April 7, 2020

The Favorite Toy and…Tony Conigliaro

December 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Since I went with all-time greats, Babe Ruth and Grover Cleveland Alexander, in my first two articles in this series, I figured I’d shift gears and go with a should-have-been great in Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro whose potentially brilliant career was derailed on August 18, 1967 when he was struck in the face by a Jack Hamilton pitch, causing him to miss the rest of the ’67 campaign and all of 1968 before coming back in 1969. Though he hit 20 and 36 home runs in his first two seasons back, Tony C. was never the same and was effectively finished at the age of 25 (he played for the Angels in 1971 at 26 and attempted a comeback with the Red Sox in 1975 at the age of 30, but he was just a shell of his former self).

What makes Conigliaro such a fascinating study is that he was the only teenager in big league history to belt 20 or more homers in a single season and in a career before the age of 20, smacking 24 in 1964 to eclipse the previous mark of 18 set by Mel Ott in 1928 and 19 by Ott from 1927-1928. He became the youngest home run champion in major league history when he belted 32 at the tender age of 20; and became the second youngest player to reach 100 career home runs when he blasted his 100th on July 23, 1967 off Cleveland’s John O’Donoghue. Only Ott, at 22 years and 132 days old, was younger than Tony C., who was 22 years and 197 days old when he reached the century mark. The rest of the list of teenagers who homered at the big league level is peppered with Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and members of the 500-home run club.

The aforementioned Ott had 19 by the age of 19 on his way to 511. Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 16 as a 19-year-old en route to 630 in his 22-year career. Mickey Mantle hit 13 at the age of 19 and 536 for his career. Alex Rodriguez hit only five at the age of 19, but currently sits at 613 heading into the 2011 season. Other members of the 500-home run club who homered as teenagers include Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx and Gary Sheffield. Juan Gonzalez hit 434, Andruw Jones has 407 with a decent shot at 500, and Al Kaline just missed hitting 400, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 399. Other Hall of Famers among teenagers who homered are Ty Cobb, Johnny Bench, Robin Yount, Brooks Robinson, Harry Heilmann, Bobby Doerr, Freddie Lindstrom, Travis Jackson, Bill Mazeroski, George “High Pockets” Kelly, Jim Palmer and Don Drysdale. Even with two pitchers included, that’s an impressive list. Of course it’s hardly surprising that a player good enough to make the bigs as a teenager would go on to have a stellar career.

But hitting homers as a teenager doesn’t guarantee success as a future home run great. Cubs All-Star and 1945 National League MVP, Phil Cavaretta, had 18 homers by age 19 but hit only 77 more during his 22-year career. Lou Klimchock had five by age 19 but finished with only 13 in 12 seasons. Many of the others on the list finished with fewer than 100. But Conigliaro was a home run champ more in the mold of a Mantle or Killebrew. In fact, the three most similar players to Tony C. through the age of 20 were Mantle, Griffey and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson.

So what were Conigliaro’s chances of reaching 500, 600 and 700 homers, and did he have a shot at passing Ruth and Hank Aaron?

Seasons (age)
3-YR AVG To Date Proj. Car. 500 600 700 715 756 MAX (1%)
1964-1966 (21) 27.3 84 371 19% 6% 0% 0% 0% 652
1965-1967 (22) 28.7 104 390 22% 8% 0% 0% 0% 671
1966-1968 (23) 21.0 104 303 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 499
1967-1969 (24) 15.0 124 259 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 391
1968-1970 (25) 12.7 160 267 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 373
1969-1971 (26) 22.7 164 345 4% 0% 0% 0% 0% 523

Not surprisingly, Conigliaro’s best chance at reaching 500 homers came after his ’67 season when he was still only 22 and had 104 home runs in his back pocket. Still, his near-record performance gave him odds of less than 10% to reach 600, and no chance of catching Ruth and Aaron, although he had a slim 1% chance of catching Willie Mays at 660 and passing him with 671. It’s also interesting to note that he had a slight 4% chance at 500 after the 1971 season, during which he hit only four home runs for the California Angels. He’d hit 36 and 20 in his two previous seasons, though, giving him an average of 22.7, his highest since he averaged 28.7 from 1965-1967. With a 1% shot at 523, it would have been fun to watch him chase down and possibly pass Red Sox idol, Ted Williams, who finished his brilliant career with 521 circuit clouts.

Of course, missing the latter part of 1967 and all of 1968 dampened Conigliaro’s chances of doing anything great. In fact, after the beaning, his best projected total was 345, putting him squarely between Ron Santo and George Foster on the all-time list. Not bad, but not quite the caliber of Mantle, Griffey and Robinson.

So how might Tony C.’s odds have differed had he not been beaned and missed parts of two seasons? According to James’ Brock 2 system, which is designed to project a player’s career forward from a specific point, Conigliaro would have hit 31 homers in 1967 and 24 in 1968. But based on the number of games Conigliaro played in 1967 prior to his beaning and the number of at-bats per game and per home run, he projects out to 28, and I’d rather go conservative than not. So let’s plug in those numbers and see what we get.

Seasons (age)
3-YR AVG To Date Proj. Car. 500 600 700 715 756 MAX (1%)
1964-1966 (21) 27.3 84 371 19% 6% 0% 0% 0% 652
1965-1967 (22) 28.7 104 390 22% 8% 0% 0% 0% 671
1966-1968 (23) 21.0 104 303 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 499
1967-1969 (24) 15.0 124 259 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 391
1968-1970 (25) 12.7 160 267 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 373
1969-1971 (26) 22.7 164 345 4% 0% 0% 0% 0% 523
Seasons (age)
3-YR AVG To Date Proj. Car. 500 600 700 715 756 MAX (1%)
1964-1966 (21) 27.3 84 371 19% 6% 0% 0% 0% 652
1965-1967 (22) 30.0 112 412 27% 11% 1% 0% 0% 706
1966-1968 (23) 27.3 136 395 21% 6% 0% 0% 0% 650
1967-1969 (24) 24.0 156 372 13% 0% 0% 0% 0% 583
1968-1970 (25) 24.7 192 401 18% 1% 0% 0% 0% 607
1969-1971 (26) 22.7 196 377 10% 0% 0% 0% 0% 555

Adding 32 home runs to Conigliaro’s career didn’t make a significant difference in his highest career projection, but he did gain better and more consistent odds of reaching 500 and even 600 homers, with a slim 1% chance of reaching 700 and a max of 706. He also had a much better chance of reaching 400. Unfortunately we’ll never know how Tony C.’s career might have turned out had he played a full career, but despite odds of only a little better than 1-in-4 that he would have belted 500 homers, my money is on the over.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.

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