Saturday, August 18, 2012

In memory of a tragic day ...

It's easy to cavalierly call something a tragedy ... too easy, sometimes. You can take something that happened, say, in 1986, when the Red Sox lost the World Series to the New York Mets due to a ghastly set of circumstances in the 10th inning of Game 6, and say a "tragic chain of events occurred." Or something equally hyperbolic.

It's easy. But it's wrong. And not only is it wrong, it does grave injustice to the word "tragedy," and all it entails.

Forty-five years ago today, a true tragedy occurred. Tony Conigliaro, a promising, and spectacularly talented outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, was hit, and almost killed, by a fastball that hit him in the face, broke his cheekbone, and cost him much of the sight in his left eye.

What was tragic about it is that the story didn't end there. It was the first in a series of horribly tragic events in this man's life ... unspeakably sad events that resulted in his death at the age of 45.

Before he was 40, Conigliaro would suffer a debilitating heart attack, ironically after he'd just landed a job as a Red Sox color commentator. He lost consciousness, and oxygen, for so long he lived the rest of life in a severely compromised condition. And he lived that way for almost eight years before his life mercifully ended.

There's something particularly poignant about combining athletes and tragedy. The poet A.E. Housman even a wrote a poem about it, "To An Athlete Dying Young" ...although in Housman's case, the sentiment had  more to do with the fact that it is sometimes a blessing for an athlete, who has achieved all his glory in his younger days, to die before the leaves from the laurel wreath have turned.

Still, cynicism aside, there's the dichotomy of someone so strong and dominating being all of a sudden incapacitated due to injury, sickness or death. Millions of people have died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. But the disease is named after Lou Gehrig, one of sports' true ironmen (he of the 2,130 consecutive games played with the New York Yankees).

How many people get cancer? But when Lance Armstrong gets it, and beats it, he is the poster boy for the experience. The examples are endless.

In Boston -- my hometown -- we've had our share of genuine athletic tragedies ... moments, or occurrences, that have left an indelible impression on our minds, regardless of when they happened. Today, let's talk about 10 of them. And while it's impossible to rate tragedies in terms of their overall horror, some obviously have more significance than others. We have taken all this into consideration when ranking them, 10 through 1.


10 -- The Cocoanut Grove Fire, November 28, 1942. The only real sports connection the fire -- which claimed the lives of 492 people (the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history) -- has is that the entire Boston College football team, which had lost earlier that day to Holy Cross (ruining its undefeated season), canceled a planned victory party there, thus certainly sparing at least some of the players' lives,

The fire itself started in a dimly lit lounge because a busboy, who couldn't find a lightblub socket, lit a match to get a better view. Something sparked, and the fake palm leaves and other highly flammable objects fueled it almost immediately.

Between the fire, the smoke, and the panic that ensued, it was a true holocaust. The owner was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (the plaintiffs picked randomly to represent the dead) and sent to prison. Thanks to the fire, much of Boston's fire code was rewritten and strengthened. 


9 -- The shooting of Darryl Williams, September 28, 1979. Five years into court-ordered busing, Williams, a sophomore at all-black Jamaica Plain High School (Jamaica Plain is an inner-city Boston neighborhood), was in Charlestown with his team for a football game. He'd scored his first varsity touchdown in the first half. 

At halftime, he and his teammates were gathered in the end zone for the usual pep talk when a shot rang out. The bullet got Williams in the back and turned him into a quadriplegic in an an instant. Three days later, Pope John Paul II prayed for him at the mass he celebrated on the Boston Common.

Williams had plenty to be bitter about ... but he resisted the temptation to wallow in what happened to him. He became a much sought-after motivational speaker and an inspiration to kids and adults everywhere. 

Unfortunately, Williams was taken from us far too soon ... in March of 2010. The kids who shot him to death claim they were shooting at pigeons. In 1979, five years after court-ordered busing tore the city apart ... and three years after Ted Landsmark was attacked by the American Flag during a demonstration in Government Center, that claim seemed a bit preposterous. It still seems that way today.


8 -- Travis Roy paralyzed in hockey accident. On Oct. 20, 1995, 11 seconds into his first shift for Boston University, Roy -- a graduate of nearby Tabor Academy -- crashed awkwardly into the boards after trying to check a North Dakota player. The collision cracked his fourth and fifth vertebra, making him a quadriplegic and confining him to a wheelchair.

There are so many layers of sadness here (though, thankfully, one of them isn't that we're mourning him. Travis is very much alive, and keeps his audiences spellbound as a motivational speaker). The kid lived for hockey. He went to three different high schools along the way, with the objective of landing a scholarship at a major hockey college. And BU is as major as they get.

But to me, the saddest thing I read, or heard, about the Roy was that after the accident, he had a pretty good idea about what had happened, and what it meant. When he saw his father, who had come down onto the ice to be with him, he looked at him and said, "dad, at least I can say I made it onto the ice."


7 -- Normand Leveille's brain aneurysm. Leveille was a highly promising prospect for the Boston Bruins at a time when the team seemed ready to make another serious run at the Stanley Cup. A scorer with a smooth touch around the net, Leveille was off to a good start in 1982. But between periods of a game in Vancouver, on October 23, 1982, Leveille began feeling dizzy. He'd suffered a brain aneurysm. 

Thus began a tense struggle for his life. After seven hours of surgery, he was stabilized. Thankfully, he's still with us, and has been able to leave a productive life. But large parts of him are severely compromised, including his ability to communicate.

It was later determined that Leveille's condition was congenital. It was termed a time bomb that could have gone off anywhere, at any point. It just happened to go off in Vancouver, on that particular night. Although he'd been checked pretty hard during that game, doctors ruled that contact had nothing to do with the injury.


6 -- The suicide of Junior Seau. Certainly the most recent of Boston-area sports tragedies, Seau -- certain to be a Hall of Fame NFL linebacker someday -- took his own life on May 2 of this year after shooting himself in the chest.

Seau finished his career with the New England Patriots and from all outward appearances, he was a popular, gregarious, and well-adjusted man. His guitar was his constant companion, he was a surfer, and just seemed as if he had it all together.

But he played a long time in the NFL ... especially by NFL standards. His career lasted almost 20 years. That represents a lot of hits to the head ... and it's pretty likely many that were considered glancing blows caused far more damage that anyone knew at the time.

As anyone who has been paying attention knows by now, there are more and more instances of untreated concussions coming back to haunt players all the time. Ted Johnson of the Patriots also has experienced the long-term ramifications of too many hits to the head.

Sadly, apparently, so did Junior. It's' tough to know for sure, at this point, but we'll find out someday. And we may be stunned when we find out (which we will, as his brain has been donated for research).

It is known that he had insomnia, and was being treated with Ambien. Whatever else was on his mind that day, it's safe to say it was a hornet's nest of issues that came together and caused this tragedy.


5 -- The death of Reggie Lewis. Reggie's death was as needless a tragedy as there can be. Incompetence and stubbornness seem to be as much of a cause of it as illness.

Lewis was the pride of basketball hotbed Dunbar Memorial High School in Baltimore, Md., as well as Northeastern University of Boston. He helped lead the Huskies to four straight NCAA Division 1 basketball tournaments while at NU, and his coach was Jim Calhoun, who has led UConn to three NCAA championships.

In the spring of 1993, Lewis, an emerging star with the Celtics, collapsed while running down the floor during the first game of the playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets. After a period of rest, he tried to go back into the game, but felt weak again.

Tests showed that he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is the cause of death in a lot of young athletes. The first team of doctors recommended (strongly) that he retired from basketball, get treated, and -- with any luck -- he would live a long and happy life

But his wife persuaded him to go to a second set of doctors (this one called the "dream team" of cardiologists .. so named for the U.S. Olympic team the previous summer). They came up with a different diagnosis, and felt that, with proper monitoring, he could resume his career.

On July 27 of that year, while shooting around at a gym at Brandeis University in Waltham, Lewis collapsed again. This time, he never regained consciousness and died later that evening.

The second set of doctors who treated him were later sued, but they were acquitted of malpractice.


4 -- The death of Len Bias. The University of Maryland star never set foot on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden as a member of a Boston sports franchise. But he certainly was slated to.

Bias was Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach's last -- and among his best -- heists (Kevin McHale/Robert Parish for what turned out to be Joe Barry Carroll is still No. 1). Auerbach, who bamboozled more NBA execs than Bernie Madoff fleeced money-hungry clients, had traded Gerald Henderson two years prior to 1986 to the Seattle SuperSonics for their top draft pick.

As Auerbach undoubtedly suspected, the Sonics were terrible ... and would be just as terrible two years after the trade. As a result, the Celtics, who'd just run through the NBA like a rampaging flood en route to the NBA championship, went into the draft with the No. 2 pick.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, picking ahead of the Celtics, took Brad Daugherty ... certainly not a bad pick. Daugherty, from North Carolina, had a decent career. But Auerbach wasn't really subtle about who he wanted. He schemed for two years to get Len Bias.

Only Len Bias had other idea. The night after the draft, Bias and some of his friends went out and did some cocaine. Perhaps Bias wasn't used to the drug. Or perhaps in his glee, Bias just ingested too much of it

Either way, he snorted enough of it is so that it killed him. And in some perverse way, it killed the Celtics too for the next 22 years ... which is how long it took them to win their next title.

More than that, though, it took all the spunk out of Auerbach. He never quite had the same swagger again. Granted some of it was that he was getting older. But that experience just seemed to age him right before our eyes.

Most of all, however, Bias' death served as a blunt-force-trauma-to-the-head reminder of how fragile life is, and how its fragility just increases ten-fold when you do things that tilt the odds against you.


3 -- The sad, sad story of Darryl Stingley. This man, a Purdue graduate, was on his way to having a superb career with the Patriots. Drafted out of Purdue in 1974, Stingley was one of three first-round draft choices for the Patriots in coach Chuck Fairbanks' first season. 

And like fellow draft-mates John Hannah and Sam "Bam" Cunningham, Fairbanks was right on Stingley too. He was a supremely talented, and gifted, wide receiver/return specialist who may have, had injury not reared its ugly head, combined with Stanley Morgan, become one of the NFL's all-time devastating wide receiver tandems.

His only problem was staying on the field. He was star-cross when it came to staying healthy. But anything that happened to him prior to 1978 was a mere antecedent to the horrific injury he suffered on August 12 of that year. 

During a pre-season game in Oakland against the Raiders, Stingley was coming across the middle to catch a Steve Grogan pass. It was wide, but in the process, Stingley met Oakland's Jack Tatum, who leveled him with a helmet hit to the shoulder-area. The impact of the collision compressed Stingley's spinal cord, breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. He would remain a quadriplegic until his death, at the age of 45, in 2007 due to pneumonia, among other things.

In some ways (though certainly not all), Tatum has taken a bad rap. The hit itself was not illegal (at the time, though it would be if it happened now). The biggest beef people seem to have with Tatum is that he didn't exactly act remorseful afterward ... almost as if he were proud of it.

Somehow, that doesn't seem possible ... but that's how it came across. 

At the time of the hit, the Patriots and Raiders were less than two years removed from one of the most controversial and agonizing post-season losses in Boston-area sports history ... when an all-but-certain victory turned into a defeat when referee Ben Drieth called Ray Hamilton for roughing the passer. Between that, and the overall almost tribal rivalries that sprung when the old AFL merged with the NFL (face it, don't you get just a little more jacked up when those old AFL foes meet?), there resulted an abundance of bad blood between the Patriots and Raiders organizations (this wasn't helped either by a sideline shoving match between Pat Sullivan and Matt Millen in 1986 or the phantom "tuck rule" call in 2002!).

What people forget, though, is that Oakland coach John Madden visited Stingley every day, and the two became close friends. Also, former NFL Players Association president Gene Upshaw always took care of Stingley too. As did the Patriots, quite honorably, paying all his medical expenses for the rest of his life ... as well as for the education of his children.

Stingley did his best to keep his head above water, but his was a tough life. He lost his marriage as well as his mobility, and died far too young.


2 -- The death of Harry Agganis. For some people, this supersedes Tony C. And they'd have a legitimate reason. Harry embodied the entirety of A.E. Housman's poem. As a schoolboy athlete, Aristotle "Harry" Agganis was, hands down, my area's (the North Shore of Boston) best ever. As a pro, he was coming into his own. We'll never know, as a pro, how good he could have become. He was hitting .316 when took sick and died, but that was only in June of 1955, and it was really his first, full, successful season with the Red Sox.

The difference, I guess, is that Tony C had arrived. At the age of 22. He was already a superstar. His potential was limitless. If he kept up the way he'd started, his plaque would be in Cooperstown, N.Y. today. 

Agganis, a Lynn Classical graduate, was good at every sport he played. Those who grew up with him say he was like a man playing with boys on the baseball and football fields.

After he graduated from Classical, Agganis put BU on the map ... football-wise, at least. 

But Harry Agganis had a strong emotional pull with his widowed mother, and even though he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns to play football, he chose to sign with the Red Sox to be closer to her. He also knew baseball wasn't his best sport, and considered it a challenge to master it the way he'd made football his own.

It seemed to be working. As I said, he was hitting over .300 in June of 1955 when he came down with a viral ailment on June 2 that landed him in Sancta Maria Hospital. There are all sorts of explanations out there as to what the virus actually was (tuberculosis and pneumonia were among the suspected ailments).

He rejoined the club later that month, but relapsed and, again, landed in the hospital. He never left. On June 27, 1955, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died.

His funeral is still the biggest in Lynn history, with throngs of people lined up along the route from St. George's Greek Church on the Lynn Common all the way to Pine Grove Cemetery. The randomness of his death seemed so cruel. 

After he died, a scholarship foundation in his memory was set up to award scholar/athletes who are entering college. It remains one of the most active, and well-known endeavors in the North Shore area and has yielded more than $1.5 million in grants to deserving students ... and the week of athletic events that celebrates his legacy attracts the second-largest collection of athletes next to the Bay State Games.


1 -- The Sad Saga of Tony C. These were both Greek tragedies in a very real sense ... but in very different ways.

Where Agganis was still making his way, Conigliaro was a true celebrity. He was a power hitter on an up-and-coming team (those 1967 Red Sox overcame 100-1 odds to win the American League pennant), he made records (some of them actually pretty good), he had matinee idol looks ... this kid had it ALL.

Where Agganis was humble, Conigliaro -- another Lynn-area kid -- was as cocky as they came. He seemed to live by the Muhammad Ali-Joe Namath credo that "it ain't bragging if you do it." It's possible this might have been off-putting to some, but you have to remember he was a 22-year-old kid living his dream, and having a great time doing it.

For all his swagger, there was an earnest joi de vivre in him as well. He put a ton of energy and effort into his game, and by the age of 22, he reaped considerable awards (the youngest -- at the time -- player to reach 100 home runs).

We rant and rave today over the sullen countenance of Jon Lester and the sneering arrogance of Josh Beckett. There may have been a little braggadocio in Tony C (such as when he once had himself paged in a Chicago hotel lobby because he didn't think anyone knew who he was), but he was not sullen, and he was not arrogant.

Tony C was also fearless (which proved, in the end, to be his undoing). Whether he came up in the ninth inning of a close game, whether he was facing the most crazed headhunter of a pitcher ... regardless of what the obstacle was, Tony C was ready to meet the challenge on his own terms.

In baseball parlance, that meant crowding the plate. 

In the 1950s and 60s, pitchers were far more likely to throw the ball under your chin when you got too close to the plate than they are now. Such tactics were much more accepted as part of the game than they are now. For one thing, it was easier to get even with the pitcher, because he had to bat. It was also customary, after you'd been hit in an obvious attempt at intimidation, to steal second and come in spikes high at the second baseman or shortstop as he tried to make the tag.

Again, that was accepted, and middle infielders pretty much knew what they were in for.

On August 18, 1967, that's where Tony C was ... on top of the plate. Jack Hamilton of the California Angels  was trying to move him back. You crowded the plate so you'd have a better chance of hitting the outside pitch (obviously) and to make contact with a sweeping curve that broke out of the strike zone. Pitchers, just as naturally, saw Tony C's tactics as an encroachment on their turf. And when you got combative battlers like Tony C and Hamilton in the same realm, bad things could happen.

Someone, right before Tony C got up to bat, had thrown a smoke bomb onto the field and it took 10 minutes (or thereabouts) to clear the air. Finally, play resumed. Soon enough, Hamilton came in hard, inside, with the ball heading right for Tony's head. He reacted too late. He threw his hands up, but it was a feeble attempt. The ball caught him flush on the side of the face. You could hear it even over the radio (baseball is still, after all these years, a radio game).

As an aside, it's almost astonishing that, after Agganis died so suddenly and mysteriously at Sancta Maria Hospital, the Red Sox still used it in 1967, but they did. Tony C was taken there and stabilized. The diagnosis was a fracture cheekbone and a detached retina.

He didn't play again until 1969, but he never regained his form. His was a case of promised snatched from him ... all while he could do nothing but sit and watch. He tried two comebacks (the second in 1975) but for all intents and purposes, his career ended on August 18, 1967.

Tony C. carried on. He went into broadcasting after the 1975 comeback fell short, and had established himself in San Francisco before coming back, at the beginning of 1982, to audition for the Red Sox color commentator's job Ken Harrelson had just left..

It appeared as if he'd gotten it too. And what perfect symmetry. "The Hawk" came to the Red Sox to fill Tony C's roster spot when he was beaned. Now, Tony C was going to take Harrelson's place in the booth.

But like so many other things in his life, it was not meant to be. En route to Logan Airport after his audition, riding in a car with his brother, Billy, Tony had a heart attack. By the time he got to Mass. General Hospital, he'd lost consciousness, but more important, oxygen. As a result, his brain was severely compromised.

He was only 37.

And that's how he lived out his days ... for eight more years until on January 24, a little over two weeks after his 45th birthday, he died.




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