September 27, 2020

Remembering Gene Conley

March 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Yes, the current NBA campaign continues to progress while baseball players now filter into spring training; this overlapping of seasons reminds us of a unique, special individual who once graced both the hardcourt AND the diamond professionally: Donald Eugene Conley.

Gene Conley loved sports as a kid–partaking in every athletic event one could imagine while growing up in Oklahoma and Washington (except hockey–they didn’t offer the sport in those areas while he was a youth.) He grew to be a tall, rugged kid–one who could both shoot a basketball with ease and throw a helluva fastball. He’d go on to lead the Pac-8 in scoring while playing basketball at Washington State; he’d also pitch his baseball team into the College World Series. Could this man do the unfathomable–play both professional baseball and basketball at the same time? The answer for a well-rounded guy named Conley was a resounding “YES.”

Signed before the 1951 season by the Boston Braves, Conley truly “arrived” in the big leagues in 1954 with the club (then in Milwaukee)–winning 14 games and being named to the NL All-Star squad. Having already played with the Boston Celtics during the 1952-’53 NBA season, the Braves simply pressured Gene to choose baseball; he’d proceed to win the ’55 All-Star game (striking out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon, and Al Rosen–all former batting champs) and was a member of the ’57 Braves world championship team. Missing basketball (and needing the money), he rejoined the Celtics before the 1958 season; he’d be a member of three NBA championship teams while in Boston before his basketball career ended in 1964. To this day, he remains the only man in professional sports to ever play and win titles in major league baseball and the NBA. Gene Conley won a total of 91 games as a major leaguer between 1952 and 1963; he averaged close to six points and six rebounds per game for his six-year stint in the NBA. “One of a kind?” Stay tuned.

Frank Sullivan, an ex-pitcher who was once traded for Gene, is among those impressed with Conley’s feats; he recently compared Conley’s going six seasons (both sports) without a day off to both Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak and Cal Ripken Jr.’s endurance record. I recently asked Conley about his hectic lifestyle/involvement when both sports overlapped. “There were no days off, different muscles used, different surfaces to play on, and no home life; it really exhausted the mind,” he told me. “But positions were limited, so you played your heart out–even with pain. Also, there was always pressure from one sport to quit the other–a constant tug of war.” His own tremendous versatility led me to inquire about the best athletes he ever witnessed. “Jackie Robinson (though he only saw him at the end of his baseball career), because of his college days playing three sports, and Bill Sharman–who had abilities in baseball, basketball, tennis, and golf in college; they were probably the best pure athletes that played major sports.”

Today, Gene Conley lives in Clermont, Florida, after having operated the Foxboro Paper Company for 36 years; he plays a little golf now and then and takes an occasional leave from the warmth of the Sunshine State to visit his daughters and grandkids up north. Oh, back to the phrase “one of a kind”: that’s the name of his recent book that was actually written by his loving, long-time wife, Katie–a charming woman who felt the need to point out her husband’s unique accomplishment of having rings in two sports.

A baseball All-Star, an accomplished basketball player, a champion in more than one sport–just a few ways to refer to one Gene Conley. Personally, I’ll go along with what his former coach, the legendary Red Auerbach, called him–simply, “one of the greatest athletes of our generation.” Strong words, no doubt, about a man who once did the “unthinkable”–a talented athlete who was surely “one of a kind.”

Bob Lazzari is an award-winning sports columnist for both Connecticut’s Valley Times and NY Sports Day, where his “Sports Roundup” column is featured weekly. He is a member of the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance and host of “Monday Night Sports Talk,” a cable television show on CTV/Channel 14 in Connecticut.

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