite his doctor’s protests, Tony insisted on returning to the field.

Tony Conigliaro on his miraculous comeback: "I knew if I could just get well, I'd be able to hit again."

“I knew if I could just get well, I’d be able to hit again.”

So he played pepper in his backyard with his younger brother every day. The first time, he whiffed on several pitches and was so disgusted with himself that he quit.

“I remember throwing the bat against the fence and running inside the house. I was just dying to get back into the pennant race and here I couldn’t even play ball with a kid brother.”

When he finally got the courage to return to Fenway Park, he asked Moe, the Red Sox bat boy, to throw him batting practice. Tony hit weak grounders to short, soft fly balls to left, and the occasional foul tip.

It was a bleak picture.

Conigliaro entered that offseason wondering if his dreams of a comeback were even realistic. He called those months “the most miserable” of his life.

But he kept working. And by the spring of 1968, he started gaining confidence at the plate again.

“I started spring training six inches back from my normal spot, but almost immediately I began to inch closer to the plate.”

He hit a single and a double in his first exhibition game. Things were finally looking up. Until it all came crashing down again.

Sitting in the dugout, Tony pointed out a light pole to his teammate.

“I can’t see the light on top of it,” he said.

During the next few games, he felt worse and worse at the plate.

“I wasn’t able to follow the ball anymore…I knew I was in trouble then.”

After another round of tests, his doctor broke the news: “It’s not safe for you to play ball anymore.”

The cyst in his eye had burst during spring training, leaving a hole in his retina. His vision had gone from 20/100 to 20/300 – making him legally blind in his left eye.

Any form of exercise – even jogging – would risk a detached retina and career-ending surgery.

That night, Tony Conigliaro put out a statement announcing that he’d miss at least the entire 1968 season. He signed off with a sentence that predicted his future, even at his lowest point.

“This is what is important to me, and I want all these friends to know that I’m not going to quit and that somehow, some way, there will be good days again.”

But just as he was closing the book on his baseball career, he received a message that seemed heaven-sent.

The vision in his left eye had suddenly improved to 20/100. His doctor could not explain it, saying, “An entire healing process seems to be taking place.”

And just like that, the comeback was on.

More optimistic than ever, Tony called Moe, the Red Sox bat boy, to throw him BP again.

It was a night and day difference. He hit one ball so far that Moe said, “That ball won’t come down in Kenmore Square for days.”

By the fall, Tony could actually see the spin on the ball clearly.

His eye kept improving, and doctors still couldn’t explain it. The blind spot was gone, his vision was almost back to normal, and the only remnant of his injury was a small piece of scar tissue.

Then, on April 8th, 1969 – a year and a half after his life-altering injury – Conigliaro made his miraculous return to Major League Baseball.

The opening game went to extras. And in a 2-2 count in the tenth inning of his first big league game in 600 days, Tony did the unthinkable.

“I hit Richert’s next pitch about as hard and well as I’ve ever hit a ball in my life, sending it over the left-field fence for a home run.”

“My God, I did it. I really did it. I ran the bases as though I was floating. I was grinning like a little boy.”

The momentum of that moment carried him through the rest of the season. In 141 games, Tony hit 20 homers with 82 RBI, winning the Comeback Player of the Year award.

The following season – joined by his brother, Billy, in the Red Sox outfield – Tony set new career highs with 36 homers and 116 RBI.

The brothers combined for 54 homers that year, the most ever hit by a pair of siblings playing for the same team.

Unfortunately, Tony left us far too soon. After suffering a heart attack, stroke, and permanent brain damage in 1982, he never fully recovered, and passed away in 1990.

But his legacy lives on in the form of the Tony Conigliaro Award, which is presented to the MLB player who best “overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were trademarks of Conigliaro.”

Recent winners of the award include Jose Cuas and Trey Mancini.

Now enshrined in the Red Sox Hall of Fame, Tony C will forever be remembered as a legend of the game.

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Written By

Division III baseball alum (McDaniel College) and founder of Joker Mag. Sharing underdog stories to inspire the next generation.

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